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First-Year Associate at 53

Vivia Chen

February 9, 2012

OlderWoman©Yuri Arcurs-Fotolia.comWe got a slew of mail on our post ("Too Old for Law School?") about whether a middle-aged government relations professional should go to law school. Readers generally were not encouraging; they warned about taking on an onerous debt and the shadow of age discrimination in the job market.

But Barbara Griff, who graduated in 1996 from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law (magna cum laude) in her fifties, offers a different take. Now a legal recruiter, Griff worked as an associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, later moving to Loeb & Loeb's New York office.

So what was it like to be the oldest law student in the classroom? And how hard was it for her to land a Big Law job? Griff gives us the inside scoop.

by Barbara Griff

After a lifelong career in television production, I decided to go to law school at age 50. I still think it was one of the best decisions in my life. I loved law school. The practice of law? Not so much.

For me, going to law school was like getting permission to start all over again—only with hindsight.  There is a distinct advantage to being an older student–like having real-life experience with contracts and real estate and even constitutional issues.

But what about memory capability? For some reason that was a frequent question put to me. It was a nonissue. Law school requires understanding, logical thinking, but memorization? That’s what books and computers are for. (Are you aware that for almost any exam you are allowed to bring in whatever materials you want—just like a real lawyer would do?) Moreover, forget those horror stories about the law classroom—it is not Paper Chase.

 So if you've decided to go to law school, let me offer you some advice on how to survive it:

    1. Take a front-row seat. As everyone knows, orchestra seats are best. I wasn't trying to impress the professor; it just helped me see and hear better.

    2. Never fall behind in your reading; you will want to shoot yourself later. It’s kind of like neglecting your time sheets in a law firm—you will pay for it.

    3. Work really hard because grades count. A lot. To get the best jobs, you need the best grades, and nothing is more important than the first year. So forget about seeing friends and family on a regular basis.

Keep in mind that where you went to school and your grades will follow you for your entire legal career—no matter what else you might have achieved in your life. (One law firm partner, a Harvard Law cum laude grad, with over $3 million in business, was asked to produce his transcript to a firm that was interested in hiring him. True story.)

And what happens when you start looking for a job? The good news is that I found little age discrimination in hiring—both as a starting lawyer and a lateral.

But I experienced other shocks. When I joined Paul, Weiss, I thought I was prepared for big-firm life. Wrong. I felt like the woman who gets involved with a man that her friends had warned her to avoid; she thinks she can handle the guy because she's been around the block. Wrong. I was unprepared about how hierarchical, impersonal, and isolating big-firm life can be. So forget the oft-vaunted collegiality.

As for partnership, I don't think being older makes a difference. I never thought that I was not on the partner track. But everyone has an equally poor chance of actually making partner; it's a level playing field. Ironically, being older actually had some advantages here: Partners related well to me, and so did clients, because I was their peer—so, in some ways, I was in a better position to bring in business. 

I don't think you have to approach law school with a specific goal—like being a partner—in mind. Just be open to all the new options law school will open up to you. It may take you on a path you never expected. It did for me.

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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 entered law school at 49, graduated at 52 cum laude, on law review, and published. It took me 52 interviews to snag a job offer--by the end of year two I was the only person on law review without a job offer. Ultimately I took a job 5 hours away from my husband, then worked for 9 years before I realized I would never become a partner at the firm that had finally hired me. Age discrimination? Yes, at every turn. During the interview process, one interviewer advised me to enjoy earning the degree but to go back to my "regular" life. Another told me I wouldn't be getting a call back and then, incredibly, advised that it wasn't because of my age (an issue that I never raised!). Another told me how much he "admired" my accomplishments, then told me I reminded him of his aunt who had gone to law school in her forties but decided she hated practicing law.

I'll be 42 next month. I'm at the top of my second-year class in one of Canada's leading law schools, I edit the law journal, I have twenty years of professional experience, I speak numerous languages—yet no law firm has given me the time of day. Does anyone here wish to maintain that my inability to find work has nothing to do with age?

I'm the person who asked the original question of Ms. Chen -- the middle-aged government relations professional w/two kids and a mortgage who wants her second act to mean something. So yes, I have a plan. I want to be a public defender. Specifically, I want to work in the DC Public Defender's office, which I understand is a national model for the public defender function. I have worked for almost 20 years making sure affluent people stay affluent. It's time to help the other guys. And if looking like someone's mom either makes people more comfortable with me, or helps me intimidate the other side, so much the better. I knew my wattles would come in handy. Thanks to Ms.Chen and all the commenters for their useful advice. Best -- Tracey Henley

So there's no age discrimination in the legal profession? And I have the deed to the Brooklyn Bridge

Michael - I am keen to know what jobs you've found and where they are (generally speaking).

@savagevervet:
All my jobs since law school have been the sort that you say you have been looking for: my law degree has been required (or at the least, has been a very big advantage in getting the job), and I have not practiced law. And, while I don't earn at the level of BigLaw (let alone partnership), I do well enough.

That said, I do agree with you that anyone contemplating law school should have a valid reason for wanting to go, and a well-considered idea of what they hope to do with their law degree. At the least, it can help the student to be strategic about elective classes, internships, research topics and the like, which - with some luck - can then lead to real-life
work in one's chosen field.

With sincere respect to Ms. Chen, the last paragraph of this post sent my blood pressure straight to the moon. I went to law school, not because I wanted to, but because I was lured into it with the rotten, and ultimately illusory promise that there were oh-so-many things I could do with a law degree. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie. Lie.

Whether you're 22 or 82, if you're thinking about going to law school you'd damn well better have a plan, and that plan had better include practicing law. For 15 years I've been searching for that one job - I'm not greedy. All I want is ONE! - for which 1) a law degree is prerequisite, but 2) DOES NOT require me to practice. The dirty little secret is...there ain't no such thing. You're either going to practice law, or you're going to wind up with a job that you could have gotten without spending 3 years and umpteen thousand dollars on the degree in the first place (e.g., a barista at your favorite coffee shop, a buyer for an upscale clothing retailer, a real estate broker, etc., etc., etc.).

PLEASE! Before you leap into the pit of rusty nails and broken glass that is law school, stand in front of a mirror and see if you can articulate a valid reason for wanting to go. If you can, then Godspeed! If you can't, or if your reason smacks of "oh, I can do anything I want with my law degree," you're preparing to make the worst mistake of your life!

I wanted to comment on one of the things Griff said about grades, and how they follow you. The anecdote about a partner w/ $3M in business being asked to produce a transcript? With a $3M book, he should be able to move someplace where the leaders of the firm are less insecure and don't need to engage in that sort of self-validation.

I started law school at age 47. I went at night because I did not want to give up a well paying managerial position. When I graduated at age 51, I decided to go the in-house coporate route to capitalize on my 20 years of experience. It paid off, I am now General Counsel and enjoying every minute of it.

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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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