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Too Old for Law School?

Vivia Chen

January 26, 2012

-Older woman© olly - Fotolia.comPeople usually ask me about how to get out of law. But today a reader asks if it's too late for her to get into the game:

Dear Careerist,

I am a D.C.–based, middle-aged, midcareer government relations professional who's trying to decide what to do with the second half of my life. I'm going through career counseling now, looking for a job that pays bills and is emotionally and intellectually rewarding. I've been aptitude-tested (high on verbal, analytical, and logic skills). I'm thinking seriously about public service law.

I'm married, have two kids (15 and 11), and I want my life to mean something more. And law is portable: I can go anywhere in the U.S. (all things being equal) and be a lawyer. I can't go anywhere and be a PAC [political action committee] manager, which is what I do now.

So, the economy is in the tank, there's a glut of lawyers, and new grads can't find jobs. And, oh, by the way, we're all going to die. Is law school at middle age worth doing?


I don't usually recommend law school to most people, but I do remember that some of the most focused students in law school were older. Unlike the 20-somethings, they saw studying law as a privilege.

But what happens when they leave law school? How do they ultimately fare? Two experts' views:

Marilyn Tucker, director of alumni career services at Georgetown Law Center (she's also served as an adviser for women who pursued law as a second career):

Before you leave your current job, you should do the following:

1. Do an honest assessment of why you want a law degree—is it the work (assuming you know what the work will be like), the prestige, or the intellectual exercise?

2. Do the homework—contact the career service office at law schools in your area and ask them about programs on public sector careers; shadow lawyers in the field; and talk to people who have gone to law school in midlife, and ask them if they would go back to law school again.

3. Ask yourself whether a law degree is really necessary for what you want to do. Is it worth the cost? Or can you achieve the same ends without it? Keep in mind that you will likely make less as a junior public interest lawyer than what you are currently making.

It is worth noting that federal agencies have law-related positions that do not require a law degree, including contract administrator, equal opportunity compliance specialist, and consumer safety inspector—to name a few.

4. Understand that going to law school at this stage is risky, especially given the uncertain economy. But even when the economy was sailing along beautifully, it was more difficult for second-career graduates. Be prepared that it might take nine months to a year to get a job. Age discrimination is definitely out there.

You really have to step out of your comfort zone.

Dan Binstock, recruiter at Garrison & Sisson: 

My advice: Find five attorneys in the public service sector who went back to law school as a second career and ask them:
1.  If you could do it over again, would you have gone to law school?  
2. What do you like most about being a lawyer?  What do you dislike most?  
3. What do you know now that you wish you had known when you decided to go to law school? 
4. If you didn’t go to law school, what else would you have done?
   
It sounds like you are a good candidate for an evening program. Don't quit your day job, in case you don't like law school. 

You mentioned public service law, but that is very broad. More important than the public service versus private sector distinction is how your personality fits with certain types of practices. If you enjoy debating with your friends, you might enjoy litigation. If you hate debating, you will not be happy as a litigator, even if it’s in the public service sphere.  

Many people choose law school because they are at a career crossroad and are not sure what to do next. It happens to recent college grads and midlife professionals as well. If you have enough money saved up and your debt will not be overwhelming, going to law school can’t hurt. But it also can’t hurt to learn how to fly a helicopter.   

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at VChen@alm.com.

 

Comments

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I have you all beat. I have two Masters Degrees in Business Management (3.9 GPA) and a Bachelor Degree in Health Administration Services (4.0 GPA). I am a Fellow in the American College of Medical Practice Executives. I am now retired and want to do more. I have always wanted to get a degree in Law. Is it worth it?

I am 67 yrs young,and twice turned down an offer to have law school paid for by an in law. I have 2 yrs of college but finished it in 1975. I have very recently decided to attend law school, but for the dumbest reason you could imagine. I am retired so i have the time. I can do this, i have no doubt, but the reason,this dumb reason. I cannot find an attorney to handle a case for me concerning civil and human rights along with guiding me on how to file criminal,charges against.......! Really! I have as far back as i can remember wanted to be an attorney and/or a journalist. Dumb or Do it?.

All:

I'm a 55 year old male and my 30 year old son who is pursuing his PHD in education is encouraging me to return to school for a JD degree. He understands that I wanted to be an attorney as a young man, but I had family obligations to care for so I couldn't attend. I've never really been unemployed and have had a full career. I also make a good living in aerospace contracts. I do believe holding a JD degree would increase my opportunities and income even at this age. However I do realize that I may not finish until I am 60 years old and not sure how long I want to work full time. Ideally I would like to work part time and travel. I assume a JD degree would offer me a great low 6 figure salary to work my own schedule and travel. I welcome any feedback.

I don't recommend law as a second career if you are going toward BigLaw, if it is even a question in your mind. You should be extroverted and charming or exceptionally well connected and preferably both - that helps even if you aren't older, but is more important if you are. I put off law school till my late 30s because another impressive opportunity had presented itself after college. I was a young-looking 39 when I graduated from a Top 15 school, pre crash. I was lucky to land my BigLaw firm summer associateship and I worked like a dog to get my offer (none of the other older students I knew even got an offer). In law school it helps to fit in; for older students this can be harder. In BigLaw junior associates need mentorship and political connectedness while working long hours; I suspect I didn't remind partners of themselves when starting out, but instead came across as an independent and experienced professional, but one who wasn't quite a peer and couldn't go to partner meetings. As new associates came in year after year and got mentors, I began to fade into the woodwork. Continued high bonuses for great reviews didn't translate into anyone caring enough to give me those reviews. I got little opportunity for career development or high-profile work. Discrimination is real, and may not be intentional. Don't cut against your own grain because when working those hours it is hard to try to fake it and pretend to be someone you're not. There are exceptions, and, again, if you have the right personality you can manage it. Keep in mind especially if you're female: If you're 40, by 50 you'll be competing with folks still in their 30s with the same experience level. It's not impossible, but it might be hard.

I am 60. Graduated with honors from law school. I'm taking the bar exam next week. I know I'm at a huge disadvantage as it discriminates against age.

I am a 44 year old women looking to go to school for criminal justice program for my associated degree. I am just wondering if its a waste of time or if I will be able to find a job at my age after school.

Hey this is great! I'm 55 and I was worried about my age. My niece is a counselor at Emory U and she told me not to worry about my age. But prepare for the Lsat. HELP!

hello.
I am woman of 49 years of age, i have spent many working years within the fields of the following = Mental health, care work for the elderly and disabled, child care, Own construction company, Law and property.
I have taken a few years out from work due to my own personal health matters and now looking into Re-studying my law and barrister qualifications.
due you feel i am to old for this new career change within my chosen path.
Many Thanks
Davina

I am 26 years old and would be 27 when I start studying law next year via a distance education institution (University of South Africa). I am graduating with bachelors degree in Accounting at the end of the year, a course that I did not enjoy at all. However, I have always known that I wanted to study law with an eye to go into politics at some point in my life. The comments on this post, at least most of them, have been very encouraging!

I'm currently 34 yrs and currently pursuing an MBA degree. I prepped for the LSAT last yr but was juggling to much, and didn't take the test. Either way, last year I did an internship for a US Congressman and rally began to enjoy my work. I helped those who really needed it, and kicked away people who were only trying to beat the system. If i get into law school next year I'll be 35. I currently work in the finance dept for a fortune 500 company and I'm not sure about pursuing a law degree. I'm sure if I work in law I'll be dealing with plenty of scum who have $$ and wont be able to help others who need help due to lack of finances. One parent says "do what makes you happy" and the other one says "Show me the $$$$"

The comments are of no help to me! Some say yes, and others say go for it! I have a B.S. in Business, and began graduate classes in education. It was during the graduate classes when I decided I really didn't want to be with kids all day! Especially those of today's privileged little monsters who have been feed with the golden spoon of the brats who have have no idea of what it is to work. I am a retired police officer who was injuried and forced to retire. I loved working in the law field. Unfortunately after a very long marriage I was left behind for a school employee who was childless and had inherited a rather large inheritance! I decided to forgo the lawyer route as I had done nothing to necessitate paying for one! Remember the saying about self representation, and having a fool for a client??? I prepared and filed all of the necessary paperwork myself. That was the easy part. When it came time to appear in court, I did so pro se, while she had representation. After succumbing to her attorneys ploy of not exactly being truthful, which resulted in me getting angry, I decided to take the opportunity to see if I wanted to really get back into the law field. After turning a thirty minute hearing into a nine and a half hour process, the judge admonished me for the manner in which I conducted the procedure, then complimented me and stated I would have been a good attorney. After starting to feel like maybe I could conduct the entire divorce, the judge popped my bubble by telling me I should consider getting an attorney before I irritated him further, and be found in contempt for speaking out of turn, and outburst when I felt the other lawyer was intent I ally misrepresenting the truth! I took his advise, and was given the house, cars, and child support. In retrospect I am sorry I did not retain an attorney from the beginning. The divorce became very adversarial, leading to a nasty relationship with my ex, and making it hard on my children. After all of that, I realized I am not too old to learn! I am rather sure that I would be able to do the necessary studying, and do well in law school. I don't know how I would pay for law school, or if I could obtain the loans necessary. I was told if I were to work in a needy PD or ADA officer for ten years, my loans could be forgiven. Still, three years law school, and ten years work, would place me in a position of dying before I could pay off my bills! Seriously, am I crazy to be considering undertaking such a goal? I really do love the legal system. Does anyone know of a law school that gives geriatric scholarships??

I'm unemployed and just ran across my 42nd birthday couple months ago. I LOVE to debate-- about whatever and recently started considering studying law. I don't have any college degrees (been but obviously didn't finish) so this would be a huge accomplishment for me. ALL the comments here have helped tremendously. Thanks.

This post was truly inspirational. I am considering law school in the next couple of years, however, I am 38 years old, and I was thinking maybe I am too old.
Thanks to GWSmith, Stratton Gee and Lemondlaw for adding value to this post

I just turned 50 and am a pharmacist, have always wanted to be an attorney - but with 2 children I felt the only option for me was to just graduate in Pharmaceutical science and feed my children. Now the years have past and I want to go to law school. Who says I have to work for anyone but myself, being a pharmacist in the health care law.. big opportunity I feel and who knows maybe I can stay with my company and just move into their law department.. Am I crazy? Kim

I am 54 years old just graduated with a B. S. in Criminal Justice, I have always wanted to go to law school, I am retire from the Post Office after 25 years. Do you think it would be crazy for me to start Law School at such an older age?

I I have graduated from a Law School, have a law degree. I worked in a court setting for over thirty years. I am now retired and not interested in practicing .. However, I am interested in getting my license. I have the time to study at my own pace is this a big risk?.


How about this idea? Get out there and scratch for the business?

A lot of lawyers, especially the elitist ones, expect business to be poured out over them like honey.

I'll get and close my own business, thanks.

I'm 41 licensed psychotherapist and I'm considering going to law school probably next year. Doing my research.

i am so impressed with G.w Smith and his bold move to law . . there are a lot of dumb young people and very intelligent older people. when people can become moms and dads after 50, why not become a lawyer, being a parent is way more stressful

I started law school at the age of 39 and will be graduating May 2013 at the age of 42. If you have any questions about the "real" deal for adult students. shoot me an email and I am happy to speak with you.
For me, this was the right decision and the challenges have only made it sweeter.

lemondlaw@gmail.com

In regard to Toni's post below - if you truly eat, sleep and dream about a law career, then that is exactly what you should be doing. I don't believe we should ever live our lives based on what other's think. Each of us will have a different experience even if we all do the same thing for we are individuals and independent of thought. Follow your own dreams, listen to your heart and live your own life - you only have one! And as for age, live your life, not your age. Just go for it.

Susan


Thank ALL of you posters! I've struggled with that age question for yrs! And many of you were so open and honest about the REAL effects of age+ law school---I think I'll just keep at the career I'm in--even though I eat sleep and DREAM legal practice. Maybe in the next life!

Posted by: Toni | October 23, 2012 at 09:19 AM

I don't understand the ending that says it also wouldn't hurt to learn how to fly a helicopter. Theres not alot of job oppurtunities or good paying jobs for people who flying helicopters. So I don't see an advantage of learning how to fly a helicopter ovet law school.

Thank ALL of you posters! I've struggled with that age question for yrs! And many of you were so open and honest about the REAL effects of age+ law school---I think I'll just keep at the career I'm in--even though I eat sleep and DREAM legal practice. Maybe in the next life!

I wrote the original query to Careerist, and I'm grateful for all the input. As far as I can see, age discrimination and sexism are fully prevalent in the WDC government relations community I work in, which is an adjunct of the broader law industry. So what's new? I will pursue a law career -- it's what I'm most suited for. Thank you all.

I have been a journalist for the better part of the last three decades, first in radio now in television. Journalism attracted me for many of the same reasons I now consider pursuit of a law degree. Getting the truth. This year I will celebrte my 49th birthday, and honestly 49 year old white males are a dying breed in my industry...

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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