Should I go to law school even if I’m old?

April 10, 2008 at 12:01 pm | Posted in law school | 14 Comments
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Not quite that old…

At law school orientation, I did a quick scan of the room:  was there anyone as “old” as I?  I saw two women clearly in their 40s, but everyone else looked about 22.  If that.  As it turns out, I actually was a demographic anomaly.  Apart from a handful of 40+-year-olds—obvious career-changers—I was one of only two people in my section (and, I’d argue, probably in my class) in their early 30s.  There were those who had come right from college, of course.  All the others were at most five or six years out of college.  No one else was in my same, strange quasi-career limbo (or, for that matter, had gotten through college without instant messenger…)

Recently several people from different parts of my life—as well as complete strangers who have found me through this blog (yay!)—have asked me about going “back” to law school in my 30s and why and how I decided to do so.  I had spent my first nine post-college years as a journalist/teacher/world-traveler/writer, and in October of 2004, sitting in a bar in Paris (where better to have an epiphany) I decided I would—finally—go to law school.  I was 30, my friends were having kids, I was beginning to think that my boyfriend was sort of not all that nice to me, and my job was boring.  After I got back from my trip, I had to act quickly to take the LSATs (five weeks later) and apply to schools by December 31. 


In the end, the financial opportunities law school would provide were the major impetus for my decision (not the French wine!).  Yes, I’d incur a six-figure debt, but if I studied hard and thus got a job at a good firm, I could pay that back quickly.  In addition, having bounced from city to city and job to job, I really didn’t have the sort of career longevity where the concept of opportunity cost played a factor.  Also, I should add, I had my mother as a shining example of a later-in-life law student. She went back to school when I was in the eighth grade and my youngest sister was in the first grade.  And not only did she do it as a single mother of three, but she loved it, and has had a rewarding career ever since.  So I knew that I didn’t have to go to law school at 25 to still “make it” as a lawyer.  (In fact, I’d argue that many firms are happy to hire people with some real-world experience—see below.)


If you go to law school in your 30s, you are not doing so in the “I don’t know what to do with my life” kind of way you would in your early 20s.  I will admit that I went because I didn’t know what to do with my life—but in a much more existential, crisis-oriented way.  Which drove me to succeed in law school in a way I might not have were I casting about on my parents’ dime.  Still, there is always some opportunity cost, and a large part of it may be incurring huge debt at a time when maybe you want to have kids or, say, move out of your studio apartment.  Inevitably, this also does affect what type of work you do after law school in that the siren-song of the big-firm payday is hard to circumnavigate.  Some schools (mostly, the “better” law schools), however, have loan repayment programs, which means that if you take a lower-paying public-interest job after graduation, your student loans will be partially if not wholly forgiven. (Harvard Law School, for example, has decided to waive third-year tuition for those entering the public service field.)


That being said, working at a big firm has other, non-monetary advantages:  the training programs, the networking, and the exposure are all important for a law career.  But if you already are in your 30s, you might not be willing to put in big-firm hours, especially if you have a spouse/partner/and, of course, kids.  I would imagine that it’s somewhat easier to stay at the office until 10 p.m. if you are coming home only to an empty apartment or a date to watch “The Hills” with your roommate as opposed to a spouse or a baby.  This is something I’ve been very conflicted about (see my post in the Washington Post’s “On Balance” column, here), but I also recognize that working for a firm will open a lot of doors to positions with more family-friendly hours down the road.  My father was a corporate M&A lawyer in NYC, and I honestly can’t remember a time he was home for dinner.  So I knew what I was getting in to when I decided to work at a big firm – and, in a way, this is again an advantage of going “back” to law school after a decade or so:  you’re going in with realistic expectations as opposed to being swept along on the heady tides of your 20s. 


Again, going to law school was a way to ensure my personal financial security, which was very, very important to me.  But with two parents who were/are lawyers, the law is a way of life with which I already was familiar.  Both my parents loved their careers, and I loved sharing their professional lives with them, especially as an adult.  As a former journalist, segueing into the law was a way to grasp the fundamentals of all that I had experienced out in the field, from local city council hearings to First Amendment questions. 


Going to law school at 31 was the best thing I have ever done.  Unequivocally.  While the ultimate decision to do so was made somewhat emotionally, it was done so in the context of a deep understanding of the ramifications.  What has surprised me is just how much I have loved it:  the intellectual rigor, the writing, and the friends I have made.  It also has been rewarding to find a job for next year that has some “cache” – both professionally and financially.  I know that I’ll be able to pay off my loans and will be able to support my family in a meaningful way.  Just as important, however, law school has reignited my literary fires:  editors have seen me as someone able to write about legal topics, and I’ve interviewed law school deans and judges.  It also has opened up a world of creative writing, as well – everything from this blog to the legal thriller that I’m just destined to write (a bestseller, no doubt). 


In short:  it will cost money, but if you are willing to put in the hours, you can pay that back and then some. You may have to change your style of living a bit, you will study a lot, and your friends/spouse/partner might get annoyed that you are in the library all weekend.  But they might also be jealous when you duck out for a run at noon on Friday.  Or of your week off in March.  If you decide to have a baby in the middle of law school, I can’t think of a more flexible environment (once you’re done with your first year).  And you certainly don’t have to work long hours at a big firm (although you might have to network a little harder in law school to find a good option; it’s very, very easy to sign up with on-campus interviewing!) I think the decision comes down to your degree of eagerness for a rigorous intellectual experience (with the potential for a nice salary at the end) and willingness to jump into the unknown.  The advantage of doing so at 30-something is that you already have exposure to something else, so you won’t have all those “what if’s” running through your head.    


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