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The End for Self-Taught Lawyers?

January 23, 2008

By Jerry Harkavy
The Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine Beatrice Mayo practiced law in Maine for more than half a century before retiring in 1994. But she never spent a day in law school.

After high school, Mayo went to work for an attorney in Augusta and took an interest in his law books. She took the bar exam in 1940.

"She was a very smart lady, and I think she was well enough prepared that she passed it on the first try," Lloyd Lindholm recalled of his aunt, who died last year at 92. As for her lack of a law degree, he said: "I don't think she ever felt it was a deterrent."

Self-taught lawyers have all but vanished in recent years, ending a tradition stretching back to frontier days, when prospective attorneys "read the law" under the tutelage of a practicing lawyer. Most states now require law degrees to join the bar.

The best-known self-taught attorney was Abraham Lincoln, who began his studies after getting elected to the Illinois Legislature in 1834. He borrowed legal books from a fellow lawmaker.

Barry Melton, lead guitarist and co-founder of the 1960's counterculture band Country Joe and the Fish, dropped out of college in his freshman year during the Vietnam era to become a self-described "full-time anti-war dissident (with a guitar)."

While on the road with his band, he took a correspondence course in law and was admitted to the California bar in 1982. He now heads the public defender's office in Yolo County.

States that still allow law-office study include California, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming. The options are even fewer for correspondence study, which is allowed only in California, New Mexico and the District of Columbia.

The number of self-taught lawyers has dropped, even as a wealth of material about the law has become available on the Internet.

Nationwide, only 44 applicants who did law-office study took the bar exam in 2006, the last year for which figures are available. Of those, 18 passed, a success rate of 41 percent, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

By contrast, 74,215 people with law-school degrees took the test, and 71 percent were successful.

In Maine, self-taught lawyers included Frank Harding, who was state attorney general from 1955 to 1959, and George Emery, who became a Superior Court justice in 1930.

The state also has at least one self-taught lawyer still practicing: Arthur Peabody, who put in a three-year apprenticeship under an attorney in Portland that served as a springboard to a 52-year law career.

Peabody got his undergraduate degree from Dartmouth and was planning to go to Harvard Law School, where his father had studied. But when he learned there was a waiting list for admission, he decided to try the apprentice route.

At 85, Peabody continues to work part-time, although he plans to retire in August. "I'll be old enough then," he said.

Maine still allows established self-taught lawyers to practice, but new attorneys must now have at least two years of law school. That means students can forgo their final year.

The only advantage of doing so would be financial, said Cheryl Cutliffe, executive director of the Maine Board of Bar Examiners. "Some people may be in a position where they could go to work for a family law firm and save the third-year tuition."

Peter Pitegoff, dean of the University of Maine School of Law, said he knew of no one who ever dropped out of law school to pursue an apprenticeship.

"The idea of reading for the law is a romantic old notion," he said. "And there's something to be said about the benefits of that kind of integration of legal education with practice."

But, Pitegoff said, law schools have been moving in that direction, especially in the third year, when students have more opportunities to apply what they learn under close faculty supervision.

In practical terms, he added, anyone admitted to the bar without a law degree may have difficulty getting admitted to the bar in another state.

Peabody agrees, saying that reading the law isn't for everyone. It worked for him, he said, because he came from a family of lawyers.

"My mother was a lawyer. My father was a lawyer. Everybody in the family was a lawyer, so we talked law all the time. That made a difference. I don't think people should just read law. I think they should go onto law school."