Reading law

Reading law is the method by which persons in common law countries, particularly the United States, entered the legal profession before the advent of law schools. This usage specifically refers to a means of entering the profession (although in England it is still customary to say that a university undergraduate is "reading" a course, which may be law or any other). Reading the law consists of an extended internship or apprenticeship under the tutelage or mentoring of an experienced lawyer. A small number of U.S. jurisdictions still permit this practice today.[1]


United States

In colonial America, as in Britain in that day, law schools did not exist at all until Litchfield Law School was founded in 1773. Within a few years following the American Revolution, some universities such as the College of William and Mary and the University of Pennsylvania established a "Chair in Law".[2] However, the holder of this position would be the sole purveyor of legal education for the institution, and would give lectures designed to supplement, rather than replace, an apprenticeship.[3] Even as a handful of law schools were established, they remained uncommon in the United States until the late nineteenth century. Most people who entered the legal profession did so through an apprenticeship which incorporated a period of study under the supervision of an experienced attorney. This usually encompassed the reading of the works considered at the time to be the most authoritative on the law, such as Edward Coke's Institutes of the Lawes of England, William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, and similar texts.[4]

The scholastic independence of the law student is evident from the following advice of Abraham Lincoln to a young man in 1855:

If you are absolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself the thing is more than half done already. It is a small matter whether you read with any one or not. I did not read with any one. Get the books and read and study them in their every feature, and that is the main thing. It is no consequence to be in a large town while you are reading. I read at New Salem, which never had three hundred people in it. The books and your capacity for understanding them are just the same in all places. [...] Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.[5]

Reading law to become an attorney would be the norm, until the 1890s, when the American Bar Association (which had been formed in 1878) began pressing states to limit admission to the Bar to those persons who had satisfactorily completed several years of post-graduate institutional instruction.[6] In 1941, James F. Byrnes became the last (July 8, 1941) Justice appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States who had never attended college or law school, and he was the penultimate appointee who had been admitted to practice by reading law. Byrnes was followed by Robert H. Jackson, who was commissioned just three days later (July 11, 1941) and had also been admitted to the practice of law by reading, although he had attended a law school for less than one year (instead of the customary three to four years, and had not graduated).

As of 2014, California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington permit students to take the state bar exam after reading law with the help of an attorney as an alternative to law school. New York, Maine, and Wyoming allow students to study in a law office together with some period of time in law school.[7]


Unlike their U.S. counterparts, early lawyers of Canada did get some legal training, but not within a higher institution like a school. Following English tradition, early Canadian lawyers trained by "learning law" through another lawyer. To practice fully, these legal students (articled clerk) are required to pass a bar exam and be admitted to the bar.

Reading law was also used in Ontario to train lawyers until 1949. People training to become lawyers need not attend school, but they were asked to apprentice or article with a practicing lawyer. Changes in the late 1940s ended the practice.[8]

In Quebec, civil law required formal education; and in Nova Scotia, lawyers were trained by attending university.[8]

Modern practice

A small number of jurisdictions still permit this. In the states of California,[1] Vermont,[1] Virginia,[9] and Washington,[10] an applicant who has not attended law school may take the bar exam after reading law under a judge or practicing attorney for an extended period of time. The required time varies. Exact rules vary as well; for example, Virginia does not allow the reader to be gainfully employed by the tutoring lawyer, while Washington requires just that. The State of New York requires that applicants who are reading law must have at least one year of law school study[11] and Maine requires applicants to have completed at least two-thirds of a law degree.[12] Such persons are sometimes called country lawyers or county-seat lawyers. In 2013, 60 people became lawyers this way as opposed to 84,000 via law schools.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d Adwar, Corey (July 30, 2014). "There's A Way To Become An Attorney Without Setting Foot In Law School". Business Insider.
  2. ^ Harno, Albert J. (1953). Legal Education in the United States: A Report Prepared for the Survey of the Legal Profession. p. 23.
  3. ^ Harno (1953), p. 27.
  4. ^ Harno (1953), pp. 19–20.
  5. ^ Allen, Frederick James (1919). The Law as a Vocation. p. 25.
  6. ^ Harno (1953), pp. 86–87.
  7. ^
  8. ^ a b Sworded, Philip James (2006). An Introduction to Canadian Law.
  9. ^ "Law Reader Program". Virginia Board of Bar Examiners. 2010. Retrieved January 6, 2010.
  10. ^ "Rules and Regulations Governing the Washington Law Clerk Program". Washington State Bar Association. 2002. Retrieved March 4, 2007.
  11. ^ "New York Rules of the Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys". New York State Board of Bar Examiners. 2000. Retrieved January 20, 2011.
  12. ^ "Maine Bar Admission Rules" (PDF). Maine Board of Bar Examiners. 2009. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 27, 2011. Retrieved January 20, 2011.
Alfred Moore

Alfred Moore (May 21, 1755 – October 15, 1810) was a North Carolina judge who became a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Moore Square, a park located in the Moore Square Historic District in Raleigh, North Carolina was named in his honor, as was Moore County, established in 1784, also in the state of North Carolina.

Ambrose R. Wright

Ambrose Ransom Wright (April 26, 1826 – December 21, 1872) was a lawyer, Georgia politician, and Confederate general in the American Civil War.

Andrew McBurney

Andrew Graham McBurney (November 13, 1817 – April 23, 1894) was an American Republican politician who served as the eighth Lieutenant Governor of Ohio from 1866 to 1868.

Curtis D. Wilbur

Curtis Dwight Wilbur (May 10, 1867 – September 8, 1954) was an American lawyer, state and federal judge, and 43rd United States Secretary of the Navy.

David Allen Smalley

David Allen Smalley (April 6, 1809 – March 10, 1877) was a United States federal judge.

Francis Dana

Francis Dana (June 13, 1743 – April 25, 1811) was an American lawyer, jurist, and statesman from Massachusetts. He served as a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1777–1778 and 1784. He signed the Articles of Confederation. His wife Elizabeth was a daughter of Ann Remington and William Ellery, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was also the father-in-law of Washington Allston, a noted painter and poet.

George Shiras Jr.

George Shiras Jr. (January 26, 1832 – August 2, 1924) was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States who was nominated to the Court by Republican President Benjamin Harrison. At that time, he had 37 years of private legal practice, but had never judged a case. Shiras's only public service before he became a justice was as a federal elector in 1888, almost four years before his nomination in 1892.

Harry T. Hays

Harry Thompson Hays (April 14, 1820 – August 21, 1876) was an American Army officer serving in the Mexican–American War and a general who served in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.

Known as the "Louisiana Tigers," his brigade played a major role during the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, where they ascended Cemetery Hill in the darkness and overran several artillery batteries before finally being driven off for lack of support.

John Harris Baker

John Harris Baker (February 28, 1832 – October 21, 1915) was a U.S. Representative from Indiana and a United States federal judge, brother of Lucien Baker.

John McKinley

John McKinley (May 1, 1780 – July 19, 1852) was a U.S. Senator from the state of Alabama and an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

John Penn (North Carolina politician)

John Penn (May 17, 1741 – September 14, 1788) was a signer of both the United States Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation as a representative of North Carolina.

Joseph Cross (judge)

Joseph Cross (December 29, 1843 – October 29, 1913) was a New Jersey Republican politician and United States district court judge.

Noble J. Johnson

Noble Jacob Johnson (August 23, 1887 – March 17, 1968) was a United States Representative from Indiana and an Associate Judge and Chief Judge of the United States Court of Customs and Patent Appeals.

Oscar E. Bland

Oscar Edward Bland (November 21, 1877 – August 3, 1951) was a U.S. Representative from Indiana, and a long-serving judge of the United States Court of Customs Appeals.

Samuel K. Robbins

Samuel Kirkbride Robbins (May 9, 1853 – December 26, 1926) was a Republican Party politician who served as Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly and President of the New Jersey Senate.

Stephen Johnson Field

Stephen Johnson Field (November 4, 1816 – April 9, 1899) was an American jurist. He was an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court from March 10, 1863, to December 1, 1897, the second longest tenure of any justice. Prior to this appointment, he was the fifth Chief Justice of California.

Thomas Ewing

Thomas Ewing Sr. (December 28, 1789 – October 26, 1871) was a National Republican and Whig politician from Ohio. He served in the U.S. Senate as well as serving as the Secretary of the Treasury and the first Secretary of the Interior. He is also known as the foster father (and subsequently father-in-law) of famous American Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman.

William Burnham Woods

William Burnham Woods (August 3, 1824 – May 14, 1887) was a United States Circuit Judge and an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court as well as an Ohio politician and soldier in the Civil War.

William Henry Moody

William Henry Moody (December 23, 1853 – July 2, 1917) was an American politician and jurist, who held positions in all three branches of the Government of the United States.

This page is based on a Wikipedia article written by authors (here).
Text is available under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license; additional terms may apply.
Images, videos and audio are available under their respective licenses.