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Reading law is the method by which persons in common law countries, particularly the United Statesmarker, entered the legal profession prior to 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). 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 Schoolmarker was founded in 1773. Within a few years following the American Revolution, some universities such as the College of William and Marymarker and the University of Pennsylvaniamarker 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:

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 who had satisfactorily completed several years of post-graduate institutional instruction. In 1941, James F. Byrnes became the last Justice appointed to the Supreme Court of the United Statesmarker who had been admitted to practice by reading law.

Modern practice

A small number of jurisdictions still permit this practice. In Californiamarker, Mainemarker, Vermontmarker, Virginiamarker, Wyomingmarker and Washingtonmarker, 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 State of New Yorkmarker requires that applicants who are reading law must have at least one year of law school study. (See Rule 520.4 of the Rules of the Court of Appeals for the Admission of Attorneys.) Such persons are sometimes called country lawyers or county-seat lawyers.


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