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Do You Have to Go to Law School to Take the Bar?

Attending law school can be a major decision and something that many people believe is an essential step before taking the bar exam and becoming a practicing lawyer. However, there are some exceptions to this general rule that can result in you not having to attend law school before taking the bar. Though you should keep in mind that these exceptions are usually state-based and have their own set of requirements that you must meet.

Below, we will give you a breakdown of what the bar examination is and provide you with the state-specific information you need to know about attending law school before taking this difficult test. We’ll also discuss what your career may look like based on whether or not you attend law school before taking the bar.

What Is the Bar Examination?

The bar examination is the test that all potential legal professionals need to take before becoming practicing lawyers or attorneys. The most popular iteration of the bar exam is the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) which consists of the Multistate Essay Examination (MEE), two Multistate Performance Test (MPT) tasks, and the Multistate Bar Examination (MBE). The UBE is given over the course of 2 days, with the MEE and MPT held together on day one and the MBE held on the following day.

In states that have not adopted the UBE, the bar examination consists of only the MBE, which is a 6 hour, 200-question, multiple-choice test. While all states administer the MBE, only some administer the MBE as part of the UBE. Many people will choose to take the UBE over the MBE whenever possible, as the UBE allows you to transfer your bar score to a different state or jurisdiction, allowing you more freedom over where to practice (this is commonly referred to as “bar reciprocity”).

In addition to these exams, certain states have developed their own bar examinations. The most notorious example of this is the California Bar Exam, which is thought to be one of the most difficult bar examinations out there. Other states may offer their own version of the bar exam, so make sure that you understand which test version you would like to take before you begin studying.

Do You Have to Take the Bar to Become an Attorney?

This can be a confusing topic to answer, as employers and state jurisdictions have differing rules regarding professional licensing and bar examination requirements. In most cases, you will need to take the bar if you wish to legally practice as an attorney or find a job working in a law firm. Most states will require proof of your ability to practice the law, making it essential that you take the bar exam.

You may find some employers willing to hire you to work without you having taken the bar, but if you don’t have a law degree from a highly-ranked law school or some previous experience working in law firms, opportunities like this might be hard to come by and you may not be able to receive the traditional benefits of practicing as a lawyer.

Do You Need to Attend Law School Before Taking the Bar?

Like most people, you may think that attending law school is a required first step before taking the bar exam, but this is not necessarily true. There are certain states that will allow you to take the bar exam without a J.D. degree, and there are some states that require a specific amount of legal experience before you can take the bar exam. We go into more detail about this below.

States That Don’t Require a Law Degree for Bar Examination

The following states don’t require any type of law degree before you take the bar exam. They do, however, require that you enroll in an apprenticeship instead of law school.


In California, you must have an apprenticeship that consists of 4 years studying in a law office for 18 hours a week —5 hours of which are under direct supervision. You also need to take monthly exams, file bi-annual progress reports, and possibly take the First-Year Law Students’ Examination. Your supervising attorney for the apprenticeship must have at least 5 years of active law practice in California at the time you work with them.


Before taking the bar in Vermont, you will need to spend 4 years studying under an attorney who has at least 3 years of active law practice or 4 years studying under a judge.


In Virginia, you will need to spend 3 years studying in a law office with a supervising attorney that has at least 10 years of active law experience. You will need to study at least 25 hours per week for 40 weeks per year. You are not allowed to be employed or paid for your work during this time (i.e., the studying position is completely voluntary).


To take the bar in Washington state without attending law school, you will need to spend 4 years employed in a law office by a supervising attorney that has 10 years of active law practice. You must work 32 hours a week and spend 3 of those hours under the direct supervision of the attorney. Unlike Virginia, Washington state requires that the position be paid (meaning the position can’t be voluntary) and you will also need to pay an annual fee of $1,500.

States That Require Some Law Experience for Bar Examination

These states require a small amount of law school alongside apprenticeship experience before you can take the bar exam.


In Maine, you will be required to spend 2 years studying in a law school and 1 year studying in a law office before you can take the bar exam.

New York

In New York, you will need to have at least 1 year of studying in a law school and 3 years of being an apprentice in a law office, for a total of 4 years of time commitment before you can take the bar exam.

Taking an Apprenticeship vs. Attending Law School

As explained above, you can see that you don’t necessarily need to attend law school before taking the bar exam if you are planning to live and practice in certain areas. This type of apprenticeship may be appealing to some, so we’ve listed the other factors that you may need to consider before deciding between law school and an apprenticeship.


One of the biggest differences between taking an apprenticeship course and enrolling in law school is the cost. Law school can cost between $20,000 and $60,000 or more a semester depending on the school you go to, while an apprenticeship will cost you minimal fees and no tuition, save for occasionally purchasing textbooks (though this depends on where you are taking your apprenticeship).

For many who do not have the ability to pay for law school and are reluctant to take out student loans, substituting an apprenticeship program instead of law school is a perfectly viable route to their legal career.

Bar Pass Rate

It is important to look at bar pass rates in the states that offer alternatives to law school before taking the bar exam. In most cases, test-takers that have opted for the apprenticeship route tend to score lower on the bar than those who are taking the bar after attending an accredited law school.

This isn’t to say that an apprenticeship won’t properly prepare you for the bar exam, but it might be a little more difficult to pass on the first try and require more studying time than if you attended law school first.

Time Commitment

Both law school and apprenticeships require a significant time commitment, but law school may offer you a more direct route to taking the bar exam. An apprenticeship can take 4 or more years to complete and have weekly or yearly studying requirements, whereas law school is only a 3-year commitment.

However, if you find yourself unable to attend law school full-time, but you can fit the studying hours of an apprenticeship into your life, then an apprenticeship may be a better option for you.

Employment Possibilities

The main reason that students take the bar exam is to secure a job working in a law firm, a court, or to practice in their own law firm. Many students that have an accredited law degree before taking the bar exam will have an easier time finding employment in more traditional companies and well-known law firms.

You will still be able to find a job or begin practicing in your own firm if you opt to take an apprenticeship before the bar exam, but it may be a little more difficult to obtain employment through the traditional outlets. However, what you lack in connections formed through law school you can make up for in actual legal experience, possibly giving you a boost with some employers.

Navigating Your Way to Success

Whether or not you attend law school before taking the bar exam is a highly personal choice that is dependent on your career goals and the state that you plan to take the bar and practice in. Make sure that when you are making your decision you are taking into account employment outcomes, the time commitment, and the costs of both scenarios so that you can make a fully informed decision. If you do this, you are sure to navigate your way to career success, no matter which choice you make.