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Monday, November 25, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Becoming A Lawyer Without Law School

Not all law students worry about getting to class on time or whether the prof likes their oratory style. One group of would-be lawyers is saving thousands of dollars a year studying the old-fashioned way - without going to law school.

A little-known clerkship program, by now phased out in many other states, has produced some top Washington lawyers. Two modern-era state Supreme Court justices, Charles Wright of Olympia and Frank Hale of Tacoma, entered the law this way, as did a partner in one of Seattle's most prestigious law firms.

"There was no disadvantage to the way I came up," said John Sullivan, who retired last year after a 30-year career specializing in admiralty law with Bogle & Gates.

Sullivan trained in a program as old as, well, Abe Lincoln. In those days, people who wanted to practice law signed on with attorneys willing to pass along their trade. When their mentor thought they had learned enough, they hung out a shingle and began a career.

By the turn of the century, as laws became more complicated, the need to establish standards grew. Bar associations proliferated, and law schools were on the rise.

By conspiracy or coincidence, in many places the so-called clerkship method of becoming a lawyer went the way of the dinosaur.

But Washington is one of eight states that continues the program, according to the American Bar Association.

Law clerks in the program must study 30 hours a week - they get credit for time spent working. Their tutors must have practiced law at least 10 years and give an average of three hours a week of personal supervision.

Monthly exams, devised by the mentor, are reviewed by a bar-association committee.

Yearly meetings of committee members, law clerks and tutors determine whether law clerks can move on to the next year.

Before anybody becomes a full-fledged lawyer, he or she must, of course, take state bar exams.

Not all who enter the clerkship program start from scratch.

Most enter with "advanced standing," meaning they are given credit for having spent time at a law school in this country or abroad.

One graduate who entered with such standing is Seattle attorney Michael Watkins, now chairman of the bar committee that runs the program.

"There are a lot of good people out there who had their family early, joined the work force, and then say: `I always wanted to be a lawyer. This is a way I can do that and still be gainfully employed,' " Watkins said.

Over the past three years, Watkins said, nine of the 10 students who have graduated passed the bar exam.

Seventy-seven percent of all people taking the bar examination in July this year passed it, according to the Washington State Bar Association.

NOT FOR EVERYBODY

Eighteen students are currently enrolled in the clerkship program, and four more have applied for admission. The program isn't for everybody - 14 people have withdrawn since 1988.

Only a tiny fraction - 72 of the state's 16,000 practicing attorneys - have earned their license this way. One aspiring lawyer trying to earn her stripes in the clerkship program is 34-year-old Cheryl Duffy, studying under Everett attorney Dominic Bacetich. So far, Duffy has completed one year of the four-year program.

When she was an undergraduate at Western Washington University, Duffy recalled, she considered a law career.

"But it didn't seem right at the time, plus the expense was pretty prohibitive."

Annual tuition at private law schools today exceeds $10,000. By comparison, Duffy said, her only costs are her textbooks and a $50 enrollment fee she paid the state bar.

She receives a salary while working for, and being tutored by, Bacetich, who is not allowed to charge her.

"I learn from working actual cases instead of just reading about them in books," said Duffy, who also completed the paralegal program at Edmonds Community College.

The major drawback, she said, is a sense of isolation: the inability to mix with other students, share impressions, exchange views.

Working as a tutor can be demanding, but it also has its rewards as a refresher course, said Bacetich, who specializes in plaintiffs' personal-injury work.

JOBS SPUR INTEREST

If there is a common trait among those who successfully complete the program, it may be a sense of resolve born of working "real jobs" and then deciding to go into law.

Take Karen Vedder, a former biologist. Her interest in the law sharpened when she was a reporter covering county government for the Island Record in San Juan County.

She paid particular attention to suits challenging the county's comprehensive zoning laws and to the role played by the county prosecuting attorney's office defending them.

When she left the newspaper, she did volunteer work for the prosecutor and later negotiated a deal whereby the prosecuting attorney, Gene Knapp, served as her tutor in the law-clerk program while she continued her volunteer work.

Vedder counts herself lucky to have entered the program with the understanding that work assignments would be geared toward helping her grow as a lawyer.

"They got more difficult and more challenging as time went on," she recalled.

Since 1986, Vedder has worked for Lane Powell Spears Lubersky, a prominent Seattle-based law firm. With her in the firm's Mount Vernon office is her old tutor - ex-prosecutor Knapp, once again her boss, this time as the partner in charge.

GETTING A HEAD START

Knapp told her early on it generally takes lawyers about five years to become truly competent at applying what they learned in law school to real-world practice.

By going the law-clerk route, he told her, "I'd have a four-year head start," she said.

Vedder, whose practice is primarily civil-litigation defense, said she never felt stigmatized by other lawyers because of the way she got into the profession.

"It's been more a reaction of admiration than anything else," she said.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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