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The Old School : Would-Be Attorneys Learn the Law Lincoln's Way, by Apprenticing


WESTWOOD — Gary Blasi is a lawyer and a law professor at UCLA--yet he never went to law school.

Blasi is one of a small number of attorneys in California who entered the profession via the old-fashioned method of apprenticeship.

Although only a tiny fraction of lawyers train this way today--less than 1% nationally--apprenticeship was once the only way to learn the practice of law.

Weary of years of graduate school, Blasi began his apprenticeship in 1971, working in a public interest law firm for four years before taking--and passing--the California Bar exam in 1976.

"I wouldn't have gone to law school, and I love being a lawyer, so it was the right thing to do," he said.

Blasi and other graduates of the program are among its strongest advocates, saying it gave them excellent training and practical experience without the expense of law school. But others say an apprenticeship is not as comprehensive as law school and works only for those with a high level of self-discipline and motivation.

The apprenticeship method boasts many successful alumni--including William P. Clark Jr., the former California Supreme Court associate justice who served as national security adviser to President Reagan.

But Bar exam pass rates are low for apprentices--only about 20%, compared to about 50% for law school graduates. Bar officials warn, however, that the number of apprentices taking the exam is so small that it is difficult to draw statistical conclusions.

California is one of just seven states nationwide that permit candidates to qualify for the Bar as people did before the ascendency of academic law schools in the late 1800s. (It is also the only state that allows correspondence schools as a way to qualify for the Bar exam.)

Most states, responding to pressure from the American Bar Assn., have eliminated apprenticeship programs.

In California, only about 25 of about 11,000 candidates who take the Bar exam each year studied as apprentices instead of in a law school.

Although old-fashioned, apprenticeship has changed considerably since Abraham Lincoln's day. It is more formalized and regulated and is no less rigorous than law school.

The apprenticeship program even has a formal name now; it is called Study in a Law Office or Judge's Chambers, but is better known as the Law Office Study program. It is administered by the California State Bar's Committee of Bar Examiners.

Aspiring attorneys must register for the program and work four years in the office of a lawyer or judge for 18 hours a week, 48 weeks a year. Meanwhile, they must study the law school curriculum on their own. They are required to pass the First Year Law Students' Examination--or "Baby Bar"--at the end of their first year.

The first-year exam eliminates many people who start the program, said Jerome Braun, California State Bar senior executive for admissions.

"Those who complete it are not only super-motivated, but they've gone through a screening process," Braun said.

The program currently has 66 participants in California, but has had as many as 125.

Despite the generally low pass rates, Law Office Study supporters think that the program offers an ideal alternative for those who do not have the money or time to go to school. And they say it gives apprentices much more practical experience than law school.

Billie Beach of Santa Monica is so enthusiastic about her experience with the program that she has spoken to college students, urging them to consider apprenticeships and criticizing the legal profession for creating entry barriers.

"The reason I didn't want to go to law school was I liked to be out there working, I was older and I had limited financial resources," said Beach, a divorced mother in her 40s who completed the program in 1990 and is awaiting the results of the Bar exam she took in July. Aside from saving thousands of dollars in law school tuition, the Law Office Study Program allows apprentices to get practical experience.

"The law is not very academic," Beach said. "It's like learning the rules to drive. You learn those rules in court, in judge's chambers. So at the end of four years, you don't have to go into a law firm and learn what you've just learned."

The program also allows apprentices to avoid the disillusionment of some law school graduates who discover after three years of study that the field is not for them, Blasi said.

"There's a whole industry of lawyers changing careers," he said.

State Bar and law school officials acknowledge that apprentices get more practical experience. But they argue that apprentices miss the intellectual stimulation and breadth and depth of an academic training.

"In a law school, you have a whole range of people to call upon," said Scott Bice, dean of the USC law school.

Bice also pointed out that over the last 10to 15 years, law schools have been expanding their clinical offerings so their students get more practical training.

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