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Last modified Saturday, January 3, 2009 4:07 PM PST
Darin Andreos passed the bar exam without going to law school. He did four years of self-directed study instead. (Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle - staff photographer)
No law degree? No problem.

Darin Andreos became one of the state's newest lawyers last month without enrolling in law school.

Instead, he spent four years studying with a practicing attorney ---- his father, George Andreos ---- as part of California's Law Office Study program, a path to practicing law that state bar officials say few people start and even fewer finish.

California is one of just seven states that allows people to become attorneys after studying with a lawyer or judge instead of obtaining a formal legal education.

Andreos, 37, described himself as a poor test-taker with "average Joe" scores on the Law School Admissions Test. He applied to two law schools after getting a bachelor's degree in business from Cal State San Marcos. He wasn't accepted, but continued to work for his father's practice, now based in Scripps Ranch, as he had in college.

When Andreos learned he could take the bar exam after four years of studying with an attorney or a judge, he decided to go for it.

"I had nothing to lose but time," he said, adding, "well, and aggravation."

Would-be attorneys took the state's general bar examination 47,542 times from February 1997 through February 2008, according to bar statistics.

During that 11-year span, just 20 Law Office Study participants passed the exam.

"There are a fair number of people who register for the program but don't complete it," said Gail Murphy, head of admissions for the State Bar of California, a group that has overseen the state's lawyers since 1924. "It's a pretty rigorous program for the person who's doing it and their supervisor."

George Andreos said the decision ---- and success ---- is typical of his son.

George Andreos sees his son's determination even in his skiing hobby. "He'll look at the mountain and say, 'I don't want to take the lift. I'll hike up,' " George Andreos said. "He's an individualist who sets a goal and is self-disciplined about attaining that goal."

For Darin Andreos, passing the exam followed four years holed up in his Rancho Bernardo condo, studying after work instead of going out with his wife and friends. Many weekends were spent with his father, hashing out the fine points of massive texts purchased at law school bookstores.

"Sometimes it meant picking up a 1,000-page book about a subject I knew nothing about and starting on Page 1," Andreos said.

George Andreos said the process challenged him, too, especially when his job was to help with areas of the law he had never practiced.

"We were both learning," Andreos said. "It was a real refresher course for me."

When Darin Andreos entered the testing center in July, he had already taken the bar exam twice. The second time, he scored well enough to earn a "second read" by the graders, but still fell short of passing. He said he was plenty familiar with the agonizing four-month wait between taking the test and getting results.

He said he knew when his phone rang a few minutes after the results should have been posted on Nov. 21 that it was his father calling to say he'd passed.

"All I could get out is, 'Are you sure?,'" Andreos said. "It's still overwhelming."

According to the American Bar Association's code of recommended standards, "Neither private study, correspondence study or law office training, nor age or experience, should be substituted for law school education."

But San Francisco worker's compensation attorney Alice O'Sullivan disagreed.

O'Sullivan, now chief trial attorney for Fortune, Drevlow, O'Sullivan & Hudson, was admitted to the bar in 1980 after completing the Law Office Study program. She said the program levels the playing field between those who can test well enough to be admitted to law school and can afford to attend and those who can't but would still make good lawyers.

"I think it's a very practical approach to the study of law, if you can find a good mentor," O'Sullivan said. "One-on-one, I think, is always better than 30-on-one."

O'Sullivan said she's never felt discriminated against for not attending law school, and that many colleagues have been impressed that she passed the bar exam through self-directed study.

Both O'Sullivan and Andreos said law office study isn't for everyone.

Andreos said he might have liked the camaraderie of a group of classmates and the relief of recesses in the traditional academic year.

"You really have to have discipline and expect to give up a lot of social time," he said. "It's not studying between parties."

On the other hand, Andreos said, he was able to keep his job, save approximately $80,000 in tuition and invest his money in two homes.

Andreos said he avoided making many career plans before finding out whether he'd passed the bar. He's still making "handwritten amendments" to his business cards because he hadn't ordered any that identify him as an attorney.

"As my father would say, that would have been presumptuous," Andreos said.

But his father's practice, which includes personal injury, contractual agreements and business litigation, will now be restructured to include him, he said.