Abraham Lincoln. Clarence Darrow. John Marshall. Some of America’s most famous attorneys never graduated from law school. They “read the law,” teaching themselves or apprenticing with an experienced lawyer before joining the bar.

Reading the law fell out of vogue in the United States during the late 19th century, when schools of law were established and the newly formed American Bar Association started pushing states to require formal postgraduate education.

A handful of states still allow would-be lawyers to bypass law school altogether and learn the law under an experienced attorney, or to supplement one or two years of formal law school with a year or two of apprenticing. “It’s really a holdover from when there weren’t a lot of law schools, or law schools weren’t accessible to everyone,” said Nancy Shore, admissions director of the Wyoming State Bar.

California, Vermont, Virginia and Washington state allow people to skip law school and instead spend three or four years learning the law in the office of an experienced attorney before taking the bar. Maine, New York and Wyoming allow people with one or two years of law school to take the bar exam if they supplement their missed law school years with a legal apprenticeship.

The chance to skip law school in favor of hands-on training might seem especially appealing, considering that tuition has doubled during the past 15 years and in light of criticism that formal legal educators are failing to teach practical skills. But the programs have never been hugely popular, and bar examiners in most states where the option is available report that the number of people reading the law has stagnated or declined.

Wyoming hasn’t had a taker for its program — which requires at least one year of law school — in 15 years, Shore said. “We get a lot of calls about it, but nobody follows through. People say, ‘I hear you don’t have to go to law school,’ which isn’t true.”

Maine requires at least two years at an ABA-accredited law school and at least one year of law office study, but no one took that route during 2010, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

By contrast, Washington state’s program — which requires no time in law school — is relatively robust, with about 60 people now signed up, said Robert Henry, admissions manager for the Washington State Bar Association. Most participants are paralegals or already work in the legal profession and want to become licensed, or have family members who are attorneys, Henry said.

Between 35 and 40 people participate in Vermont’s program each year, said Martha Hicks-Robinson, bar admission administrator for the Vermont Board of Bar Examiners.

‘YOU OUGHT TO BE A LAWYER’

“We see people who are paralegals in a law firm and their bosses say, ‘You ought to be a lawyer,’ ” Hicks-Robinson said. “We also have people who have completed a year of law school and either it got too expensive or it just wasn’t right for them.”

Nationwide, 59 people took a state bar exam in 2010 after completing a law office study program rather than graduating from law school, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners. They represented just 0.08 percent of the nearly 70,000 people who sat for the exam last year.

Although they are small, bar officials argue that these programs make legal careers possible for people who could not otherwise afford to attend law school. However, they caution that participants must be organized and self-motivated.

Dorie Robinson, now reading the law in Washington, said she always wanted to become a lawyer, but with two small children at home, she opted during the mid-1990s to become a paralegal. “At that time in my life, law school just wasn’t a viable option financially,” Robinson said. “I didn’t want to have to leave my job.”

With 15 years of paralegal experience and her children grown, Robinson in 2009 signed up for Washington state’s Law Clerk Program with the support of her boss, family law attorney Bruce Pruitt-Hamm, who practices in Colville, Wash. Pruitt-Hamm serves as her tutor, administering monthly tests based on bar exam questions and offering feedback and instruction.

Working full-time while also studying is a constant balancing act, Robinson said. “You have to have good time-­management skills,” she said. “You have to put off everything else in your life. You don’t attend family functions or go out to dinner. There have been times when it has been really difficult, and I needed to take some time off from studying. You’re doing it all on your own.”

Despite the challenges, Robinson plans to take the bar exam and practice family law.

The exam has proven a significant hurdle for those who take the alternative route. Of those 59 who took the test in various states last year, only 17 percent passed, compared with 74 percent of test takers who graduated from ABA-approved law schools.

In Vermont, passage rates among ­participants in the Law Office Study Program have ranged from zero to 80 percent over the years, Hicks-Robinson said. “Statistically, it doesn’t look good,” she said. “It’s funny. Either they do extremely well and are at the top of the list, or they just can’t do it at all.”

First-time bar passage rates for those in Washington’s program averaged 62 percent from 1984 to 2011, Henry said — slightly lower than the state’s overall first-time pass rate of 75 percent. He attributed that relatively high pass rate to a restructuring of the program in 1984. In addition to monthly tests that are evaluated by a special board, each participant is required to meet with the board each year to evaluate his or her progress.

A WARNING

The Virginia Board of Bar Examiners discourages would-be participants from starting its Law Reader Program in a memorandum posted on its Web site. The document notes that participants face many challenges, ranging from underestimating the scope of the work and not being able to support their families during their studies, to not getting enough guidance from their supervising attorney.

“Reading law under the supervision of an attorney is not an equivalent alternative to law school for most people who want to practice law,” the memo reads. “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.”

The memo notes that, from 2000 to 2009, 23 percent of the law readers passed the bar compared with the overall pass rate of 67 percent.

Low bar-passage rates help explain why few people sign up for these alternative programs, Shore said. Lack of mobility is another. In most cases, the only state that recognizes the law license is the state in which it was obtained. Montana has lobbied states with similar programs to recognize its law readers, to no avail.

“If you get a law office study license, you are tied to Wyoming,” she said. “To my knowledge, no other state will allow you into practice.”

Gary Blasi, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law, joked that his legal schooling was the “100 percent clinical education method.” He started California’s Law Office Study Program in 1971 after getting burned out in graduate school, he said. On a bit of a lark, he began studying with five other aspiring lawyers in a community law office in Los Angeles. He began performing clerical tasks around the office and moved on to drafting briefs, all while studying for the bar exam. He passed on his first try.

“I had the benefit that most first-year law students don’t have,” he said. “I was able to see how the law relates to the real world.”

Still, the program was demanding, and Blasi counsels prospective students to think carefully about their expectations and to map out the next four years of their lives. He suggests that they take the Law School Admission Test even if they don’t intend to apply to law school. “The test gives you an indication of whether or not you have the educational and conceptual skills needed to be successful,” he said.

The details of the programs vary from state to state. For example, law clerks must be employed — and paid — by their tutor attorneys in Washington. Virginia’s three-year program prohibits supervising attorneys from employing their law clerks, and the supervising attorneys must have practiced in the state for at least 10 of the past 12 years. In California, participants must take and pass the California First-Year Law Students’ Examination, known as the baby bar exam. Some states have detailed study plans and test requirements, while others allow more flexibility. All of the programs require that participants find their own supervising attorneys.

Many people who read the law find jobs in small firms or start their own solo practices. A few, like Blasi, have landed in legal academia or high-profile positions. Vermont Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Skoglund completed her state’s program in 1981 before embarking on a career first as an assistant attorney general and then as a state trial judge. She was elevated to her state’s highest court in 1997.

At age 30, with a child and a bachelor’s degree in sculpture, Skoglund decided it was time for a change, she said. She took the LSAT and did well, but her limited finances precluded law school. Instead, she enrolled in paralegal school for six months to learn how to use a law library, then landed a job in the Vermont attorney general’s office, where she studied the law in different departments under several attorneys.

“I was like a sponge, just walking around absorbing things,” she said. “I was very lucky to get a job at the attorney general’s office because it exposed me to nearly every aspect of the law. Everybody was my teacher. What was so amazing was that I was just desperate to work. I fell in love with the law, which surprised me. This is the best job in the world.”

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.