Rebecca Valois is working to become a lawyer -- without setting foot in a law school.

She's studied for three years at the private Virginia practice of her mother-in-law, Judith Valois, who was admitted to the state bar in 1986 after getting her legal education from her husband.

They are "law readers" -- people who study law in offices or judges' chambers rather than classrooms.

Virginia, California, Vermont and Washington allow law readers to take bar exams after three or four years in apprenticeships registered with the state. Three other states -- New York, Maine and Wyoming -- let non-law school graduates take bar exams if they have a combination of office study and law school experience.

Fewer than 150 aspiring lawyers are getting their legal educations in programs that require no law school whatsoever, according to the bars of the states that allow the practice. By comparison, more than 140,000 students attend law schools approved by the American Bar Association, and thousands more attend schools not approved by the ABA.

Despite some challenges, law readers can achieve big things. Marilyn Skoglund, for instance, sits on the Vermont Supreme Court, and Gary Blasi is a professor at UCLA.

"I'm really sort of a bizarre case," Blasi said. "The first time I was ever in a law classroom, I was teaching law."

As the only law reader he knows who ended up a professor, Blasi doesn't recommend his route for others interested in teaching law in a university. However, he said there are benefits.

"If I were redesigning the entire legal education system, it would definitely provide more of a real-world, mentored experience," Blasi said.

The next hurdle for Rebecca Valois, a 30-year-old mother of two in Centreville, will come in February, when she gives the bar a try.

It won't be easy.

Only one law reader out of nine attempts passed the Virginia bar last year. In July 2003, seven law readers took the bar, but the only one to pass was Margaret Valois -- Rebecca's sister-in-law.

Judith Valois, who supervised the studies of both her daughters-in-law, said friends tease her about being the "Valois School of Law."

She said a big benefit to law reading is that students get one-on-one instruction from someone who cares about them. Indeed, the supervising lawyers cannot take money for the significant time they put into training their apprentices.

Barbara Macri-Ortiz in Oxnard, Calif., supervises the education of apprentice Jessica Arciniega because she wants to give something back. "I didn't have to pay for law school -- I should be able to help somebody else do the same thing," she said.

Macri-Ortiz -- who has some college but no bachelor's degree, which isn't a requirement for California's bar -- got her legal education through an apprenticeship at the United Farm Workers of America, where she worked for the union's founder, Cesar Chavez. Now she mostly represents the poor, and about a third of her work is pro bono.

A downside to skipping law school is that a degree can be a job requirement.

The elder Valois began working for the Veterans Affairs Department as a staff attorney in 1991. She worked her way through the ranks and in 1998 was set to become a senior Equal Employment Opportunity attorney when she learned that the job required a law degree. The VA ended up giving her a waiver, and she got the job -- two years later.

Although the ABA maintains rigorous standards for approved law schools, it doesn't advise against law reading. Related groups see it as a state's right to allow an alternative to law school.

"The highest court of each state owns the decision about how to meet the need for consumer protection," said Erica Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners in Madison, Wis. "For some people, it's probably the only way that they can combine working and studying."

Even law-reading advocates caution that there is more to learn these days and that it can be tough for supervising lawyers to provide guidance in legal areas outside their specialties.

"For most people -- the great majority of people -- it's not the best way to try to get a legal education," said Scott Street, secretary-treasurer of the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners in Richmond. "Just putting in the time doesn't come anywhere close to assuring that you've got an education."

Washington is the only state where law readers pass the bar at a higher rate than traditional students.

Sheryl Phillabaum, chairman of Washington's Law Clerk Committee, can't explain the success. "But anyone who has devoted so much time to getting through the program is mightily motivated," she said in an e-mail.

Law readers don't qualify for federal student loans, and in Virginia -- unlike other states -- they can't get paid by the law firm training them.

"When you don't have loans and you can't get paid for what you're doing, you are sacrificing a lot," Rebecca Valois said. "But you're getting a lot in return."

Rebecca Valois of Centreville has studied for three years at the private practice of her mother-in-law.