By now, you’ve probably heard that Kim Kardashian has plans to become a lawyer (unless you reside under a rock.) But the reality star isn’t going to law school. Instead, she’s pursuing the little known and rarely trodden path of “reading the law”—that is, studying for four years under a practicing attorney before taking the bar exam.
Only California, Washington, Vermont and Virginia allow aspiring attorneys to never set foot in a law school. We’re not kidding when we say it’s the path less taken. Fewer than 70 of the roughly 70,000 who took the bar exam in 2017 went that route—and just 30 percent of them passed the licensing exam, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.
We’ve compiled a list of notable lawyers who read the law, also known as apprenticing. Take note, most of these men (and they’re nearly all men) are from a bygone eras. As we said, reading the law just isn’t very popular these days. If Kardashian passes the bar exam, might that change?
Sir William Blackstone—Let’s start at the beginning, with the British jurist who helped enshrine common law in the United States. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, published in four volumes between 1765 and 1770, offered an overview of common law and greatly influenced the Founding Fathers. The nation’s first generations of lawyers would go on to study Blackstone’s texts. (The Supreme Court often cites Blackstone’s work.) There was no formal legal education system in England at the time, so Blackstone studied legal texts on his own.
John Adams—You know him as a Revolutionary War leader, Founding Father and the second president of the United States, but he also was a lawyer. Adams graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College before reading the law under the tutelage of James Putnam, a prominent attorney in Worcester, Massachusetts. He was admitted to the bar in 1758.
Thomas Jefferson—We needn’t recount all of Jefferson’s many accomplishments—though it’s worth noting that the author of the Declaration of Independence also helped establish the nation’s first formal law school, at The College of William and Mary. Before all that, though, the Founding Father and third U.S. president studied the law under College of William and Mary Chancellor George Wythe while also working as a clerk in Wythe’s law office. He was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1767.
John Marshall—It’s a tad ironic that this former Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court has not one, but two law schools named for him—one in Chicago and one in Atlanta. After all, he never went to law school himself. Anyhow, Marshall was the fourth chief justice and served from 1801 to 1835. Like Jefferson, he read the law under the College of William and Mary’s George Wythe and was admitted to the bar in 1780. His court issued opinions in many landmark cases, including
Marbury v. Madison and McCulloch v. Maryland.
Daniel Webster—Famed Federalist and statesman Daniel Webster’s career began in the Salisbury, New Hampshire, law office of attorney Thomas Thompson. He was reportedly not very enthusiastic about a legal career, but figured it would provide him with a comfortable living. He took a break to serve as a schoolteacher before finding a new apprenticeship with Boston lawyer Christopher Gore. He joined the bar in 1805. (The University of New Hampshire School of Law has a Daniel Webster Scholars program that allows students to skip the bar exam following two years of practical training requirements.)
Abraham Lincoln—Honest Abe, like John Marshall, also has a law school named for him—the California-accredited Lincoln Law School in Sacramento. He famously taught himself law by reading, among other things, William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England while working as a postmaster and county surveyor in Illinois. He was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1836 and later practiced in the Springfield office of his wife’s cousin, John Stuart.
Arabella Mansfield—Finally, we have a woman on our list! In fact, Mansfield became the first woman attorney in the United States. She was admitted to the Iowa bar in 1869. She had to sue to get the state to recognize her high bar exam score and allow women and minorities to take the exam. She apprenticed in her brother’s law office but never practiced. Instead, she taught at several colleges and became active in the women’s suffrage movement. If you’ve heard of the Mansfield Rule—a proposal to diversify law firms—know that it’s named for this pioneering attorney.
Clarence Darrow—This one is a little bit of a cheat. This “sophisticated country lawyer” attended the University of Michigan Law School but never graduated. He then studied the law on his own while working as a country schoolteacher, and was admitted to the Ohio bar in 1878. Darrow, of course, would go on to handle a number of high-profile cases, including defending teenage killers Leopold and Loeb, and schoolteacher John Scopes in the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial. Darrow’s work on the case is chronicled in the classic play and film Inherit the Wind.
Kim Kardashian—The jury is still out on this one (har har). Kardashian has said in an interview with Vogue and in a recent Instagram post that she’s serious about her legal studies and that she’s putting in 18 hours a week on first-year subjects like torts and criminal law. She’ll face her first major test this summer when she takes what’s known as the baby bar, which will determine whether she can continue on. Slightly less than a third of those who took California’s baby bar passed in July. Good luck, Kim!