Image: Vogue

Kim Kardashian is planning to take the bar exam without attending law school. That was one of the big revelations in the mega-influencer’s lengthy May Vogue Magazine cover feature. The announcement that the 37-year old reality television star, beauty mogul, and very-famous criminal justice reform advocate has made “the unlikely decision to begin a four-year apprenticeship with a law firm in San Francisco, with the goal of taking the bar [examination] in 2022,” sent social media into a frenzy on Wednesday.

More than merely leading to a Twitter storm, the revelation led to a slew of questions, including, “So, anyone can practice law?”, and “You do not have to go to law school to take the bar?” The answers here are a relatively simple: no and yes, respectively. Not just anyone can practice the law, only licensed attorneys in good standing can do that. This includes passing the bar exam – the two or three-day long test administered by the bar association that a lawyer needs to pass before being admitted to the bar of that jurisdiction – in the state in which you will practice (save for pro hac vice instances) and remaining a member of that bar.

The second question is the less straightforward of the two, as it is at odds with how the vast majority of individuals end up becoming lawyers. As noted by the California State Bar, “California lawyers can meet the legal education requirement in different ways. Most receive a Juris Doctor degree from law schools registered by the State Bar or approved by the American Bar Association” However, “there are other ways to get a legal education,” including four years of study in a law office or with a judge,” which is what Kardashian is doing.

Abraham Lincoln, who endeavored to become a lawyer before the first U.S. law school – the College of William & Mary – opened in 1793, took something of a similar route, as did Thomas Jefferson. Back then, studying under an attorney mentor in lieu of enrolling in law school was “a common path to the bar,” according to UC Berkley’s California Magazine, largely out of necessity.

Now, legal apprentice­ships are little more than a rarity, and for relatively good reason. Some hard numbers: of the 5,303 people who took the February 2018 California state bar examination, just 26 had completed the 4 year qualification, or apprenticeship (as opposed to being law school graduates). Of those 26, 19 were re-taking the test. (You can take the bar as many times as you need to pass). The passage rate for the February 2018 exam was very grim 0 percent.

As for the July 2018 bar exam, 36 of the 8,593 total test-takers were apprentices, and 30 of those 36 were re-taking the test. The passage rate was 2.8 percent for apprenticeship test-takers, compared to the 53.4 percent passage rate for American Bar Association approved law school graduates.

While California is joined by a few other states, namely, Virginia, Vermont, Washington and California, in enabling individuals to bypass law school and opt for “reading law” alternatives, this “shortcut (of sorts)” is one that very few people know about or ever engage in. According to the New York Times, “New York, Maine and Wyoming require a combination of law school and apprenticeship,” should an individual want to take the non-traditional path.

On its face, the non-law school route seems appealing, as it enables potential future lawyers to escape upwards of $100,000 in legal education costs. This is particularly true now “when many in legal education are questioning the value of three years of law study and the staggering debt that saddles many graduates,” the Times’ Sean Patrick Farrell wrote in 2014. He says, “Proponents see apprenticeships as an alternative that makes legal education available and affordable to a more diverse population and could be a boon to underserved communities.” 

“It seems like the kind of thing that, for a very small subset of people, could be the best path to becoming a lawyer,” says Ty Alper, Director of Experiential Education at UC Berkeley School of Law.

Still, only tiny numbers of people opt to do it this way, in part because some of the practical concerns outweigh the positives. For one thing, the bar passage rates for apprentices are lower than for law school graduates, assuming the apprentices make it to that point. In California, in order to continue on the apprentice path, an individual needs to pass the “notoriously difficult” First-Year Law Students’ Examination, or what has been coined the “baby bar,” a one-day test given in June and October in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas.

The apprenticeship route also proves to be a particularly uncommon one as there is even less of a guarantee that should the apprentice pass the baby bar and the California state bar that they will get hired. “The traditional employers of law graduates, people who have a J.D., are probably going to be even more focused on those who are graduates of traditional programs – the same programs that produce hiring partners at various firms,” says Edward Tom, Assistant Dean of Admissions at UC Berkeley Law School.

More than that, “the lack of a J.D. can also be cause for concern to clients,” per Farrell.

While these are not worries for Kardashian, who says that she was inspired to start her apprenticeship after embarking upon a well-documented – and rather successful – quest in furtherance of criminal justice reform, it is certainly a deterrent for more traditional lawyers-to-be.

Kardashian is expected to take the baby bar in June, and the California state bar in 2022. According to Vogue’s Jonathan Van Meter, “If she were to [ultimately] pass the [even more notoriously difficult California state] bar, it would be the most surprising rebranding since Barbie got woke, a case to be studied at Harvard Business School for years to come.”