Going to Law School at a Later Age
3 out of 10 students do not head directly to law school after college
Going to law school is a big decision at any age. It's a huge financial commitment and it's a significant time commitment as well. Of course, if you've always wanted to be a lawyer, there's no doubt that it's worth the sacrifice.
But what if you're older? The average age of first-year law school students is about 24, but what if you're older than that? What if you've spent years in another profession, but you keep thinking, "What if I went back to school and got my law degree?"
Going to law school can be a formidable challenge for older students who left academia years ago. Add to that a saturated job market, cut-throat competition, and a changing legal industry, and you might wonder if it's worth it or even if you can secure a job after you've graduated and passed the bar. Then again, you might find that these factors don't particularly intimidate or deter you. In either case, here are a few considerations for going to law school at a later age.
Can You Afford It?
There's no way around it—going to law school is expensive. U.S. News & World Report looked into just how expensive in 2017 and found that the average student at one of the top 10 law schools spent an average of $60,923 annually on tuition and fees. That comes out to more than $182,000 total, a walloping investment to make in your future. This is particularly the case if you're already tied down with a mortgage and supporting a family.
Of course, you don't have to shoot for the stars. Nothing says you have to go to one of the top 10 schools, and there's always financing available.
But keep in mind that if you finance your education through loans, you won't have as many years left in your working life to repay them. Granted, the average retirement age has been going up in recent years. According to MarketWatch, it was age 64.6 as of 2015. If you graduate from law school at age 35, that still leaves you close to 30 years to pay off those loans before you retire. In this respect, there's not a really significant difference between graduating from law school at age 26 or age 35.
You still have some time to pay off your student loans.
But what if you're 45? It's important to weigh the benefits of returning to school against the financial burdens of furthering your education, particularly if you have children who will also be heading off to college right around the same time you're entering law school. For some families, it can come down to whether you're going to help pay for their educations or for your own.
Age bias exists in the legal profession just as it does in many other industries. Some firms prefer to hire younger, inexperienced workers who are willing to work for less money, as well as for other reasons, such as career longevity, trainability, and commitment. Age discrimination can be a challenge for older workers, and today’s tough job market only exacerbates the situation.
This is where what you were doing in those years between college graduation and law school comes into play. Were you working in a field that was related to the law? Maybe you were a police officer or a paralegal. In this case, the law firm isn't getting an older worker who's still wet behind the ears when it comes to legal issues, someone who would have to start from the ground up at age 40 or so. They're getting a seasoned professional who simply put the finishing legal touch on his experience by getting that law degree.
This can definitely set you apart from younger applicants, and in a good way.
Statistics show that it's more difficult for older lawyers to land a job at large law firms, and large firms typically offer the most lucrative salaries. But this doesn't mean you won't have any opportunities on the horizon. According to the National Association for Law Placement, 53 percent of law school graduates who are 36 years old or older go into private practice or join firms with fewer than 10 attorneys. Only 17 percent join law firms that employ more than 250 attorneys.
Examine your goals. If you're contemplating going to law school at age 35 or even age 40, you're probably doing it because law is something you've always been avid about. You might be perfectly happy opening your own firm, although you should keep in mind that this will require a little start-up capital in addition to paying off those student loans.
But if you're going to law school purely in pursuit of a six-figure salary, you might want to think long and hard before you invest the time and the money. U.S. News & World Report also indicates that solo practitioners earned a median income in the neighborhood of $68,000 a year, and those that enter the public sector, such as entry-level prosecutors, topped out at about $52,000. But, of course, these are median figures, not averages, so at least half of those working in these capacities were earning more.
Older employees entering the legal profession have fewer working years ahead of them, so employers sometimes hesitate to hire second-career lawyers. Many law firms seek employees who are willing to make a long-term commitment to the firm, lawyers who will stick around long enough to make partner and contribute to the long-term growth of the organization.
This is where you have to sell yourself. If you have a passion for the law, let it show. Yes, the firm might not have you around as long as it would that 27-year-old, but if the 27-year-old is yawning or fidgeting her way through the interview, you might still come off as the better prospect.
Time is a big consideration and sensibly so. Older employees often have children, aging parents, and other commitments that prevent them from making the 50- to 80-hour-per-week time commitment that many law firms require. This gives some firms and organizations good reason to hesitate to hire older employees.
Take a step back and look at your life. Can you put in mega hours? Maybe you'll be 45 when you graduate, but you're a divorcee and your kids are grown so you can dedicate your life to the firm. Let that be known. Remember that prospective employers can't ask about your home life, but you're always free to volunteer the information.
If you're 35 and married with three kids, however, or if you're 35 and divorced with custody of three kids, you can be relatively sure that future employers will be wary—even if they just assume this is the case.
Older workers are often more set in their ways, so employers sometimes fear that they can't be molded or trained as easily. Some older employees also find it awkward to accept assignments or direction from younger supervisors.
Is this you? Age really is just a number. If you embrace every newfangled gadget your kids bring home, if you listen intently when your 30-year-old neighbor tries to explain something to you about which he knows a great deal and you know nothing, find a way to get this trait across to prospective employers. Otherwise, you might want to stay in your current profession, because there's a strong chance that the lawyer you'll be reporting will be at least a few years younger than you are.
Know That You're Not Alone
The Law School Admissions Council has estimated that approximately 30 percent of law school students are not tossing their four-year-degree caps into the air and proceeding directly to law school—they've taken at least a few years to think about it. The odds are that about three out of every 10 other applicants striving for the job you want will be close to your age and facing the same obstacles. Make sure you stand out from them and that you give those 20-somethings a little competition, too.