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Pundit’s Mailbag — Learning
The Law Like Lincoln

In our October 1, 2008, Perishable Thoughts piece, we featured a quote from Abraham Lincoln that Scott Danner, Chief Operating Officer of Liberty Fruit Co., Kansas City, Kansas, sent on. The quote came from a letter that Lincoln had written in response to a young man hoping to study law with Lincoln.

In our comments on the quote we mentioned that things had changed since Lincoln’s day and not always for the better:

One of the most pernicious sentiments to have spread in our society is the requirement for credentialing. In all states save California, one cannot be an attorney unless one goes to law school. This is not because all our lawyers today are now better attorneys than Abraham Lincoln was; it is because professional societies often function as labor guilds more focused on protecting their dues payers than the general public.

Now we have received a note saying we may have been incomplete in our comments:

I believe the State of Washington will, in addition to California, allow one to take the Bar Exam without benefit of a Law School degree.

— Art Davis
VP Operations
The Sholl Group
Eden Prairie, Minnesota

Well, always anxious to learn and to correct our errors, we checked up on Art’s point and we stand corrected — though there are important differences between what California allows and what Washington State will allow.

The California program is fairly flexible, allowing for study via correspondence courses as well as studying under an attorney. So, for example, one could study via the internet at Concord Law School, a part of Kaplan University.

In Washington State there are three paths that would allow an individual to take the bar exam: 1) Graduate from an American Bar Association approved law school; 2) Be an attorney in good standing and have active legal experience in three out of the five years preceding application in any state or territory or “any jurisdiction where the common law of England is the basis of its jurisprudence”. (We are not sure how they define “legal experience,” but clearly one could take the bar exam in California and practice for three years and then take the Washington bar); 3) One can go through what is called an APR 6 law clerk program, which is similar to the old “reading” with an experienced attorney that Lincoln was referring to in his letter.

We doubt many go through this law clerk program. It is quite onerous. First one has to put in four years, working 30-hours a week under a very experienced lawyer. Second, one must apply in advance. So one could be a legal secretary for 10 years, then a paralegal for 10 years and then the clerk of a court for 10 years, and unless one took academic classes, one still needs to put in four more years.

It is hard to do a good study because individuals do not, at random, go to Stanford Law School or study through a correspondence course. Pass rates on the California bar exam, though, indicate that 46% of Concord’s students who took the bar exam passed on their first try. A prestigious school such as Boalt Hall, the law school at the University of California at Berkeley, only passed 82% on the first try. Other California ABA-approved schools had pass rates as low as 29% for those trying the first time.

Mrs. Pundit is an attorney, and when true love led her to abandon her high-profile position in the Federal court system in New York City, she had to take the bar exam in Florida. She had to do this even though she was already a member of the bar in both New York and Connecticut, had served as a law clerk, a staff attorney and as the Clerk of Court, all in our Federal Judicial System. The requirement that she pass the Florida bar had precious little to do with any necessity of learning Florida laws and a great deal to do with the desire of Florida attorneys to make it difficult for New York lawyers to come down and compete with the local trade.

As Abraham Lincoln said in the letter we quoted:

It is but a small matter whether you read with any body or not. I did not read with any one. Get the books, and read and study them till, you understand them in their principal features; and that is the main thing.

Indeed it is. Many thanks to Art Davis of The Sholl Group for keeping us on our toes.

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