Law School at 40

Ready for a career change? This is my advice for older, non-traditional students who are considering applying to law school.

If you’re in your thirties or older and are considering attending law school, you’re far from alone in that desire. Tons of people decide to get into law later in life or make a substantial career change.

It’s important to accept that the return on investment of law school at this particular stage of your life may be significantly lower than, say, someone who is entering the legal world in their twenties or going K-JD. But if you really love law and want to give it a shot, a legal career could absolutely be worth it.

Nontraditional law school applicants will have different things to consider when it comes to entering law school compared to traditional candidates. Your school choice, financial stability, and post-grad career path may be different from someone who has just graduated college. Some applicants may be concerned that they won’t be accepted to law school at all.

In an interview with Above the Law, 46-year-old Susan talked about her particular fear of attending Western New England School of Law after over twenty years as a paralegal office manager. “My only concern was whether any law school in the USA would be interested in a 46-year-old woman who earned a Bachelor of Science in Zoology in 1986 and who could not do a ‘Logic Game’ to save her life,” Susan told Above the Law, “Although I did very well in college, more than 20 years had passed since I graduated, and I also struggled with the LSAT.” If this sounds like you, don’t worry. Susan attended and graduated from law school without issue, and you can do the same. It mostly comes down to the overall payoff that starting a law career now may offer.

If you’re thinking about going into law school but aren’t dead-set on the move, we’re here to help. In this guide, we’ll be taking a look at what you need to consider in order to move forward with applying for law school later in life. This includes commitment evaluation, advantages of being a non-traditional student, some downfalls of entering the field later in life, and recommendations for success.

Let’s start by looking at the time and financial commitments involved in going to law school at forty.

Are you up for the time and financial commitment?

Being older has a lot of benefits when it comes to the wisdom and insight you can provide in a particular industry. However, being older can also slow you down. Think about how long it’s been since you’ve actually looked at a textbook. Is it difficult to get into a study routine and retain what you learn at your age? If so, you might have some trouble getting into the intense study flow of law school.

Time and finances are also major things to consider. You might have a family that needs time and attention or children to take care of. Can law school fit into that?

Law school is extremely expensive and requires a minimum three-year commitment. There aren’t really part-time options for law school– it’s either all-in for the three years or none at all. And each of those three years, you can pay upwards of $45,000 in tuition alone for a private law school. That means when you’ve graduated, you’ll have paid around $135,000 for tuition, which is a hefty investment to make in your future. This could be even heftier if you decide to take out bar loans or additional loans to cover your living expenses.

In most scenarios, out-of-state public law schools are a little more manageable and cost around $8,000 less per year to attend than private law schools. In-state public law schools are even more affordable and cost around half as much as a private law school annually.

If you’re older and want to enter the legal world, opting for an in-state public law school may be the best choice. You won’t have as long to repay student loans as a freshly graduated twenty-something will, so it’s important to take into consideration what your finances will be like after you finish law school.

Advantages of being a non-traditional student

When it comes down to it, you know what it’s like to graduate college and enter the workforce. Going through law school and then looking for a job is not all that different. LSAT scores, GPA, and relevant experience all carry weight when it comes to admission into a law school. Older students tend to bring skills to law school and their eventual profession that have real-world value.

Older law school students who have previously worked in a law-related field will have an advantage in school and the job hunt, although any prior work experience will be helpful. Secretaries, paralegal professionals, and those in the criminal justice field have a pretty decent knowledge of the law. Because life experience is so valuable, being in these fields before you go to law school can make you a very valuable prospect.

Older students have also endured failure and success through their time in college and in their careers. This provides some structure while studying in law school and that experience can also benefit the students around you in the classroom. Having prior life experience will help you survive cold calls with greater ease and keep you insulated from gunners.

You may even find a job quicker than a younger person would right out of law school. This is because older students usually have a large number of out-of-school contacts and have networked in their previous job. Younger students don’t often have this privilege.

Disadvantages of being a non-traditional student

Unfortunately, there are some serious disadvantages to being a non-traditional student that you definitely need to consider.

Prejudice against older “newbie” lawyers

Age bias is a thing in a lot of different industries, not just the legal world, but it does exist in the legal profession. Some law firms like to hire young, inexperienced workers who are happy to work for a smaller salary. Those firms also opt for younger hires because of things like trainability, career timeline, and commitment to one firm.

In this case, the things you did between graduating with your first degree and then going into law school is important. If you worked in a law-related field such as criminal justice or paralegal, your prior experience may make you a more attractive hire for law firms.

The longevity of your career

It’s simple math. If you’re entering a career later in life than a younger person, you have fewer working years left in you. That’s one reason why some law firm employers will hesitate before hiring a second-career lawyer. Law firms want fresh lawyers who want to make long-term commitments to their firm in particular. This is because they’ll grow and learn as lawyers, get better at their practice, and contribute to the long-term scaling of the firm itself.

You’re going to have to really sell yourself in order to put potential employers at ease. Make it clear that you are committed to the firm, and while you won’t be able to be in the firm as long as a young person, you can sell your personality and skills over the competition.

Ease of training

This may not seem like that huge of a deal, but being easy to train is something that law firms will heavily consider. Training takes time and resources. If you’re not interested in taking directions from senior associates who are younger than you or you are set in your ways when it comes to working, a law firm may have trouble finding reasons to keep you on.

In the interview phase, make it clear that you’re excited to embrace new technologies, processes, and solutions. Also, make it clear that age is just a number to you and taking direction from a younger lawyer is not a big deal.

Limited career opportunities

Older lawyers struggle to get jobs at bigger law firms. This is unfortunate since these types of firms tend to offer the best possible salaries. Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean that you have absolutely no choice. Take the time to apply to as many firms as possible, including your top choices. But also keep in mind that the statistics aren’t incredibly promising. Only 17% of law school graduates over the age of thirty-six get into big firms.

You can always take this daunting opportunity and turn it into a positive by starting your own firm, which is definitely something to consider. That, unfortunately, costs money, and startup capital will be a necessity in conjunction with paying off your student loans.

Time commitments

We mentioned that time commitments are a big deal here, but it’s worth reiterating the fact that having aging parents or children can make it hard to stick to the fifty-plus hours per week commitment that most lawyers have. Employers may be wary of hiring you because you have a lot going on at home with a spouse and children, which younger graduates may not have.

This usually isn’t a massive factor when it comes to employing someone at a firm. You should make your circumstances clear to potential employers during interviews regardless, but think about whether or not you can dedicate most of your time to a law firm. Are you capable of putting in massive hours? By the time you’ve graduated, your kids may be old enough that you can dedicate more of your time to a firm.

Advice for non-traditional students

Your application may look different from a K-JD or someone who’s only been out of college for a couple of years. You may have some truly amazing (or gut-wrenching) things to write about in your personal statement. Go for it! Admissions committees love reading essays from thoughtful, self-reflective applicants. Use your life experiences to create a memorable personal statement. You might also be a good candidate for writing an addendum or a diversity statement. Here’s a list of diversity scholarships that you might qualify for.

On the other hand, you are likely no longer in touch with your college professors, so getting an academic letter of recommendation may be impossible. Don’t fret. Just ask a colleague, boss, or former supervisor who is familiar with your judgment, work ethic, and intelligence. Letters from non-professors are common in older applicants’ files, and the admissions committee will get a sense of your capabilities from what your recent colleagues have to say.

Law review and other journals are good ways for non-traditional law students to practice their legal research and writing skills while putting their leadership skills to use. Older law students may make natural leaders among their peers, and fully participating in student organizations can be a good way for them to network with future employers. Many law schools have a chapter of OWLS (Older, Wiser Law Students). Its members might be in a similar stage of life, often with partners and families as well as aging parents.

If possible, it’s helpful to be more flexible when it comes to where you will be attending school and practicing after graduation. While it may seem necessary to target a very specific area so that you and your spouse can work near each other, this will severely limit your options for employment after law school.

Try to look beyond rankings when it comes to selecting a law school to attend. There is a lot of pressure to attend the biggest and best school possible, but just because a school is reputable or popular does not mean it is right for you. If you care about getting an intellectual challenge or being comfortable in the school of your choice, try and visit those schools beforehand before sending in an application online. Sometimes the tour a law school offers will be a genuine first impression that will make you want to stay or eliminate them from the list.

It is also recommended to seek out an affordable public in-state law school. Luckily, there are a ton of them around the country to choose from. You should do this to keep your tuition costs low and your ROI high.

Try your best to develop a specific niche within a particular field of law that lines up with your established experience. You’ll have better interactions during OCI if you can connect your prior experience with the practice area you’re hoping to work in.

Joshua Holt is a former private equity M&A lawyer and the creator of Biglaw Investor. Josh couldn’t find a place where lawyers were talking about money, so he created it himself. He knows that a good law school budget will set you on the right path to financial independence and that if you want to get smart on personal finance you can read his weekly email.

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    One thought on Law School at 40

    1. I’m curious where your stat came from re 17% of law students over 36 y/o get into big firms. The ABA reports that 18% of law students generally get into big firms. Are you comparing the same size? This is academically and personally interesting to me as I started law school the week I turned 40, and am a third year at Goodwin (we’ve corresponded previously). Thanks for the good content!

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