Going to Law School at a Later Age

Are you too old for law school?

Older lawyer with briefcase entering a law library
••• Keith Brofsky/Photodisc/Getty Images

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. But there's no doubt that it's worth the sacrifice if you've always wanted to be an attorney.

The average age of first-year law school students is about 24, but maybe you've spent years in another profession, and now you're 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. Add to that a saturated job market, cut-throat competition, and a changing legal industry, and you might wonder if you can even 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.

Are You Up for Law School?

Those jokes about looking for your eyeglasses when they're on your face have some merit. Age brings a lot of good things, but it tends to slow people down as well. Depending on how long it's been since you last cracked at textbook, you might find it difficult to get back into the study routine—and to retain what you've learned.

You might not find it as easy to burn the midnight oil as you did a decade ago.

Your obligations to family can contribute to this dilemma as well. Imagine that your toddler takes a spill and begins wailing just as you begin cramming for an important test or challenge the next day.

Can You Afford It? 

Going to law school is expensive. U.S. News & World Report looked into just how expensive and found that the average student at a private law school spent an average of $40,095 annually in the 2018-2019 academic year.

That comes out to slightly more than $120,000 for three years, a walloping investment to make in your future—particularly if you take out student loans and interest is added on.

Out-of-state public law schools were more manageable, about $8,400 less a year, while in-state public law schools were significantly less expensive—about $21,500 a year less.

This cost consideration is magnified if you're already paying off a mortgage and supporting a family.

Keep in mind that you won't have as many years left in your working life to repay student loans, but you should still have close to 30 years before you retire if you graduate at 35.

It's important to weigh the benefits of returning to school against the financial burdens of furthering your education if you're closer to 45, particularly if you have children who will also be heading off to college right around the same time you're entering law school.

Age Bias 

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 their career longevity, trainability, and commitment.

What you were doing in the years between college graduation and law school comes can be important here, however. Maybe you were a police officer, a paralegal, or you worked in some other law-related field. The firm isn't getting an older worker who's still wet behind the ears when it comes to legal issues in this case.

They're getting a seasoned professional who simply put the finishing touch on experience by getting that law degree. In fact, some law schools, including Harvard, give special consideration to applicants with "real world" work experience.

Having an existing career rooted in law can set you apart from younger applicants, and in a good way.

Career Opportunities 

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% 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% join 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, but keep in mind that this will require a little start-up capital in addition to paying off those student loans.

Career Longevity 

Employers sometimes hesitate to hire "second career" lawyers because older employees have fewer working years ahead of them. Many law firms seek employees who are willing to make long-term commitments to the firm—they'll stick around long enough to 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 Commitment 

Older employees often have children, aging parents, and other life commitments that can prevent them from making the 50- to 80-hour-per-week time commitment that many law firms require. You can be relatively sure that future employers will be wary if you're 35 and married with three kids, or divorced with custody of three kids.

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. If so, let your circumstances be known.

Remember that prospective employers can't ask about your home life, but you're always free to volunteer the information.

Trainability 

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.

But age really is just a number. Find a way to get it across to prospective employers if you embrace every newfangled gadget your kids bring home and listen intently when your 30-year-old neighbor tries to explain something to you about which you know nothing.

Otherwise, you might want to stay in your current profession, because there's a strong chance that the lawyer you'll be reporting to 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% of law school students have not tossed their four-year-degree caps into the air and proceeded directly to law school. They've taken at least a few years to think about it.

So the odds are that about three out of every 10 applicants striving for the job you want will be at least 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.