(Host) Not everyone can afford to go to law school. For some, there’s another option. In Vermont, and a handful of other states from Wyoming to Virginia, prospective lawyers can learn the trade the old fashioned way – by apprenticing.
VPR’s Nina Keck reports:
(Keck) Pittsford resident Peg Flory was over forty when she decided to be a lawyer.
(Flory) “Back when I was in high school, if you were female and you were interested in law, then people said why don’t you be a legal secretary? So I did.”
(Keck) Then she got married and had kids. When her youngest started school, she went back to work as a legal secretary. Her grade school classmate, Joan Wing tells a similar story. Wing was a single mother who worked as a paralegal in Rutland. Both women went on to be successful lawyers but neither went to law school. They didn’t even finish college.
(Wing) “I’m kind of proud that I didn’t – it’s kind of a perversity that amuses me when people ask. The only diploma I have is from high school.”
(Keck) Wing and Flory took part in Vermont’s law office study program. Legal apprenticeships are still recognized in seven states, but the requirements vary greatly.
In Vermont, participants don’t need a college degree, but they must have completed three quarters of their undergraduate course work. Then they have to spend 25 hours a week for four years studying alongside a licensed attorney.
(Flory) “Alright, you’re going to take this pile here and you’ve got the two estates you’ve been working on. Any questions on them?”
(Rogers) “No, I’ll start working on them right away.”
(Keck) Peg Flory is now a mentor herself. She’s been working with Shelly Rogers for two-and-a-half years. Flory doesn’t get paid, but says she benefits by having Roger’s help as a legal assistant. Every six months, Rogers has to submit a detailed progress report to the state board of bar examiners for approval. That’s about it when it comes to oversight, which Rogers says is unnerving.
(Rogers) “You feel like sometimes maybe you’re not covering everything you need to and you really won’t know until you take the bar exam, what you’ve missed.”
(Keck) Lawyers who’ve completed the program say to be successful you have to teach yourself. Flory ran for local office to better understand municipal law; she took continuing legal education courses when she could, asked other lawyers for help if she needed to and read – a lot.
Flory says it’s a very hands-on approach to learning.
(Flory) “After the clerking I think it’s much easier for you to practice law because you’ve been doing it for four years. But it’s much easier to pass the bar exam when you’ve spent three years in law school studying how to pass the bar exam. That’s a real difference.”
(Keck) Women outnumber men in apprenticeship programs nationwide and participants tend to be older than traditional law school students.
Flory jokes that she passed the bar exam the same week she learned she was going to be a grandmother. But the program can be limiting as participants typically can’t practice in other states. Still, in Vermont, those who have gone through it don’t seem to have suffered professionally.
Joan Wing was elected president of the Vermont Bar Association in 1996. Peg Flory is a respected state lawmaker. Vermont Superior Court Judge Amy Davenport studied law this way as did State Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Skoglund. Maryann Zavez clerked in the 1980s. She’s now a tenured professor at Vermont Law School.
(Zavez) “Whenever people that I know who did the law office study program and you know become judges or something like that – I do go – oh, good for them. There is just sort of this sense, a sort of club or just knowing what it probably took for them to get to where they are.”
(Keck) The seven states that recognize legal apprenticeships have no plans to do away with them. But legal experts say it’s unlikely more states will create similar programs. Instead, many law schools are looking more like apprenticeship programs – with flexible schedules and even paid internships.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.