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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'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...

I'm a second-career attorney, female, who graduated in 2009. There are no jobs; I cannot compete for 60+ hour week jobs in local biglaw; and there is age, gender, and family status discrimination throughout the profession. And one finishes law school with a 6-figure debt and the opportunity cost of no income for 3 years.

Do it if you can find a way to pay for it without incurring the debt. Don't do it if you merely want the intellectual stimulation.

Don't do it if you think it will increase your employability -- the "flexible J.D." is a myth when the J.D. is a later-acquired credential.

My gosh, why would anyone in middle age want to subject themselves to the stress of being a lawyer? By that age a large percentage (perhaps a minority, but still a significant minority) of lawyers want out of law and wish they'd never entered it in the first place.

In terms of hiring, I have no experience with public interest anything, but let's try to be realistic. Young lawyers are hired as they have flexible minds that can still engage in a career that chews people up. By middle age, that will not be true, and tends not to be true for lawyer who have been long practicing. The law may say that we should be blind to the reality of aging, but that doesn't mean that aging does nothing. There's a real reason that younger people are more employable in this field.

I went to a top tier law school in my mid fiftys (went to undergrad in my 40s). I had always wanted to go to law school so I was able to fulfill a dream and in fulfilling that dream I am able to be a role model for my children and grandchildren. I am the first lawyer in the family so the reality is at 65 I still have high student loans I have to pay out of my social security and small pension from 5 years in State government. Nevertheless, I believe that if you really want to go and the times are propitious for you to go - GO


Most of the time the reluctance to hire older attorneys is not because of their age but because of their lack of education derived from a lack of experience. Just as one is not likely to trust a recently graduated physician with a complex medical problem, one does not trust an inexperienced lawyer with a complex legal problem.
Graduation from law school and passing the bar is only the start--it takes many years of additional education beyond law school (often garnered through experience) to develop into a competent lawyer. Passing a bar examination means you meet only a very, very minimum requirement.


There is a good deal of age discrimination in the practice of law. I am amazed how no one will hire the older experienced lawyer especially for in-house positions. I've had to create a career of contract legal work and teaching in order to survive at age 55 despite having stellar academic credentials. Because of these marketability concerns, I don't advise anyone to attend law school (unless they simply want the intellectual challenge and not a job).

I entered law school at age 53 to begin a 3rd career. As the oldest student at our law school, I found the professors extremely welcoming and helpful, and the coursework very relevant. I got along well with almost all of my classmates, partly because I wasn't all that wrapped up with my class rank and backstabbing others to attain a higher ranking. I was sought out to participate in numerous study groups and I made it an intentional decision to become actively involved with student activities and organizations.


The age-driven short-term memory loss, which became a real challenge for the course exams and the bar exam (especially with regards to remembering the names of parties in the caselaw we studied), was offset by the life-experience I had, which made the understanding of the legal concepts much easier.


After graduating at age 56, I opened my own solo practice right away and thoroughly enjoy being my own boss. I believe that many clients likely trust someone who looks older and wiser than someone much younger who still appears "wet behind the ears." My practice started out as a general practice, but has grown to focus primarily in the area of Employment & Labor Law and Education/School Law. I'm approaching the point where my case load is almost getting too large for a solo practitioner. I'm still learning something every day, and that keeps me getting out of bed each morning.


If a person desires to pursue a law degree as a second, or even third career, I say, "GO FOR IT!" You don't ever want to live out the rest of your life regretting not doing something, or even wondering what could have happened.

Having worked in recruiting in legal, I would say that my opinion is in-line with TFL's. If you don't go to a top tier school and excel, law school in general is probably not a good idea unless you want to work in the public sector or you just want the credential. Regardless of age, that's the base line. The other variables could make it more difficult, but no one should go to a tier 3 or 4 law school and expect the Latham's or the DLA Pipers of the world to have any interest in your candidacy.

I started law school in an evening program at age 50. I graduated at 54. This was to be my second career. I retired from my real government job in 2010. I am lucky to have a pension and part time work. Nobody returns calls to someone my age. Disregard the fact that I have extensive government experience and have been teaching college as an adjunct professor for years. Nobody is interested in an older employee. I now question the wisdom of going to school. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the people I met, but the opportunities are not there.

I'm 65 and will probably resume an evening course later this year; the downside is the extraordinary cost (decades of Sallie Mae payments). My view is that this will satisfy the nature of a truly legal mind. If I survive through the bar exam, I won't practice except to become a burr under the saddle of abusive corporations, especially in the mortgage sector. To offer my conclusive answer to the query, the only durable motive to attend law school in midlife is for personal growth. Naive belief in justice, honor and retribution should be left on your dream pillow. Also keep in mind that you will not receive much encouragement from practicing attorneys: they have enough competition already. Here's the bottom line regarding age discrimination: the anti-discrimination statutes actually create the discrimination: if I as an employer will find it difficult to "terminate" a 55+ service medal veteran, why would I hire her in the first place?

A separate issue: this prospective law student should not assume that a law career is readily portable. Each state has its own separate process for admission and for waiving into the bar. For example in NY, an attorney must have worked 5 years fulltime out of the last 7 to be considered for waiver. There can be considerable downtime between taking a bar exam, getting results, undergoing character and fitness interviews and finally being sworn in. My advice to a prospective law student would be find a law school near where he or she would like to practice eventually so there would be a ready-made network of colleagues.

I was a well-paid paralegal with a national law firm for 19 years but always wanted to go to law school. I took the plunge in 2005 at the age of 49, graduating from a top-25 law school and passing the bar in 2008, just as the economy was starting its downward spiral. About six months ago I finally found stable employment at a lower salary than I had when I was a paralegal. I have an enormous debt load that I will be repaying well into retirement (if and when I am able to retire).

That being said, I consider myself fortunate to have found compelling work doing what I love. There are no guarantees – my old firm laid off half its workforce after a merger and I may have been out of a job regardless. Whether it’s a good idea to go to law school depends upon what you think you will be getting and how much you can stomach financial insecurity. Having worked in the law my entire life, I knew what I was getting into and what my life as a lawyer would be like. I was also at a point in my life where I could spend long hours working without having it affect my family. Financially speaking it was a disaster, but for me it was never about the money. I don’t regret going to law school. But anyone considering it should think long and hard. You should only do it if you are absolutely sure it is what you want to do and if you are willing to sacrifice everything to get there (because that’s probably what it will take).

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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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