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Whether interested in civil liberties or wills and probate, not everyone can afford to go to law school. For some, there is another option. In a handful of states, from California to Virginia, prospective lawyers can learn the trade the old-fashioned way, as an apprentice.

Vermont Public Radio's Nina Keck reports.

NINE KECK: Peg Florey was over 40 when she decided to be a lawyer.

Ms. PEG FLOREY (Attorney): Back when I was in high school, if you were female and you were interested in law, then people suggested why don't you be a legal secretary. So I did.

KECK: Then she got married and had kids. When her youngest started school, she went back to work as a legal secretary. Her grade school classmate Joan Wing tells a similar story. Wing was a single mother who worked as a paralegal. Both women went on to be successful lawyers, but neither went to law school. They didn't even finish college.

Ms. JOAN WING (Attorney): I'm kind of proud that I didn't. You know, I mean, it's kind of a perversity that amuses me. The only diploma I have is from high school.

KECK: Wing and Florey took part in Vermont's Law Office Study Program. Legal apprenticeships are still recognized in seven states, but the requirements vary greatly. In Vermont, participants don't need a college degree, but they must have completed three quarters of their undergraduate coursework. Then they have to spend 25 hours a week for four years studying alongside a licensed attorney.

Ms. FLOREY: You're going to take this pile here, and you've got the two estates that you've been working on. Any questions on them?

Ms. SHELLY ROGERS (Apprentice): No. I'll start working on them right away.

KECK: Peg Florey is now a mentor herself. She's been working with Shelly Rogers for two and a half years. Florey doesn't get paid, but says she benefits by having Rogers's help as a legal assistant. Every six months, Rogers has to submit a detailed progress report to the state board of bar examiners for approval. That's about it when it comes to oversight, which Rogers says is unnerving.

Ms. ROGERS: You feel like sometimes maybe you're not covering everything that you need to, and I guess you really don't know until you get in and take the bar exam what you may have missed.

KECK: Lawyers who've completed the program say to be successful, you have to teach yourself. Florey ran for local office to better understand municipal law. She took continuing legal education courses when she could and read a lot. Florey says it's a more hands on approach to learning.

Ms. FLOREY: After the clerking, I think it's much easier for you to practice law because you've been doing it for four years. But it's much easier to pass the bar exam when you've spent three years in law school studying how to pass the bar exam. That's a real, real difference.

KECK: Women outnumber men in apprenticeship programs, and participants tend to be older than traditional law school students. Florey passed the bar exam the same week she learned she was going to be a grandmother. But the program can be limiting, as participants usually can't practice in other states. Still, in Vermont, those who've gone through it don't seem to have suffered professionally. Joan Wing was elected president of the Vermont Bar Association in 1996. Participant Maryann Zavez is now a tenured professor at Vermont Law School.

Professor MARYANN ZAVEZ (Vermont Law School): Whenever people that I know have done the Law Office Study Program and become judges or something like that, I do go oh, good for them. You know, there is just sort of this sense of, I don't know, on some level a club or just knowing what it probably took for them to get to where they are.

KECK: The seven states that recognize legal apprenticeships consider them a worthy tradition, but legal experts say it's unlikely more states will create similar programs. Instead, many law schools are looking more like apprenticeship programs, with flexible schedules and even paid internships.

For NPR News, I'm Nina Keck in Chittenden, Vermont.

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