Second Careers: Law School After the Age of 40

by Jamison Koehler on March 4, 2012

I was 43 years old when I started law school.

I’m sure my grades would have been much better had I gone to law school right out of college.  I was pretty intense back in college. I read every assignment and obsessed over every detail, never missing a deadline, and I am sure I would have brought this same diligence to the law had I chosen that route instead of graduate school.

I am also pretty sure I would have hated it.  Without the life experience, perspective and patience I had as an older student, I would have viewed every reading assignment as a task that had to be performed as opposed to an experience that should be savored.  Always in a hurry back then, I would not have taken the time to sit back and allow the content to wash over me.  I would have struggled with the law instead of yielding to it.

It was a strange experience socially. My wife and I were friends with many of the faculty members, mostly through our children.  They had been to our house for dinner, for school social functions, or to pick up a child.  One of the professors told me later she was glad I never took one of her classes – it would have been awkward, she said, to have me sitting in her class.

As for my fellow students, my wife and I would occasionally join the gang out for a night on the town – maybe once or twice a semester the first year.  It was only on these occasions that I truly felt the age-difference. My classmates included some pretty hardcore partiers, and that could get awkward.  I also thought that many of them were overly deferential to my wife, with a few trying to use the occasion as a job interview. No, I would tell these people, you don’t really want to work for my wife.  Although she might seem pleasant now, she can be a very demanding employer.

I found out later that my classmates had speculated about my age.  It was like that scene in Saving Private Ryan in which the soldiers form a pool to bet on Tom Hanks’ civilian occupation.  After our last exam of the spring semester first year, I went out for a quick drink with some of my classmates and the waiter asked for all of our IDs.  One of my classmates found an excuse to look at mine before I put it back into my wallet.  I could see him scanning the ID for the birthdate, and there were some knowing looks around the table.  Somebody had just come into some money.

Otherwise, with my twenty- and thirty-something classmates every bit as smart as I was, I hardly noticed the age difference in the classroom. In fact, I probably suffered from the overconfidence phenomenon my father had often described from his experience teaching college English. The best grade in the class, he said, never went to the kid in the front row with his hand raised all the time. That kid, believing he already had everything figured out, never put in the time necessary to really master the material. Instead, the top grade almost inevitably went to some insecure kid sitting in the back row who never said a thing all semester.  I was the insecure kid in the back row in college; the cocky hand-raiser in law school, a favorite, I am sure, in any “Gunner Bingo” game, or whatever they call it these days.

In addition, identifying more with the professor than with my fellow classmates, I always felt duty-bound to help out a professor who was struggling with class participation. When our professor in employment discrimination brought in his mentor from private practice to speak to the class and nobody had a single question after the presentation, I quickly came up with something I urgently needed to know.  Given the look of relief and gratitude of the professor’s face when I raised my hand, I was expecting the honor of “distinguished class participation,” if not an outright A, for the class.  I didn’t get either.

After the respite of law school, the transition back into the working world as a neophyte in the practice of law was also a challenge. Although I have never suffered from an outsized ego, I have to admit that it is not easy to start off in a new and completely different career.  It can be humbling to have to figure out everything anew.

I also went from the showcase office in the Ronald Reagan Building I occupied during my previous career to sharing a table with three other interns during an unpaid summer at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia.  As an office director and then chief of staff at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, I was used to people stopping their conversation when I stuck my head into an office.  My time was valued back then.  And I was accustomed to people laughing at my jokes.  Somehow a first-year law student or intern isn’t quite as funny.

I think of George Bush the Elder complaining about how his golf game suffered after he left the presidency.  I think of Hamilton Jordan’s dismay at having to book his own travel arrangements after leaving the Carter White house. And I recall a former EPA official’s extreme gratitude when, while still at the Agency, I returned his phone call.  What do you mean, I asked him?  You used to be the Deputy Administrator.  Of course I would return your call.  You would be surprised, he said.  Very surprised.

I don’t know that I could ever have worked at a law firm after graduation.  For one thing, I didn’t have the grades to get a big firm offer. For another, I don’t know if I had the stomach or patience to report to some associate half my age.   I am sure this feeling would have been reciprocated; as one person put it, people don’t like ordering around someone who is old enough to be their parent.

From my wife’s experience, I also knew how difficult life as a law firm associate can be.  If deadlines for partners come from courts and from clients, associates get their deadlines from the partners.  This means that if the partner wants to take the weekend off to play golf, the associate will get the assignment on Friday afternoon, with the product due first thing Monday morning in time for the partner to review it upon his return. Working every weekend to fit someone else’s schedule may be fine when you are a young and ambitious lawyer.  It is very different when you are older.

Starting my legal career at the Philadelphia public defender’s office was thus a good fit. Although we were provided with plenty of guidance, training, and support, we were also given considerable autonomy.  Yes, there were certain organizational obligations, like doing office or prison intake interviews on the days we were not in court. I tell you, there is nothing more daunting than having to interview 10-15 cranky or scared inmates at the House of Corrections or Riverside Correctional Institute for Women. But for the most part, we were left on our own after we picked up our files for court each week.

I often took my files home in the afternoon so that I could be home when our kids got back from school.  I would then prepare them at night while the children did their homework or slept. In other words, I never fell victim to the mentality that you need to have the boss see you working late every night, even if you are just fiddling around on the Internet. Although leaving the office early at the public defender’s office was strictly verboten, my supervisors often saw me on the way out the door with my briefcase full of files and never said anything about it to me.

At the same time, of course, I understood the trade-offs I was making by not being in the office later into the day.  I knew from my previous career that the bonds you develop with your co-workers – to say nothing of the impression you can make on your superiors – tend to happen during these hours.  During my first or second year at the EPA, we were unmerciful in kidding an older colleague who had left an important memo, due by close of business that afternoon, half-written on his computer so that he wouldn’t miss his carpool.  Those boring old people, we thought, with their home lives.

Given my overarching interest in autonomy, the logical transition from the public defender’s office was to solo practice.  I never wanted to be a “lifer” at the public defender’s office.  Apart from the elite group of lawyers that handled the most serious offenses, I don’t know how anybody can suffer the abuse you get from indigent clients for that long.   Not every burnout is quick and public, although we had those too.  I think of my office mate – a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who had worked at legal aid prior to coming to the PDs office – hanging up the phone after a difficult call with a client and telling me he had come to the point in which he despised our clients.  Three months later he was gone, having found himself an entry-level job in private practice.

Although I wanted to honor the three-year commitment I made to the defender’s office when they hired me, I had always planned on eventually going out on my own. After a first career spent in government, the notion of running my own business appealed to me. I had a good relationship with many of the retained lawyers who circulated the halls of the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia, and I often asked them for specifics.  I also consulted two public defenders who had returned to the office after having practiced on their own for a couple of years. How was private practice? Why did you come back?

I had no problem making a living, one of them told me.  But I did get pretty tired of chasing after people for money.  I like it here where all I need to do is practice law.

When my wife and I decided to return to D.C. for other reasons, I initially hoped to hook up with a criminal defense firm in D.C.  Although I knew my way around a courtroom pretty well by this point, I was looking for some type of apprenticeship to ease the transition to a new jurisdiction.

When I didn’t have any takers (and in truth, I didn’t look all that hard), I decided to forego the apprenticeship and jump directly into my own practice. The moment of inspiration came to me one afternoon while I was updating my resume. I had a strange resume anyway, and as I was fretting about how to explain the gap on my resume during the time I spent as a stay-at-home father, I thought, why not be hired by one of the few people who wouldn’t require an explanation on anything:  yourself.  It was a big relief to put aside that resume.

There are many benefits to being older when it comes to solo practice.  A younger version of myself would have missed the structure and social aspects of a job within a formal organization.  Now I welcome the autonomy.  If I don’t like the client or the case, I say no thank you.  If there is an illness in the family or if I want to take a vacation, I do not need to ask anyone for permission.  I am accountable only to clients and the courts.  And, although I spend most mornings at court, the rest of the day is mine.  I am home most days when our son – the last of our children still at home – gets back from school.

While having to learn new things can sometimes be hard on the old ego, it can also be reinvigorating.  My wife and I are at the age at which our friends who are lawyers have now been practicing for over 30 years.  You can only do the same thing for so long – even if it is what you love to do – before it gets old.  If some of them are now thinking about moving in a different direction, I tell myself that, although I may be well behind them with respect to the practice of law, I am way out in front when it comes to the second career.  Woo hoo. I never like to lose at anything.

More like this:

On the True Value of a Law Degree

Advice to an Incoming IL:  Humble Yourself Before the Law

On Becoming a Solo Criminal Defense Attorney Right Out of Law School

No One Told You That Solo Practice Was Going To Be Like This

My Career As A County Prosecutor

115 Comments on “Second Careers: Law School After the Age of 40

  1. I retired from government service, attended and graduated from paralegal program, and graduated law school last year at age 64, and have found that my greatest success is in the insurance field, as my specialization and background in elder law was my forte’. Thank God, with His guidance age is never a barrier!

  2. I’m 40 years old and very seriously considering law school. I’ve been a Systems Engineer for about a decade now. Age is one of the bigger problems I see for myself so I was glad to read your post here. The other though is that I would like to find a way to get into a legal career without completely throwing away the experience and education I’ve obtained in my life as an engineer. I have an MS in Information Systems. Is there a good way to apply that kind of experience/education to a career in law?

  3. At 28, and halfway through a career in the military, I’m not sure what I want to be when I grow up. It’s reassuring to see that when I am around typical “retirement” age from the military I may still find success in such a demanding field.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and thoughts on the matter!

  4. Great article. I, too, am considering law school at 43. Thank you for journaling your career, it is not in vain.

  5. Good morning Jamison,

    I’m looking at law school and I am currently 40. I appreciate you providing your experience. I’m looking to work in Cyber or Real Estate law as I would like to take advantage of my 20+ year of being in both Cyber and Real Estate.

  6. I am 43 as well spending over 23 years learning English first language is cantonese also consider become an attorney but worry losing at trial based on first language is not English.

  7. An outstanding article. I am 40 and am studying for the CPA exam. While accounting is an excellent choice for a second career, I am considering complimenting my accounting license with a law degree. It may seem fickle, like I’m going from one second career into a third, but I believe the two will compliment each other nicely. I don’t know if I will ever be a practicing attorney, but the knowledge from a law degree would pair well with generally accepted accounting principles.

  8. I am 43 now been to US almost 23 years with BA from UCI, If I prepare well to take LSAT, then definitely would like to go three more years in law school. I like going to Court to represent a client but traveling is tough because of the LA traffic.

  9. I have been a paralegal since my 20’s, am now 48. I took off about 13 years to raise my children and right before I was about to go back to work, my husband (who is an attorney) has decided to divorce me. My only experience is the legal field and as a paralegal, but I want something more, so I plan to go to law school at age 48. I hope that it’s not a bad decision. So many people tell me that I am well-suited based on my paralegal skills and I am also well-known in the field, have many contacts, including judges. Any words of wisdom would be greatly appreciated.

  10. I am 43 and want go law school I am completely changing my career, I have to first get my bachelors degree, you given me so much confidence and I can do it age has always been factor but not much more

  11. Hey I am looking at switching careers. I have been a police officer for a middle sized police department for 13 years, and in the military for 20+ (active and reserve). I want to stay in the criminal justice world, and I see lawyer as the next step. The issue is no law school near by where I could do night school or something similar. It looks like online schools are still facing credential problems. Any suggestions, wanted to knock out schooling before I got my 20 years in at the PD.

  12. Thanks for sharing, because I will be attending law school at the age of 41 or 42. I am a late bloomer and didn’t get the chance to start college right after high school. Age really doesn’t matter, especially in today’s society. 40 is the new 30 and 30 is the new 20. This post really helps.

  13. I’ve got my LSAT on Monday and I’m 44 and I’m dreading it!

  14. Embrace it and good luck! I am going to start an LSAT study class soon. Did you do well on the pre-tests? All of us Older-and-Going-to-Law-School should start our own online chat/support group to help each other get through it.

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