How I Became A Lawyer Without Going To Law School

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If you’ve ever considered becoming a lawyer but didn’t pursue a law degree through an academic path, well… congrats! You’re not alone. Becoming a lawyer without going to law school is not easy, but then again, nothing worth doing is. And — in my own life — I found that taking the non-academic path to practicing law was easier (and cheaper!) than starting law school from scratch. Before I launch into the specifics, I want to give a little background.

1. Before I Became a Lawyer

When I was younger, becoming a lawyer didn’t really sound like my dream job. I imagined a dream job had to be something creative. I had a lot of smart kids in my class in high school, and most of them went on to study law or finances. I thought they only did it for the money, which kind of made sense, considering what a lawyer earns.  But I believed that following your passion and making a lot of money are entirely incompatible goals. (I was 18, that’s my excuse for thinking that, and I’m going to stick with it.) I even had the nerve to look down on my former high school mates. They had taken the easy way out, in my mind; I, however, was the one sacrificing my financial security for the good of the world. In fact, we were all choosing our degrees based on financial concerns.

When I decided to go to college, I knew I wanted to change the world, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it; I made the decision to get a degree in cultural studies and was preparing for a Ph.D. to start a career of teaching college students about cultural and ethnic diversity. And then, something shifted in a way I had never anticipated or planned for: I didn’t want to pursue my dream job anymore.

2. How I Figured Out I Needed A Change

The first warning sign that I had chosen the wrong path was that I started reading more and more articles about people who had switched careers. Success stories, horror stories, it didn’t matter. After a while, I realized switching careers sounded like an increasingly-appealing option. Even the scarier stories of failure sounded like immensely-valuable learning experiences.

I had become increasingly skeptical about the power of academia. I don’t know how others feel about it, but I was raised to have a kind of mystical respect for teachers. I still do. But, while I was training to become one, I also got the sense that teachers (especially Ph.D.-qualified ones) like being locked up in their Ivory Towers. It seemed to me that these teachers didn’t really care about what was going on in the real world. I don’t want to overgeneralize; I’ve met a lot of great educators along the way who are genuinely passionate about what they do. But I didn’t really feel like I was part of their group, or that I shared their value system.

3. How I Did It

Maybe it was the influence of my high school peers pursuing law degrees, or maybe I had always wanted to become an attorney and never realized it, but I started considering law as a possible career path. I’m lucky enough to live in one of the few American states (California) that lets you become a lawyer without going to law school; instead, I earned my certification by doing an apprenticeship in a law firm. This path saves you a heck of a lot of money. The cheapest law school in California is about $9,000 a year, and that’s about as cheap as they get. UCDavis, for example, costs around five times as much.

An apprenticeship takes five to six years to complete; just about as much as a law school track. After you’ve completed the internship, you can take the bar exam. My firm paid me minimum wage, so I wasn’t exactly rolling in cash. Still, at least I wasn’t racking up (even more) debt. I also saved a lot of money on study supplies by borrowing books — and even class notes — from my former high school classmates who had attended law schools. I also scoured the internet for every available online journal or publication that offered free resources (JStor is one of the best, but unfortunately, you have to pay a fee for full access). I discovered that many public libraries have a JStor subscription, however. You can also “borrow” a number of articles for free, for two weeks at a time. Between the borrowing and the public library subscriptions, I ended up saving around $5,000 on course materials and such.

4. Why I Think Pursuing A Non-Academic Path Was Better

I laid out some budget estimates to get an idea of how much I saved by not attending a law school. Tuition fees differ quite a lot from university to university; I doubt I would have had the chops to get into a prestigious (and expensive) school like UCLA. Taking these factors into account, my most conservative assessment tells me that I saved around $50,000 per year on housing, insurance, supplies and other expenses. Over the course of five years, those savings add up to $250,000 in total. Yes. I would have paid $250,000 if I had gone to law school in California, and that’s not even adding the cost of tuition, per se.

I think those numbers speak for themselves. But pursuing my law certification also made more comfortable around money. Before going into law, I was one of those idealistic types who thought earning lot of money was bad, somehow. But, in working with a lot of lawyers (and the money in question for trials, etc), I realized that job is just a job. Sure, I’ve seen a lot of those money-oriented attorneys during the past few years, but I also realized that you don’t have to be like them if you don’t want to.

I’m not earning as much as a top lawyer would, but it would be silly to expect that from the very beginning. It’s going to take a while before I can truly fulfill my dream: taking up pro bono cases. And, with the modest earnings I’m currently making, I know that I may never be able to afford opening up my own practice. That said, my non-traditional path (and more modest earnings) are sacrifices for my ideals that I’m genuinely willing to make. I think my career change was worth it, because it still allowed me to fulfill my dream of making a difference in the world. I’m just using different tools to make it happen.

Now, it would be unfair to say that going to law school is pointless. There are definitely a lot of things I’m lacking now, especially when it comes to finding resources and doing research. I also found it more difficult to network in this field, since everyone partnered up with fellow students they met at law school to start their own practices.

But I think coming from the outside made me much more creative. Since I don’t really know the tried and tested methods of doing things, I sometimes stumble upon surprisingly novel ways of solving legal conundrums. I’m also more at ease juggling several different legal domains at a time while picking out the essential information because I learned by doing over the past few years. I genuinely think taking the non-academic path has its own merits (and this is coming from someone who was preparing to invest her whole life in academia) and I’m thankful for my experience, either way.

I think anyone can do good in the world if they set their mind to it. If you don’t feel like making financial sacrifices, then don’t. I opted for the most cost-effective life I could, and I don’t regret it.

Amanda Wilks is a Boston University graduate and a part-time writer, with a great interest in everything related to job-seeking and career-building advice.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Anon

    Interesting! How was the bar exam for you? Did you end up taking any of the expensive prep courses everyone seems to? Did it matter that you were unaffiliated?

  • F.

    So interesting. Especially because I am reading this while completing my thesis in cultural studies (M. A.) while thinking about career switch 😀

  • I think it’s important to note that in most states you cannot get licensed without attending law school (I think California may be the only one) and most employers (including the federal government and big law firms) will not even consider hiring you. That’s fine if you only want to stay in one state and foreclose some pretty lucrative and exciting legal career paths. But for most people who want to practice law, there’s no way around law school.