Marcos Comacho

California is one of 8 states in
the nation which allows
aspiring lawyers to study
under another attorney

By Kathleen O. Beitiks
Staff Writer

Gary Blasi

It may not be the easiest way to study law, but for those few, hardy, disciplined souls who choose to forego law school and read with an attorney or judge, it is the best of both worlds. In fact, Marcos Comacho is so sold on the idea, he signed up to supervise other law students after successfully completing his own law studies under the tutelage of an attorney.

Today, Comacho, 38, is general counsel of the United Farm Workers (UFW), based in the agricultural community of Keene, outside Bakersfield.

California is one of eight states across the nation which allows aspiring lawyers to study law under the supervision of an attorney in lieu of attending law school.

It's not an easy task, but currently 90 Californians are registered in the State Bar's law office study program, willing to take a chance at beating the odds they will not pass the bar exam the first time out.

And the odds are not good. According to bar officials, the pass rate for law office program participants is less than 50 percent, while more than 75 percent of students who attended ABA-accredited schools the past few years successfully passed the bar exam.

Many years there are only two students in the office study program who attempt the bar exam.

Staunch supporters

But those who have opted to study law the "old-fashioned" way are staunch supporters of office study.

"I would do it again," says Comacho, who passed the bar on his first attempt in 1986. He usually tells people that if they're looking for a practical approach to law, "the nuts and bolts," then law office study is a great opportunity. "If they're interested in the educational side, more theory or the academic side, then law school is the way to go," he says.

Comacho, the son of a Dinuba farmworker, has fulfilled the dreams of the late Cesar Chavez, founder of the UFW. Chavez wanted to make sure that economic obstacles did not prevent anyone from becoming a lawyer, says Comacho, so he worked to develop a system within the UFW which would support students pursuing law studies.

Comacho was a volunteer with the UFW, went to Fresno State for a year, then helped Chavez research the possibility of setting up the law apprenticeship program.

The small program got off the ground in 1981 and all five of its participants have passed the bar, after spending an average of fours years studying with UFW lawyers. Today, Comacho is supervising two students, one of whom is his wife.

Gary Blasi, 51, of Los Angeles is on the faculty of UCLA Law School, but remembers only two occasions when he actually sat in on a law school class -- and neither occurred while he was a law student.

Blasi finished the master's degree program in political science at Harvard University and decided that a career in law appealed to him. The thought of spending another three years in the academic arena filled him with dread, however, so he jumped at the chance of studying while working at a small firm in Echo Park.

At the time, says Blasi, five or six other aspiring lawyers were working with the firm, forming their own little study group. At least four went on to pursue careers as attorneys, while the others dropped out for various reasons.

Blasi, who was admitted to the bar in 1976, eventually spent 13 years as a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles before moving on to teach at UCLA.

He also was the supervising attorney for a law office study program participant.

Now that Blasi is on the other side of the desk, he sees both the pros and cons of office study.

Although he is grateful he had the opportunity to go a different route, he would only recommend office study as "a last resort -- only if you can't find another way to get a legal education."

Students who skip law school end up working with a very small faculty, he says, and miss out on some broader perspectives and important theoretical foundations. "And going alone is really tough," says Blasi.

On the other hand, he adds, practical skills obtained through law office study are invaluable. "If I was a god or head of the bar examiners, I would devise a system of one-and-a-half years of law school, a half to one year of primarily clinical instruction and an apprenticeship."

For Marilyn Kalman, 43, of San Francisco, a solo practitioner in the area of landlord-tenant law, the opportunity to study on her own meant she was debt-free after she passed the bar exam.

Kalman never intended to study law, but after working as a paralegal in a self-help eviction defense center, she became frustrated by the constraints placed on her ability to advise clients.

Some people may say, "You must be so smart, so disciplined," says Kalman, "but I don't see it that way." Most of her job involves familiarity with the issue, she says, and "you must be quick on your feet."

She does have some regret that she missed the "fun" of going to law school and meeting people, but the fact of the matter was that she needed to make a living while she was learning, an option that just wasn't viable in a formal school situation.

Mary Mecartney works in Watsonville as a staff attorney with the UFW. She passed the bar in 1988, after five years of study. At the time she had two young children and "they would come and crawl and sit on top of my books" while she was studying.

It took a lot of discipline, she says, and all of her evenings and weekends were spent with her law books. "But [my children] saw me study," she says, "and I hope it's influenced them to show them you can do it yourself."

Mecartney, 43, says her style of learning best fits the independent nature of the law office program and the day-to-day "hands-on" experience is invaluable.

She took advantage of numerous legal seminars and her work with the UFW enabled her to travel up and down the state, tapping the expertise of other staff attorneys.

Of course, her main interest was labor law, she says, "but the whole curriculum involved 13-14 subjects, some of which I will never use. However, I did get into community property."

Comacho is currently supervising two students and says that it took a few years to work out the kinks in the program.

As a supervisor, he says, he's learned to take more advantage of study aids such as tapes and outlines, but his real focus is on writing.

It is important, he says, that his students learn to write with the bar grader in mind. Personally, he adds, writing is difficult for him, but "that's a discipline you get by practicing."

"It's easy to memorize the law," says Comacho, "and the next step is being able to articulate it. But the hardest thing is to be able to put it on paper. If you can do all three things then the bar exam won't be that difficult."