In July of this year, I sat for the Vermont Bar Exam in Montpelier. This past Friday, I got my letter in the mail: I passed!
This is the culmination of four years of apprenticeship and study, about five months of intensive bar review and preparation, three grueling days of exams (including the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam), and worst of all, two torturous months of limbo as I waited for my results.
I haven’t wanted to discuss the whole bar exam experience until now, because I was stressed out and frankly had gone into a surreal sort of denial. There were some days when I literally did my best to pretend that the test had never happened. But it did happen and I passed! Congratulations to all the other examinees, too! (The Vermont Board of Bar Examiners has released the official pass list here here, see Results of the July 2011 Bar Examination)
I’m an unusual bar examinee. Vermont is one of a handful of states that allows me to practice law without going to law school proper. Here in Vermont, the Board of Bar Examiners administers, as an alternative, a law office clerkship option. The program requires that the “student” study and work with a practicing lawyer or judge for four years. During that time, the applicant must submit written reports at six-month intervals. For more information on eligibility and requirements for Vermont’s unique clerkship option, visit the Vermont Judiciary’s website.
There are lawyers all over Vermont who have gone this route, from private attorneys to public defenders, prosecutors and judges. Amy Davenport, Vermont’s Chief Administrative Judge for the Trial Courts, got her education this way. The law clerkship option is even represented on the Vermont Supreme Court. Marilyn Skoglund, Supreme Court Justice, is a clerkship graduate.
There are substantial advantages to the clerkship option. By working with a practicing attorney for four years, clerkship students get unprecedented exposure to the hard realities of law practice.
After a short stint in a Vermont State’s Attorney’s office, I had the incredibly good fortune to do my remaining three and a half years as a law clerk at the extraordinary Sleigh & Williams, a criminal defense and civil rights’ firm in St Johnsbury.
I drafted (with review and approval by supervising attorneys), more complaints than I can now count, including one that had a major impact on changing Vermont’s new sex offender legislation. I also drafted just about every conceivable kind of pleading and/or brief in numerous venues, including Vermont Superior and District Courts, the Vermont’s Workers’ Compensation Commission, the Vermont Supreme Court, the U.S. District Court for Vermont, and the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. I became adept at legal research. I interviewed clients and learned how to review medical records. I helped draft deposition questions. I assisted at mediations. I assisted during numerous jury selections, assisted and observed at nine criminal trials, and drafted defense counsel’s jury instructions. I did mitigation research and interviews for sentencing hearings. When I became eligible to practice as a supervised intern under the Rules, I represented my own clients and appeared at arraignments, status conferences and calendar calls. I argued bail motions and I negotiated with prosecutors. (And in the meantime, I studied my brains out, doing my best to stick to a curriculum I designed for myself, with suggestions from the Board of Bar Examiners.)
No law school graduate, whether from Harvard or Vermont Law, finishes her education with that kind of experience.
When I’m admitted later this fall, I’ll start my career with no debt. In stark contrast, the average law school graduate ends up owing $100K in student loans. Recently, the New York Times reported at considerable length on the consequences of this crushing debt burden for aspiring lawyers. In the midst of all the current debate about the viability of a law school education, it’s genuinely remarkable that almost no one is talking about the clerkship programs.
I kept track of how much I spent on my education during the four years of my clerkship, and it amounted to about $8,000. Total. That included gas for mileage, a dedicated “law” laptop computer, lots of books, the costs of two bar review courses, and the fees associated with application for admission and examinations.
My freedom from law education debt allows me a significant measure of flexibility in my choice of jobs and practice. Of course, the clerkship option limits me, as well. Most other states won’t allow me to even take their bar exams unless I’ve attended law school (so it’s a good thing I love Vermont and plan to stay here!)
There are some drawbacks to the clerkship and it may not be for everyone. There were times when I badly wished that I had a group of fellow law students to keep me company while I studied. Moreover, in order to be successful doing the clerkship, you need to be disciplined, ie: have the ability to structure your own course of study. Most of the time, I did that reasonably well, but it wasn’t always easy.
However, in the end, for me, the positive aspects of the law office clerkship outweighed the negatives. I’m just very proud and glad to have gotten through it!
I’ll post more on the bar exam experience itself later….