Kim Kardashian is planning to become a lawyer. She won’t, however, spend three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars on law school.
Instead, she’ll become an apprentice.
The program Kardashian will undertake is rigorous: four years of part-time study in a law office or judge’s chambers; monthly tests; biannual reports; and an abbreviated version of the bar exam at the end of year one, which she must pass to continue training.
After all that, she can take the same tough state bar exam as do law school graduates.
This pathway is perfectly legal, yet underutilized. At Esq. Apprentice, we estimate that, in the past 30 years, fewer than 300 people have completed all four years and gone on to pass the bar exam.
At this point you’re probably thinking that this program is only possible for people like Kardashian, the famous millionaire daughter of a celebrity lawyer, with access to dozens of mentors, tutors and personal assistants.
But you would be wrong.
Apprenticeships are paths for low-income people to become the lawyers their communities desperately need. California’s black and Latino citizens are grossly overrepresented in jail and prison populations but make up fewer than seven percent of the state’s licensed lawyers.
Only about 20 percent of its lawyers identify as people of color. Even with an overwhelming need for legal representation — there is less than one attorney for every 10,000 people living in poverty, only one-third of California lawyers practice public interest law.
At Esq. Apprentice, based in Oakland, I see apprenticeships transforming people’s careers. Our first four apprentices are finishing their first year, and interviews have begun for the next class.
Some are single mothers. Some have had contact with the criminal justice system. Some are the sole providers for their families. In the past they have supported themselves with jobs like cosmetic store cashiers and entry-level legal employees. Most have associate’s or bachelor’s degrees. Others don’t have any college credits.
Nevertheless, all have been able to establish successful practitioner-apprentice relationships with willing attorneys. They have full-time employment with their tutors, meaning they’ve been able to bypass punishingly-expensive law schools and staggering student loan debt.
Not long ago, these apprentices couldn’t visualize themselves as lawyers despite knowing that it would be a great career for them. At one meeting I asked everyone if they knew any attorneys of color.
Everybody raised their hands.
“Other than me,” I said.
Every hand went down.
When I gave her the books and materials she needed to prepare for the equivalency tests, she passed all three exams within three months. She now works as a full-time legal assistant as she completes her legal apprenticeship.
Her classmate, Cynthia, is a single mother whose own mother is terminally ill. She had worked for years as a part-time legal assistant, making copies and filing documents despite having a desire to do in-depth legal work.
Within six months of our “show of hands” meeting, she found an attorney mentor and a full-time job. With benefits!
The roots of legal apprenticeships go back to the beginning of our nation. Until the 20th Century, nearly all lawyers started out as apprentices, just like blacksmiths, steamboat pilots and even physicians.
In 1878, the American Bar Association was formed. Not coincidentally, this was just 15 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, during which many freed slaves and immigrants entered the legal profession.
As part of its program of “the advancement of scientific jurisprudence” the ABA advocated the replacement of the apprenticeship system with lengthy attendance in expensive, exclusionary law schools. In 1923, the association took control of law school accreditation.
While it’s true that law schools train some of the best legal minds in our country, they present barriers to the very people who could be legal advocates for marginalized people.
It’s just a beginning, but I envision the apprentice system creating thousands of new lawyers and judges: DACA recipients who help refugees near the border; children and siblings of inmates helping members of the prison population; and survivors of the foster care system advocating for children and facilitating adoptions.
As of 2019, only four states allow apprenticing: California, Vermont, Washington and Virginia.
In California, Gov. Newsom announced that, to close the talent gap, his administration seeks to increase the number of apprenticeship jobs by 500% to 500,000 in the next 10 years.
This push must include professions like lawyering if we are serious about alleviating poverty and creating a more diverse, accessible, and equitable workforce and legal system. As more states sign on to apprenticeships, we will get closer to creating a world where the law works for, not against, low-income people.