Nearly a decade of working with students with behavioral disorders exposed Nicole Jansma to the intersection of schools and the criminal justice system. It also led her to study the law.
“It was just in my face all the time,” said Jansma, 34, a 3L at Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology.
The COVID-19 pandemic made Hugo Scavino ask himself if there was anything he wanted to do that he’d regret not trying. Three decades after he “failed out” of his first attempt at law school, Scavino, 54, gave it a second shot at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
“At this age, you can’t have any more regrets,” he said.
Coworkers around retirement age made Amanda Davis think about where she wanted to be long term. She realized the answer required a law degree. Davis had always been interested in law but had to finish undergrad first.
Now 37, she recently earned her J.D. from Mississippi College School of Law. “I’m glad I went back and did something I’d wanted to do,” she said. “There were definitely times when I was like, ‘This was the wrong idea.’ But it was worth it.”
For Kelly C. Donahue, the driving force was a desire to branch out and take on a different challenge after 15 years as a nurse. “I always loved writing and enjoyed the client-facing side of nursing,” said Donahue, 36, a 2L at University of Nevada Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law. “I appreciated that law was extremely detail-oriented but allowed me to keep a proactive role.”
Whatever brought you to law school later in life, returning to the classroom carries different challenges and considerations than it might have when you were 24—a common age for 1L students.
The Law School Admissions Council’s most recent matriculant study shows the ways in which age affects the law school experience—and that in some respects, it doesn’t make a difference.
Students 30 and older cared less about career services offered at their law school than students 29 and younger.
Social environment decreased in importance with each age group, from 73 percent for students 22 and younger to 49 percent for students 30–39, and 47 percent for those 40 and older.
While law school reputation was of similar importance to all age groups, law school rankings mattered most to younger students and least to those 40 and older. Those older students care about law school mission more than any other age group.
But as many returning students have experienced, there are more benefits than setbacks. Based on their law school journeys, these four second-career students provided advice for others contemplating or entering 1L.
Embrace your nontraditional path to law school.
At the beginning of her first year, Jansma was worried about seeming indecisive. “Initially I viewed my coming to law school late as a disadvantage,” she said. But her adviser taught her otherwise, and job interviews that turned into offers showed how much the work experience made her applications stand out.
“I learned to lean in and embrace it and be really proud of having had a career,” Jansma said. She could tell employers valued maturity and important soft skills, such as effective workplace communication. “To the extent anybody is feeling weird about being a career changer and wanting to downplay it, do the opposite. Own it,” she said.
Donahue had similar advice, though he cautioned to be prepared for higher expectations. “I’m aware that I’m leaning into the fact that I have an existing work history I can point to,” he said. “That means when I show up after having played that card, I’d better produce.
“I feel a lot less stressed about finding a job than I think a lot of my classmates do because I’ve been through that process before,” he added. “But outside of school, I feel a tremendous amount of pressure for it to go well. I gave up a license I worked very hard to get and that would be very hard to go back to.”
Figure out a study plan.
This goes for everyone, regardless of your age or time out of school. But the longer it has been since you studied, the less natural it may feel to develop new study habits.
“I’ve definitely struggled with getting back into the flow of being a student,” Donahue said. “It has been a real culture shock. The study habits weren’t there.
“Being used to reading at the level we have to do for law school—not just the volume but where you’re reading for specific reasons—that was tough,” he added. “That took me a minute to get back in shape for.”
Donahue’s past and future professions also have some key differences. “From a learning standpoint, nursing focuses on data collection, but we’re legally forbidden from drawing conclusions,” he said. “We don’t make diagnoses; we just collect the numbers. Law is the opposite—you draw conclusions.”
And as much as work experience can help with time management and professionalism, it might not make a difference on law school exams. “There was truly nothing that could have prepared me for how intense a law school exam is,” Jansma said. “Just the sheer mental exhaustion of a three- or four-hour exam, that’s not something I’d ever experienced.”
Learning how to pace her studying was “trial by fire,” and that had nothing to do with the time out of school. “Perhaps coming from undergrad, I would have been even more shocked,” Jansma said.
Compared to his first time around, Scavino said law school has been much more inclusive of different learning styles, both in terms of classroom engagement and opportunities to assess your learning and outside resources. “Now you have every single magical tool to read and reread,” he said. “I find myself able to learn the way I want to learn.”
Conserve your energy and don’t stress about friends—you’ll make them.
In her 20s, Jansma could bounce back from all-nighters and maintain a busy social calendar in a way that she can’t sustain anymore.
“I don’t need to have the same type of social life I had in my 20s, and that’s OK,” she said. “Folks coming straight from undergrad are able to make the social experience more similar to undergrad. I think for those of us who are older, it’s kind of like I’m friends with people at school and I chat with people at school. But I’m not out partying with them every weekend.
“It’s just different, and none of that is necessarily because us older folks aren’t invited,” she said. “It’s more because I just don’t have that stamina anymore.”
Jansma’s advice is to know your limits. “If you’re able to keep up with the 20-somethings, go for it if that’s you,” she advised. “But I don’t think you should feel pressure to do that. You can still make friends, and you don’t have to pal around just with the other older kids.”
For example, Jansma said, one of her best friends is her moot court partner, who’s about 10 years younger.
Similarly, Davis said going back to school in her 30s was helpful because she was more comfortable skipping parties to stay in and study.
She finished her bachelor’s degree online, so 1L was her first time back in a classroom. “The drama and gossiping, I’d have thought grad school would be above that,” she said. “It was a little strange to realize it still happens.”
Davis said she slowly got involved with the student bar association and a women’s law group. “I didn’t have the traditional college experience, so I wasn’t sure what these groups did,” she said. “It was nice to see similarly situated people going through the same thing and learning how to make a network to support yourself.”
Donahue said the key to his success was creating a small group of friends. His group had a range of ages and backgrounds and a shared interest in Dungeons & Dragons. The game, which requires thinking quickly and making arguments, was great preparation for certain aspects of law school, he said.
“This is super-generic advice, but reach out and support your fellow students and ask for support from them,” he said. “The younger students who struggle are often struggling by themselves.”
Scavino echoed that friendships will happen—in his case, more quickly than he expected. The bigger adjustment was how much students freely shared their views in the classroom.
“There are a lot of opinions on the same set of facts,” he said. “These would not be proper discussions at work, but they come up in class.”
Investigate your past.
The longer you’ve been alive, the more stressful it can be trying to remember details about your past. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to track everything down for both law school applications and bar exam character and fitness evaluations.
“Try to go back and talk to people you would have known back then,” Davis said. “People can help you piece things together.”
Lexis records are helpful, but they don’t catch everything. Davis said they missed some of her past addresses. Getting reports from every state where she’d been licensed to drive helped jog her memory.
Do what you can, but at a certain point know that it’s enough, she said: “As long as you’re open and honest with examiners, they’re going to understand you may not remember where you lived for a month.”
Recognize what advice is helpful to you, and figure out what you can skip.
When email blasts and other messages seemed geared to younger students, Jansma credits her “level-headed” career advisor with giving solid advice about what she should focus on. “It allowed me to prioritize and be more choosy,” she said.
Most law school extracurriculars didn’t appeal to Donahue, he said, recalling a similar push during undergrad for students to be as involved as possible to impress future employers—who ended up not giving extracurriculars much attention.
“My focus now is on work experience,” Donahue said.
Whatever brings you back to law school, and whenever you go, the common advice is to know what you’re getting into and who your people are. “No matter how much work you think it’s going to be, it’s going to be even more,” said Scavino. “Without a support group, it’s going to be pretty hard.”