Legal Issues In the News

Reading the Law – Kim Kardashian West is doing it – Should You? (Rebroadcast)


Catherine Stahl from the University of Illinois College of Law University of Illinois College of Law

What do Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Kim Kardashian West have in common?  They are all “law readers.”  Reading the law was the primary path to a legal career in the days of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln when attending law school was not commonplace.  While unusual in the present day, reading the law has generated more recent success stories, including that of Mary Mecartney, the managing attorney of United Farm Workers.  Kim Kardashian West hopes to follow the same path.  In a recent interview with Vogue magazine, Ms. Kardashian West explained she was inspired to read the law by father’s own legal career and her work with a bipartisan criminal justice reform advocacy group.    

First, what does “reading the law” involve? Reading the law is an arrangement similar to an apprenticeship where people who want to become attorneys – without attending law school – are mentored by practicing attorneys in their community while they study the law and prepare for the bar exam.  As of today, only four states allow bar applicants to read the law instead of attending law school: California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.  Exact requirements for law readers vary by state.  Ms. Kardashian West is on a four year course of study where she logs eighteen hours per week with her attorney mentors.  She plans to take the California Bar Exam in 2022.

To gain additional insight on how law readers fare, I turned to statistics kept by the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners, in the state of my alma mater, University of Virginia School of Law.  In a May 2019 memorandum to potential law readers, the Board explains:

“Given the changes in our society and in our legal system since the days of Jefferson and Lincoln, not enough has been said about the very special circumstances that are required for the Law Reader Program to properly prepare persons to practice law in Virginia.” 

The memorandum cautioned that many law readers failed to qualify for a bar examination for a many reasons, including underestimating the scope of the task and lack of objective feedback on their mastery of the subject matter.  The Board explains reading the law “is an alternative that should be carefully elected by those few students who understand the limits of the program and who are able and willing to work within them.” Perhaps most importantly, from February 2001 to February 2019, the pass rate on the Virginia State Bar Exam for persons reading the law was 19% compared with an overall pass rate of 68%.  Statistics from Vermont and Washington follow similar trends and California no longer reports statistics on the bar passage of law readers given the low number of participants in the program.

Aspiring law readers should consider Ms. Kardashian West’s own assessment of her first year studies, as told to Vogue: “[Y]ou have to cover three subjects: criminal law, torts and contracts. To me, torts is the most confusing, contracts the most boring, and crim law I can do in my sleep.”  She continues “The reading is what really gets me. It’s so time-consuming. The concepts I grasp in two seconds.” 

In conclusion, those considering a career in the law, by whatever method, may also draw inspiration from the words of Abraham Lincoln: “If you are resolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself, the thing is more than half done already.  Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing.”