We 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.