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Getting to the law license

The rising routes and alternatives to getting a law license include the end of traditional college.

Seven years of post-high school education, $100,000+ in debt, and based on the bar results from February 2017, your chance of getting your license on the first attempt is 44.44%.  Not to add to the doom and gloom, but median salary rates and job opportunities have also not quite caught back up yet.  Either this is an elaborate attempt to minimize the number of attorneys joining the profession or the educational process is failing to prepare students for a rigorous exam.  If the latter is the case, changes need to be made.

While students might not be able to fix the system, and suing your law school might be a limited option, the culture of education is changing and there is an increasing number of ways to eliminate the negative byproducts of getting your law license.  One in particular is to get rid of the middle man: College.

“Recently, more and more people have asked: is traditional college really necessary?  The answer seems to be no.”

Recently, more and more people have asked: is traditional college really necessary?  The answer seems to be no.  With the extensive costs and a job market demanding higher degrees, many people are turning to alternatives from traditional colleges and universities.  One alternative is community college.  In 2015, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released a study that 46% of graduates from four-year institutions had previously enrolled in a two-year institution.  However, this may not be a suitable alternative for long.  Studies also show increases in community college tuition.

Other alternatives include companies, such as Unbound by Lumerit Scholar, that provide ways to customize your college experience through college credit exams.  A traditional four-year degree can be compacted into two years for a fraction of the cost.  Online college programs and courses have continued to increase as students look for ways to decrease the costs of education.

However, even the formal requirement of achieving a bachelor’s degree may soon be a thing of the past.  The legal profession has increasingly allowed alternatives to a traditional education.  The next step may be its complete removal.

“Recently, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma rendered a decision that would allow Caleb Alexander Harlin to take the Oklahoma Bar Exam.  Mr. Harlin did not attend college.” 

Recently, the Supreme Court of Oklahoma rendered a decision that would allow Caleb Alexander Harlin to take the Oklahoma Bar Exam.  Mr. Harlin did not attend college.  While he is not exactly the poster child for the complete abandonment of the bachelor’s prerequisite, this decision signals a possible change in how traditional college is perceived.  While Oklahoma is not the first state to allow the bypass of undergraduate degrees, this decision accompanies a movement to accommodate students and provide more flexibility in education.

Mr. Harlin graduated from a homeschool high-school in Muskogee, Oklahoma, skipped college, and attended online Oak Brook College of Law a four-year non-ABA accredited law school in California.  After passing the California Bar Exam on his first attempt, Mr. Harlin continued to live in Oklahoma while doing contract work for two firms in San Francisco.  After a year, he inquired about admissions to the practice of law in Oklahoma.  Learning that Oklahoma would not accept a non-ABA accredited law degree, Mr. Harlin applied to Oklahoma City University School of Law.

Under the ABA Standards for Approval of Law Schools 502(b), “In an extraordinary case, a law school may admit to its J.D. degree program an applicant who does not satisfy the requirements of [a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school] if the applicant’s experience, ability, and other qualifications clearly demonstrate an aptitude for the study of law.”  Oklahoma City University School of Law found these “other qualifications” present in Mr. Harlin’s case and accepted his application.

“Thus, even though Mr. Harlin graduated Summa Cum Laude, was a member of Law Review, and voted Most Outstanding Graduate of the Class of 2015, his application to take the Oklahoma bar exam was denied.”

However, Mr. Harlin ran into difficulties when applying to take the Oklahoma Bar Exam.  Under Rule 4 of the Rules Governing Admission to the Practice of Law in the State of Oklahoma, there are two avenues to apply for admission by examination.  Either under Section 1 as an attorney or under Section 2 as a law student. Section 2(a) prescribes, “No person shall be entitled to take an examination for admission to practice law in this state unless such person shall have registered as a law student filing the verified application for registration… including: …[c]ertificate of graduation with a Bachelor of Arts or Science degree.”  In pertinent part, Section 1 requires, “[S]uch attorney may be permitted by the Board of Bar Examiners to take an examination prescribed in Rule Five upon meeting the requirements of this Rule, except that such attorney shall not be required to register as a law student.”  Thus, even though Mr. Harlin graduated summa cum laude, was a member of Law Review, and voted Most Outstanding Graduate of the Class of 2015, his application to take the Oklahoma bar exam was denied.  The Board interpreted Section 1 to include the requirements of Section 2, including a requirement for an undergraduate degree.

“In the end, Mr. Harlin will be able to practice in Oklahoma without a bachelor’s degree and the Supreme Court of Oklahoma validated an alternative method to achieving a law license.”

Mr. Harlin took this matter up to the Supreme Court of Oklahoma. The Court allowed Mr. Harlin to take the bar exam as an attorney under Rule 4, Section 1 and chose not to apply the Section 2 requirements of an undergraduate degree.  In the end, Mr. Harlin will be able to practice in Oklahoma without a bachelor’s degree and the Supreme Court of Oklahoma validated an alternative method to achieving a law license.

While not usually the case in Oklahoma, allowing students to attend law school without a completed bachelor’s degree is not completely unheard of.  Thomas M. Cooley School of Law in Michigan admits students who meet the two-year rule.  This allows students with only an associate’s degree to seek admittance.  However, the school notes that not every jurisdiction is as accepting as the state bar of Michigan.  An even more popular method is the 3+3 Admissions Program which is approved by the American Bar Association.  Through this program, law schools can accept students after 3 years of undergrad and have the first year of law school count towards their bachelors’ degree.

“While bar passage rates for apprentices are historically significantly lower than ABA accredited schools, last February’s results show that you have a better chance than several North Carolina law schools.”

For those who wish to combat the costs of getting their law license by more extreme means, older methods of sitting for the bar have also been growing in interest.  Harkening back to the days of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, several states allow for apprenticeships as an alternative to law school.  Currently, seven states including California, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming, allow for some sort of alternative to legal education.  While the rules vary between jurisdictions, after three to four years of supervised work for an attorney, the need to attend law school is partially or completely removed.  While bar passage rates for apprentices are historically significantly lower than ABA accredited schools, last February’s results show that you have a better chance than several North Carolina law schools.

Even with the increasing accommodations for alternatives, what should you do if you still want to keep all of your options open?  If you are considering the legal profession and are concerned about stepping out on the branch of non-traditional methods, there are certain steps that could be helpful: consider your major carefully, doing so could be the key to better preparation for the LSAT, better scholarships to law schools, and thus minimizing debt; consider the school you attend carefully; and weigh your scholarship options.  As the legal field changes realize that just because education has looked one way for a while, it does not mean it could not look completely different and possibly better in the future.

Taylor Dougherty
About Taylor Dougherty (5 Articles)
Taylor Dougherty is a second year law student and serves as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. He is originally from Raleigh, but lived in Wake Forest for 10 years prior to coming to Campbell. Taylor graduated from Thomas Edison State University with a BA in History. He currently works at the Law Office of Christopher Mann.