“Keeping Up with Bar Admissions”

By: Katherine Wahl[1]

If you have read the news recently, you will have heard about the ongoing tariff war between President Trump and China, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had a son named Archie, and that Kim Kardashian West is studying to be a lawyer.[2]  Kim Kardashian West is a reality television star and entrepreneur.[3]  In an interview with Vogue, published on April 10, 2019, Kim stated her intent to study law and take the 2020 bar exam in California.[4]  During the “[f]irst year of law school,” Kim says, “you have to cover three subjects: criminal law, torts, and contracts. To me, torts is the most confusing, contracts the most boring, and crim [sic] law I can do in my sleep. Took my first test, I got a 100. Super easy for me. The reading is what really gets me. It’s so time-consuming. The concepts I grasp in two seconds.”[5]  While most law students and lawyers will agree that contracts is the most boring subject during our first year of law school (sorry Contracts Professors!), most of us will also agree that law school isn’t easy.     

A meme about Kim Kardashian West as a joke because she is not in fact going to law school.

Kim’s story raises the interesting question of “should law school be a requirement to be a lawyer?”  Many people may have been under the impression that in order to practice law, one must go to law school and pass the bar exam.  However, several jurisdictions, California, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia, do not require law school as a prerequisite to sit for the bar exam or to practice law thereafter.[6]

Background

Historically, requiring law school to practice law is a recent occurrence.[7]  Prior to 1776, lawyers in the then-colonies of the United Kingdom, were educated in the practice of law through apprenticeships or clerkships because there were no law schools in the colonies.[8]  Following the revolution, the number of lawyers in the United States rose dramatically.[9]  While apprenticeships and clerkships remained the main determining factor to gain admission to the bar, education became more prevalent as many states began to require shorter apprenticeships if the applicant had graduated from college.[10]  Schools began to evolve from these apprenticeship programs, and by 1850, fifteen law schools existed in the U.S.[11]  By 1920, there were over 146 law schools.[12] Today, there are more than 200 law schools across the U.S., District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico[13]

As law school has become more normalized, it has also become a requirement to take the bar exam in most states.[14]  Although each state determines the eligibility requirements to take and join the bar in that state, the American Bar Association advises that each bar applicant should be required to have graduated from an ABA accredited law school with either a J.D. or LL.M. degree.[15]  However most states are not this restrictive with their eligibility requirements and will allow graduates of non-ABA accredited schools and graduates of foreign law schools to sit for the exam.[16]  Only five jurisdictions formally waive the law school requirement outright.[17]  Is the lack of a formal legal education and law degree detrimental to the legal profession, or can it be asset? Kim Kardashian West’s interview shines a light on the option to not go to law school. With the increased publicity this option has gotten from the Vogue interview, future lawyers may choose a modern day apprenticeship over a formal legal education and thus there may be consequences for the legal field more broadly.

Legally Blonde, Elle Woods

Pros:

Affordability for Students: It is no secret that law school is expensive. During the 2016-17 school year, the average cost of a private law school was $43,020 per year compared with $26,264 for state residents and $39,612 for out-of-state students at a public law school.[18]  Not to mention, law student debt ranged from $90,217 to $130,349.[19]  A separate survey found that only 23% of law school graduates thought that their education was worth the cost.[20]  For individuals who want to be lawyers, but cannot afford the high price of law school, a supervised legal training program could act as an affordable alternative.

Kim Kardashian West Wearing an outfit made of money.

Learning by Doing: Apprenticeships in the legal profession were the original forum in which to teach law.[21]  Since then, law school clinic programs around the country claim that “experiential learning,” is beneficial to students. For example, the Clinic Program at the American University Washington College of Law, boasts “[t]hrough their case work, students learn basic lawyering skills, including interviewing and counseling clients, developing a case theory to support their client’s interests, gathering facts, properly organizing documents and case files, thinking strategically, engaging in oral advocacy, and being agile and flexible in response to unexpected changes of circumstance.”[22]  Similar to a clinic program at an ABA accredited law school, supervised legal studies programs like those in California, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia, can serve as a valuable learning tool in the study of law.

Cons:

Ethical Obligations to Disclose Lack of Law Degree:  The Model Rules of Professional Conduct, the model for the ethical rules imposed on lawyers, imposes duties of both candor and confidentiality on lawyers.[23]  One question that arises if more lawyers are to forsake law school in favor of supervised legal studies programs is whether there should be an ethical obligation imposed on lawyers who have not attended law school to disclose that they have not attended law school prior to practicing law? If the average person would assume that all lawyers have gone to law school and their decision to hire a lawyer would change based on whether the lawyer had earned a law degree, a lawyer should owe a duty to their prospective client to inform them of their legal education and training.[24]  Under Model Rule 7.2, Communications Concerning a Lawyer’s Services, 7.2(c) provides that lawyers may not hold themselves out as specialists, subject to exceptions.[25]  Lawyers list their specialties and certifications in order to attract more clients, because the majority of states require a law degree to gain admission to the bar, the Model Rules do not govern the disclosure, or lack thereof, of having earned a law degree.[26]  However, if supervised legal studies programs were to become more popular, the Model Rules, and state ethics codes, would need to change to reflect the difference in education for the benefit of prospective clients. 

Dismantling the Law School Industry: If supervised legal studies programs become more popular or more states change their bar requirements to allow for bar admission without a formal legal education, law schools, and the law school industry more generally, may face serious consequences.  If students choose the more affordable supervised legal studies program over attending law school, law schools may need to make budget cuts or ultimately close their doors.[27]  Similarly, if less people choose to attend law school, there will be a substantial drop in those who take the LSAT and enroll in prep courses for law school. Thus, an entire industry could suffer due to less enrollment in law school. Notably, this effect is an extreme consequence of eliminating the law school requirement throughout the U.S.

Only time will tell if Kim Kardashian West’s statement in Vogue will spark a change in the bar requirements across the country or inspire potential future lawyers in similar jurisdictions to forgo law school.  For now, luckily for Kim, the bar she wants to gain admittance to, California, does not require law school, nor a formal education of any kind to sit for the bar exam or to become a member of the bar.[28]  Rather, Kim must only study under the supervision of a state judge or attorney for four years prior to taking the bar exam.[29] This situation has forced many current and former law students to say, “I really wish I read my state’s bar requirements before going to l

Meme of Kim Kardashian West.

[1] As a general ethical matter, the author feels necessary to disclose her biases both as a current law student and Taylor Swift fan.

[2] Jonathan Van Meter, The Awakening of Kim Kardashian West, Vogue, Apr. 10, 2019.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Erica Moeser and Claire J. Guback, Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements 2017, ABA (last visited Apr. 12, 2019).

[7] Susan Katcher, Legal Training in the United States: A Brief History, 24 Wis. Int’l L. Rev. 335 (2006).

[8] Id. at 339 (stating that apprenticeships or clerkships were essential for admittance to the bar).

[9] Id. at 340 (stating that lawyers became essential to the running of the new country).

[10] Id. at 341 (stating that some colleges began to offer lectures on the law).

[11] Id. at 341-42 (stating that law school prevalence and enrollment varied between 1820-60 due to “Jacksonian Democracy).

[12] Id. at 348.

[13] Justia, https://www.justia.com/law-schools/ (last visited Apr. 12, 2019).

[14] See Moeser, supra note 6 at 6-7.

[15] Id. at vii.

[16] Id. at 6-7.

[17] Id.

[18] Farren Powell, 10 Law Schools that Charge the Most, U.S. News & World Rep. (Apr. 4, 2017) (these costs do not include living expenses).

[19] Id.

[20] Abigail Hess, Only 23% of Law School Grads Say Their Education was Worth the Cost, CNBC (Feb. 21, 2018).

[21] See Katcher, supra note 7 at 339.

[22] American University Washington College of Law, Clinical Program, (last visited Apr. 132, 2019).

[23] Model Rules of Prof’l Conduct R. 7.2 (2019).

[24] Id.

[25] Id. at 7.2(c).

[26] Id.

[27] See generally Powell, supra note 18 (discussing the high cost of law school).

[28] The State Bar of California, Admission Requirements, (last visited Apr. 12, 2019).

[29] Id. (noting that Kim must also earn a score of 50 or above on the College-Level Examination Program Exams).