Huzzah, you’ve finally passed the bar exam! It’s time to take your lawyer’s oath. Would you like to A) Line up with hundreds or maybe thousands of other newbies, right hand raised to repeat the words en masse in an auditorium as part of an industrial ritual; Or B) Surround yourself with friends, family, and everyone who cheered you on in your arduous trek, as you deliver your sacred professional vow in the comfort of your home, possibly just feet away from a spread of fancy cheeses and celebratory beverages?
In a rush to once and for all approach the bench, lawyers-to-be filling out the admission paperwork of the State Bar of California might skim past a decidedly personal option for their swearing-in: It can be performed by a notary, pretty much anywhere you want.
Tracy Warner went that route in December. After word came a few weeks earlier that she passed the state’s notoriously difficult bar exam, she wanted a more intimate setting than the jumbo-sized biannual ceremony. While she was hunting for a judge who would be free to administer the required oath, she mentioned it to her lawyer friend John O’Grady.
He thought of something that is right there on the back of the form from the State Bar:
“IF YOU DO NOT PLAN TO ATTEND AN ADMISSION CEREMONY
Take the attorney’s oath of office before an authorized individual (see enclosed information from the Office of Admissions). Make sure that the administering officer signs, seals and dates the back of the Registration Card. […] If a notary administers your oath, make sure the seal appears on the Card, not on an attachment.”
“No one I know has ever heard of it,” O’Grady says. “No notary. No lawyer I know. I only discovered that you could use a notary because I wanted to swear Tracy in and I researched it. And it worked!”
It’s not only a notary or a judge who can administer the oath in California. Bar rules allow state lawmakers, county officers and their deputies, mayors, and the “clerk of any court of record,” but not lawyers. Even a shorthand court reporter is authorized to do it, among others. And that gives an opening for those who don’t have, say, the Speaker Pro Tempore of the Assembly on their speed dial when they’re looking for a less officious method for a solemn swearing-in.
It’s not entirely clear how many new lawyers may be taking these swearing-in paths less traveled. Representatives at both the State Bar and the California Lawyers Association said they don’t keep track. But it is easy to see why someone might want simple, convenient alternatives, particularly for those with job offers pegged to start well before the June and December mass oath-taking gatherings. Or those feeling the heat from the approaching Godzilla of payment due-dates on what could be hundreds of thousands of dollars in student-loan debt. According to the National Center for Education Statistics data, the average loan burden from law school alone was $138,000 in the 2015-16 academic year (the latest available).
Or maybe it’s just nice to be able to savor the moment that marks your achievement after a grueling few years, with only the people you want with you, in a place where you appreciate it all the more.
“It was so long a journey and so overwhelming a process, so it really meant a lot to be able to do this in a personal setting and among friends,” Warner says. She’d spent a decade teaching second-graders before she made her major career change. “I always felt well suited for the legal profession and had committed to teaching while I was very young. I maybe made that decision too young.” She swapped one classroom for another, going full time to law school for three years.
And that’s why this past December, on a Friday night in the height of holiday party season, O’Grady and his longtime traveling notary, Tim Breen, found themselves arriving at a celebration Warner had thrown to mark her passing the bar exam.
“Everyone was eating and drinking some beers and having a good time and enjoying the night. Tim had a jacket on—I didn’t,” O’Grady said. “We’d never administered an oath before. It was so much fun. We had no idea what we were doing. We just found our way through it.”
There, in front of a dozen or so friends, and with someone capturing it on video to send to her family in Canada, Warner raised her hand and swore she’d support the U.S. and State Constitution, faithfully discharge her duties to the best of her knowledge and ability, and conduct herself at all times with dignity, courtesy, and integrity.
O’Grady followed that with a personal oath he ginned up, happily leading Warner with vows that began:
“Please repeat after me. I, Tracy Warner, take thee, the law, to be my chosen profession until I decide to do something else.
For better and for worse,
knowing that sometimes things will suck,
but that I have already conquered many obstacles because I persist,
especially when I have enough chocolate.
For richer and for poorer,
I will edit long and hard because I know that every word matters . . .”
Then everybody cheered the new officer of the court and the party really got going, with something even more unconventional—and perfectly cathartic: Warner started burning her bar-exam study materials in her fireplace.
“We all took turns ripping out pages from the piles of study books I had and we had a big fire going all night,” she said. “It was very satisfying, and something I had looked forward to doing all throughout my studies.” She started working at Oakland’s Haapala, Thompson & Abern several weeks ago.
O’Grady said it was all a long way from his own swearing-in festivities in an auditorium, which he hardly remembers.
“This is a way to connect with your community, with your loved ones, as you get sworn in. And it’s a way to be creative, and we lawyers sometimes focus too narrowly on the technical aspects of our work,” he said. “Law school is all about killing certain creativities and fostering others.”
“As a lawyer, it was the most fun I had all year.”
About the author:
Erin Friar McDermott writes about business, law, tech, and all of the weirdness in between. She’s worked for The Wall Street Journal and National Geographic, and is an editor at The Daily Beast.