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Later-than-most to law school

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Contrary to popular opinion, there are advantages that come with age, and they can help in law school.

Beginning law school at 50, I was more Professor Kingsfield than James Hart (translation: more Professor Callahan than Elle Woods). When making the decision to go to law school, I didn’t consider how my age might factor into the academic experience or later job searches. After arriving on campus and learning that the woman sitting behind me was celebrating her 21st birthday, I realized just how nontraditional this experience would be.

According to LSAC, 1L students average between 22-24 years old. Most of my classmates were born after I finished my undergraduate degree and had never heard of, much less seen, “The Paper Chase.”

My later-than-most law school experience changed my career options, opened a new world of friendships, and revitalized my potential for meaningful work. When a delightful, much-younger friend from law school asked me to reflect on my later-than-most education, I agreed, hoping to connect with others attending now.

Here are my thoughts.

Why are you here?

Start by clarifying your goals. It’s no coincidence that most older graduates don’t end up as partners in BigLaw. Unless you bring with you a significant client base, you may not be a great match for BigLaw’s first-year positions.

Having worked with hospice programs for 28 years before going to law school, I knew I wanted to help low- and middle-income people gain access to legal protections and avoid legal problems because they didn’t see an attorney at the right time.

This vision prompted me to select classes focusing on health care and estate planning and connected me with a medical legal aid partnership. It also opened the opportunity to work with a government Medicaid fraud unit. After graduation, those choices translated into a trial court judicial clerkship and a federal court of appeals clerkship.

Embrace your uniqueness

Second, be a student. It took a big fail on my first midterm to make me understand that doing the reading wasn’t the same as preparing for the test. Fortunately, the fail was on a midterm, and the professor didn’t hesitate to tell me some hard truths.

Once I knew what was required and learned to ask for timely help from teachers, librarians, and classmates, law school became much easier.

Third, know yourself. One of the few gifts of living in this body for so many years is that I have a better idea of how I work than I did in my 20s. Know that you become less alert in the afternoons? Schedule your class preparation for early mornings. Know that you have a hearing deficit? Sit
in the front row. I know I need a system to organize critical information.

Notecards are my love language. Finally, cherish your law school friends. Our accelerated J.D. program group consisted of eight wildly different students. Our classes floated from section to section and bobbed between 1L and 2L courses. The trial by fire forged our friendships. Another older student started a Fine Wine Club with the motto that, like vino, some of us were better with age.

Also, law professors, despite their 1L curmudgeonly reputation, teach because they enjoy seeing students grow. The relationships forged through lectures, office hours, and one-on-one conversations will link you with your professors throughout your career. Shared experiences of cold-called Socratic method teaching, moot court, and bar exams are the epic tales lawyers exchange throughout their careers.

Keeping it real

I don’t mean to unrealistically glamorize later-in-life law school. While I qualified for some scholarships and loans because of my age and background, I couldn’t have done law school without the financial and keep-the-fires-burning support of my husband.

After leaving my job of 24 years and being 500 miles from home, I frequently woke panicked that I’d made an irreversible mistake. One nontraditional student left in the middle of our first-semester civil procedure final and never returned.

Professors helped, friends talked me back from the edge, and my credit score is better now than in my 20s.

My husband, my kids, my folks, and my lifelong friends pulled me through on the bad days and cheered my successes.

No matter your age, be diligent, do good work, and have some fun. And if you took typing in high school like I did, do a search and replace to eliminate the second space after the period in your legal briefs.

Barbara Vargo Barbara Vargo graduated from the University of Minnesota, Creighton University School of Law and is a member of the bar in South Dakota and Florida. After graduation, Vargo worked as a law clerk for a South Dakota trial court and will begin a clerkship with the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in August 2020.