Law Reader Memorandum

A MEMORANDUM ON THE CONCEPT OF READING LAW UNDER AN ATTORNEY'S SUPERVISION

Much has been said about the glamour of the Law Reader Program as an alternative to law school in newspaper articles like "Despite Opposition, More Learn Law Like Lincoln Did," or "Like Thomas Jefferson, Some Skipped Law School." Given the changes in our society and in our legal system since the days of Jefferson and Lincoln, not enough has been said about the very special situation that is required for the Law Reader Program to properly prepare persons to practice law in Virginia.

A study of the applicants reading law under the supervision of Virginia attorneys from July 1975 to the present reveals that while interest in this program has grown, so have the number of problems experienced by the participants in the program. There has been a significant increase in the number of persons who were approved to begin their study, but were unable to complete their term and qualify for a bar examination. The reasons for persons dropping out of the program are varied: some underestimated the scope of the task they undertook and could not cope with the vast amount of knowledge they had to organize and learn on their own; some found they required a more objective test of what they were or were not learning in the various subjects; some found they could not find jobs to support themselves and/or their families and still have the time to devote to their studies; some found their research facilities inadequate; and some found that their attorneys did not regularly have the time they needed for guidance and assistance.

Moreover, the percentage of persons who do complete their study and take and pass the Virginia Bar Examination is far below the overall passing percentage. From February 2000 to July 2013, the pass rate for persons reading law was 21% compared with an overall passing percentage of 68%.

The study confirms the Board of Bar Examiners' belief that reading law under the supervision of an attorney is not an equivalent alternative to law school for most people who want to practice law. Rather, it is an alternative that should be carefully elected by those few students who understand the limits of the program and who are able and willing to work within them.

Some of the factors that must be weighed by a student considering this method of legal education are as follows:

  • Unlike a degree from a reputable law school which may be as impressive in other fields as it is in law, reading law in a Virginia law office will only qualify a student to take the Virginia Bar Examination. Such study may not even be recognized by other states or jurisdictions as proper qualification for taking their bar examinations.
  • Most Virginia attorneys have graduated from law schools. In fact, of the 18,886 persons who passed the Virginia Bar Examination from February 2000 to July 2013, only 30 of them had read law under the supervision of attorneys. Law school graduates have an established record of their performance in classes and school activities to indicate to prospective employers something about their capabilities, while persons reading law have no such objective criteria of their abilities.
  • Most law school graduates have had the opportunity to develop close personal relationships with their peers in the profession which will prove valuable in their years of practice, as contrasted to the isolated situation of one studying in a law office.
  • In law schools a student follows a tried and proven curriculum and has a wealth of resource materials available for research and study. Further, law students who participate in organized classes and seminars gain from the wisdom of professors expert in particular fields as well as from fellow students who are also studying and researching the same subjects. By comparison, a student in a law office must use the resources available; he or she must arrange a study schedule around the schedule of an attorney who must also be available to clients; and the student must limit interaction on any given subject to the scope of the attorney's expertise or field of practice.
  • Finally, while persons reading law may save the costs of tuition, they must often make financial arrangements with a sponsoring attorney, and they must always provide for their own and/or their families' financial welfare during a three-year period of limited time available for employment. Study in a law office, unlike that in a law school, is for twelve months a year, with no summers off and no student loans or grants available.

If a student is able and willing to make the necessary personal commitment to this method of legal study, he or she must then find an attorney to supervise the study; and there are limits on the kind of attorney who is qualified to undertake the task.

  • The attorney must have actively engaged in the full-time general practice of law for at least ten of the past twelve years in the state of Virginia. This is to ensure that the attorney has a reasonable knowledge of the various areas of law the student is expected to master. One attorney is essentially undertaking the task of an entire faculty of a law school where each professor has his or her own areas of expertise, and where students and faculty daily interact on points of legal history and principle, as well as the changes in case law and statutory revisions. This task is made all the more difficult as more attorneys limit their actual practice to specialized areas of interest or client activity.
  • The attorney must have the time to devote to the student's needs for the term of study required. The current requirements specify that the student must spend at least twenty-five hours per week for at least 40 weeks each year engaged in required, in-office study. During this time the attorney must be able to schedule regular sessions with the student to (a) outline the subjects to be covered and choose the texts and resource materials to be used, (b) guide and assist the student's research in each subject, (c) discuss the student's progress as the subjects are being studied, and (d) prepare and grade written examinations testing the student's knowledge and understanding of each subject before certifying to the Board of Bar Examiners that such study is successful.
  • The attorney must have the facilities to accommodate the student's study. The student must have some space in the attorney's office to actually do the reading and research, and the student must have certain basic resources and library facilities immediately available for use in the office.
  • The attorney must be deemed to have the professional character and standing in the community, not only to practice law, but to be able to teach the student how to practice law. The attorney is not only supervising the student's process of acquiring knowledge, he or she is setting a professional example for the student. The student will learn about the attorney's attitude to the legal profession, the method of dealing with client needs, the manner of managing an office, personal discipline, dedication, etc.
  • And finally, the attorney must be willing to accept the responsibility for the dual commitment involved. There must be a commitment to the student to ensure that he or she receives a quality legal education, and there must also be a commitment to the legal profession to ensure that any student certified to take the Virginia Bar Examination is properly equipped to practice law in a manner benefiting the people of Virginia.

September 2014
LRP Memo