In California, apprenticing in a law office or alongside a practicing attorney is a little-known pathway to becoming a lawyer. Becoming a lawyer without going to law school means you can sidestep the debt, and trauma-inducing, white dominant culture of law school, and are able to create the learning environment and rhythms that best meet the needs of the apprentice. For example, learning in a non-hierarchical, nurturing environment that views everyone involved as both learners and teachers. Increasingly, movement lawyers are looking to grow awareness of the apprenticeship model as a way to diversify the legal profession and empower legal workers. In California, this program is called the Law Office Study Program and the rules for apprenticing are set by the State Bar of California.
In summer of 2021, after 7 years of apprenticeship, the Law Center’s Director of Economic Democracy, Ricardo Nuñez passed the bar and became an attorney, joining three previous non-lawyer staff members who became lawyers via apprenticeships. He joined his coworker Mwende Hinojosa on Zoom for a casual conversation about his journey — the experience of self-directed learning; the challenge and heart ache of finding his own way; and the joy of living out his grandfather’s dream.
(This interview was edited for consistency and clarity.)
Can you describe the moment you decided to become a legal apprentice?
Ricardo: Hahahaha. It was definitely a series of, “wait is this possible? I want to think about this. How is this going to change my life? Who do I talk to to decide if I want to do this?”
When I first met Janelle Orsi [the co-founder of SELC], it was to interview her about the legal needs of worker cooperatives at a cafe in Oakland in 2012. At some point in the conversation, she asked me what I was planning on doing if my plans for developing worker cooperatives in LA didn’t work out. Then she asked me, “How would you like to come up to the Bay and work with worker coops and become an attorney without going to law school?” After our conversation, I sat outside that cafe for a few hours with my head in my hands just thinking about her offer. I thought about it and decided that I wanted to move up to the Bay to take the position at SELC. It took multiple conversations with my partner at the time, and we agreed that we were gonna give ourselves four years in the Bay. Before we moved up to Oakland from Long Beach, my partner and I were planning on moving to Europe where she was going to get a PhD and I was going to study international conflict resolution. That was the long moment when I decided to become a legal apprentice.
What kind of structure did you set up when you started? Who was your mentoring attorney and how did it change over time?
Ricardo: My coworkers, who were almost all apprentices at the time, set up a bi-weekly check in that was pretty informal. All the apprentices would meet with Janelle and we would have weekly teach-ins. Someone would learn some content that was going to be on the Bar exam and would share it with the rest of us. That gave us a base line of study. I wasn’t a skilled autodidact. It was a big learning curve. Those small hour check-ins once a week seemed sufficient for the other apprentices as check- in points for their studies, but it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t anywhere near their skill level academically nor self-discipline wise.
The structure of these check-ins and group study times were co-created over time. We evolved it, and the further along we went, there were less and less check-ins. We kept some co-learning spaces and helped each other navigate the LOSP program’s rules and bureaucracy. The people I was doing the apprenticeship with needed less structure and guidance than I did.
Later on, I changed my mentoring attorney to Neil Thapar [who now is part of the Minnow Project]. I changed attorneys because I was figuring out why it was sometimes heavy for me to progress in my apprenticeship journey. There was a negative feedback loop I felt and I started realizing that I needed a change. First, I had to grow the courage to ask Neil if he would be my supervising attorney and then ask Janelle, my current supervising attorney at the time, if I could switch. Janelle was very supportive throughout and would say to me, “you don’t have to prove anything to me.” Even with that support, what I needed was more space. It was intimidating to be an apprentice of someone who was so intellectually and creatively gifted. Being alongside Neil, who was more my speed, felt more expansive. I didn’t feel like I was so far apart from my supervising attorney.
How did you figure out your own learning style?
Ricardo: Trial and error. It was a long series of, “why can’t I do this?” I’m just gonna try again. I figured out that I needed more structure and guidance. I recognized how afraid I was to reach out to others, too. I continued to try different things and looked for where it felt heaviest to progress. Part of the reason I changed attorneys was because I was feeling a sense of failure. I was working with the same person in both my legal apprenticeship and in my day-to-day work at SELC, trying to learn and build up my skills, and feeling like I was a failure in both spaces. This was part of that negative feedback loops. The failures began mixing together. How I figured a way out for myself was, unfortunately, having to relearn the same lessons over and over again. For example, I was afraid to ask for help because I felt like my questions were “stupid,” or would show how dumb I was, which would just make the problem worse. A lot of my process was trying to overcome feelings of low self-worth, guilt, and shame because I felt alone, like I was doing it by myself.
How has the apprenticeship changed you?
Ricardo: It tested my limits in lots of ways. Now that I'm an attorney, I feel like I’ve proved to myself that I could do something this difficult. And that feels really great. It tested my limits of self discipline. It tested my limits of how I should view my self worth and my relationship to my ego. It tested my personal relationships with the time outside of work that I needed to spend studying. For me, to learn something new, I need space to get into the subject matter and then I’ll be able to start really learning and retaining it. The apprenticeship also taught me about setting boundaries and what limits I should be recognizing and how I should respond to what they were telling me. I think if I had told myself what it would take and the things I needed to do to accomplish becoming an attorney, I don’t think I would have believed I could do it beforehand. It changed my perspective on what I’m capable of doing.
Can you describe what it was like to study for the bar?
Ricardo: Studying for the bar was the most academically rigorous experience I’ve ever put myself through. It was lonely. It was exhausting. It was frustrating. It was an endurance test. It’s how I’ve heard other folks describe law school, but with law school you have those feelings for 3 years. If I could do it differently, I would have been very slow and gentle leading up to my last year of the Law Office Study Program. Then, in the last year before the bar, I would have gradually increased my study rhythms, with the final three months being a full on study sprint of nine hours a day, six days a week, plus three to four hours of studying on Sundays. Those final three months were probably the most self disciplined I’ve ever been in my entire life.
Also, it was essential for me to take a bar prep course in preparing for the bar exam. Unless your supervising attorney is a bar prep teacher, they will not know or remember the rules of law that you have to know to pass the bar. I heard from many attorneys that, within a year of taking the bar exam, they couldn’t remember half of the rules of law that they needed to know for the exam. So, I wouldn’t have passed the bar exam if I didn’t have a structured course to move through each subject in a simple, explanatory way.
What did it take for you to finish your apprenticeship?
Ricardo: The support of my community. I couldn’t have been able to do any of this without the space and support of friends, family, and partners. That was huge.
How did it feel when you passed the bar in 2021?
Ricardo: I felt terrible when I first checked the website. You get this info the week before Thanksgiving if you take the summer exam. On Friday at 6pm, the CA Bar doesn’t release the results, but you can put in your code and your student ID number into their system to see if that information corresponds with a name that is on the pass list. You won’t be able to see the pass list until Sunday, but on Friday it will either tell you that the name associated with the code and ID number passed, or it will tell you “this name doesn’t appear on the pass list”. The second one can happen, so says the webpage, because the website is down, the person didn't take the test, etc. So when I put my info in and it said, “this person's name does not appear on the pass list,” I gasped. I checked again and a third time. I didn’t think I passed. I was about to start crying, but I told myself that I had already shed too many tears for this stupid test and I started planning what I would need to do to start preparing for the next exam just a few months away. My brother and his wife and kids were waiting inside a restaurant for me at the time. So I went inside and told them and then the rest of my family that I didn’t pass. So, for about the next 36 hours, I thought I didn’t pass. So my initial feeling was that I felt terrible. When I finally saw my name on the pass list on Sunday when they actually released the pass list, I was skeptical that it was correct. I had dealt directly with the California Bar for over seven years at that point and had experienced multiple errors I believed were their fault, which increased my skepticism. But over the weeks, I slowly felt a sense of relief. I was proud that I did it. I received affirmation from people who had been along with me on this journey and others in my life. That felt really good. This was a dream of my abuelo, that one of his children or grandchildren would be a doctor or attorney. So, I got to fulfill a dream of an ancestor.
What do you wish people knew about the apprenticeship program before starting it?
Ricardo: I wish people knew their learning style. But what is underneath that more is that I want people to know how to take care of themselves and how to be compassionate with themselves. How to allow honest self-reflection as the apprenticeship goes on. To allow each apprentice to evolve throughout and iterate how they do things. To find the right structure for themselves. To build a healthy relationship with their journey. I wish people would both have a more realistic understanding of what it is going to take and to allow themselves to step up to accomplish those things.
I remember I interviewed a professor at UCLA Law School who became an attorney through the apprenticeship. I wrote a blog on likelincoln.org about him, his journey, and his advice. He said you need a masters level education to successfully complete the Law Office Study Program. It’s not for everyone. It's a rigorous and difficult way to become an attorney. If folks have limited educational skills, it’s setting them up for reinforcing already harmful ideas of who can and cannot become an attorney. I tried to take that to heart. I want folks to have a realistic understanding of what it’s going to take to become a lawyer through the LOSP. I think it's a great way for people to test whether becoming a lawyer is really something for them. The Law Office Study Program sets the barrier for entry relatively low, so many people who can’t go to law school for one reason or another have another path to see if they should become attorneys. Then, if they’ve tried it and they realize it’s not what they want to do, they can stop. Whether it's the legal skills of practicing law or the rigorous studying and essay writing that needs to be done or something else, if someone finds that those aren’t skills they care to develop or some part of the law or the apprenticeship journey is really soul sucking, it’s ok to stop. You don’t need to do this anymore. It’s ok not to do this.
What words of wisdom do you have for folks in an apprenticeship program or considering starting one?
Ricardo: Review other peoples experiences. See which ones resonate with you. Ask yourself the question, when you read their experience, if that personality and skill set resonates with your life experience. See how you can learn from their mistakes and whether or not you want to do this.
Ask yourself why you want to be an attorney and whether you actually need to become an attorney to make the change you want to see in the world. A lot of times the answer is “no,” even if being an attorney is a powerful tool. There are other people who enjoy doing that type of work. Focus on the things that are life affirming in accomplishing your goals and the vision you have for the communities you’re working with. Check in with your ego. How much are you doing this out of recognition or desire for a higher status? Sometimes that's a motivating factor. Just check your ego as you're moving through this journey or thinking about starting it. You can start the apprenticeship path when you're 20 years old or 60. There’s time.