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Apprentices Take Law Into Their Own Hands

October 10, 2004|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Photos of a defiant Cesar Chavez line the walls. A weathered packing crate, a keepsake from one of the United Farm Workers' first table-grape contracts, sits on a bookshelf flaunting its Aztec eagle label.

It is here, in a home office near Oxnard's agricultural heartland, that Jessica Arciniega has come to learn the law.

For decades, young idealists eager to practice law on behalf of California's farm laborers and other indigent groups have learned their trade not in classrooms but at the elbow of veteran attorneys who serve as mentors and instructors.

California is one of seven states that allow prospective attorneys to skip law school and earn the right to practice by serving apprenticeships. The UFW has made steady use of the program, turning out half a dozen attorneys in 30 years with the same training method used by Abraham Lincoln and Clarence Darrow.

Now comes Arciniega, 29, a former UFW organizer who has completed her first year of study under Oxnard attorney Barbara Macri-Ortiz, a fiery, former union lawyer who helped set up the apprenticeship program and took that path herself.

The two have tackled torts and consumed hours of contract and criminal law, combining volumes of book work with real-world experience gleaned from Macri-Ortiz's law practice.

Arciniega has helped clients file auto accident claims and fend off threats of eviction. She has conducted research and organized evidence for hearings to force creation of low-income housing and save the job of a Ventura County mushroom picker fired for union activity.

And after hours, she has devoted an average of 20 hours a week to her studies, cramming well into the night and on weekends in a tiny library cubicle.

Now she approaches her most important test yet. She is set later this month to take the First-Year Law Students' Examination -- known as the Baby Bar -- to earn the right to continue her path of study for three more years.

"There's no pomp and circumstance to this program; it's all about how to learn the law so you can help people," said Arciniega, a Pomona-Pitzer colleges graduate who worked on UFW union organizing campaigns before plunging into the law.

"I've always had this desire in me, this real soft spot, to defend the underdog," she said. "This has been a good fit. It really focuses on the work and the results."

Apprenticeship once was the primary means of legal education in the United States. That changed in the late 1800s with the rise of professional law schools, amid calls for quality control and the emergence of increasingly complex legal matters.

Most states, responding to pressure from the American Bar Assn., have eliminated apprenticeship programs. Those that remain get few takers. The bar association's Code of Recommended Standards states that "neither private study, correspondence study or law office training, nor age or experience should be substituted for law school education."

Since 1980, 436 people have registered for the apprentice program -- known as law office study -- with the State Bar of California and only 64 have passed the bar exam. Bar officials estimate that fewer than 30 people are pursuing the program at any given time.

It is a tough way to go. In the last seven years, about 20% of those who studied law as apprentices have passed the bar. That compares with slightly more than 50% of those who attended accredited law schools.

But bar officials say it's important to keep the avenue open, noting that law office study remains a valuable option for people who live in remote areas, are launching second careers or can't afford the tens of thousands of dollars it costs to attend law school.

Moreover, the unorthodox approach responds to larger issues of access and diversity, ensuring that the bar continues to attract people with different backgrounds, viewpoints and reasons for wanting to practice, they say.

"I think it's important that we provide as many avenues of access to the profession, so all of society can be represented," said Jerome Braun, the state bar's senior executive for admissions. "If one or two Abraham Lincolns end up going through the program, getting admitted and becoming successful, we are all better off for it."

Those states that permit law office study -- California, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming -- do so counter to a nationwide trend over the last century to standardize legal education and balance practical training with a strong theoretical base.

"It's unlikely, but clearly not impossible, that one could get the combination of academic background and practical training that one gets in an ABA-approved law school through an internship or attorney practice situation," said John Sebert, a Chicago-based legal education consultant to the bar association.

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