Knute Nelson, a future Minnesota governor and U. S. senator, was an apprentice in the law office of William F. Vilas, before being admitted to the Wisconsin bar in 1867. According to his biographer, Mark W. Odland, Nelson bitterly complained:
"Permission to practice was granted after year or two of 'reading law' in a lawyer's office; only the sons of wealth went east to law schools."
Nelson assumed that a student at an eastern law school learned more than a two year apprenticeship with an established lawyer in the Midwest. For many this was true, for others it was not.
This article describes typical duties assigned to the law clerk who prepared for the bar by "reading law" with an older attorney in the second half of the 19th century.