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.
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". 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. 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.
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.
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. 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).
A small number of jurisdictions still permit this. In California, Maine, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington, 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 doesn't 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 and Maine requires applicants to have completed at least two-thirds of a law degree. Such persons are sometimes called country lawyers or county-seat lawyers. In 2013, 60 people became lawyers this way out of 84,000 via law schools.
- Albert J. Harno, Legal Education in the United States: A Report Prepared for the Survey of the Legal Profession (1953), p. 23.
- Harno, p. 27.
- Harno, p. 19-20.
- Frederick James Allen, The Law as a Vocation (1919), p. 25.
- Harno, 86-87.
- "Law Reader Program". Virginia Board of Bar Examiners. 2010. Retrieved January 6, 2010.
- "Rule 6 Law Clerk Program". Washington State Bar Association. 2002. Retrieved March 4, 2007.
- "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.
- "Maine Bar Admission Rules". Maine Board of Bar Examiners. 2009. Retrieved January 20, 2011.
- Adwar, Corey. "There's A Way To Become An Attorney Without Setting Foot In Law School". Business Insider. Retrieved 3 August 2014.