The Adult Student and the Decision to Apply to Law School

by Justin Giordano, Metropolitan Center
Originally published inThe Queens Bar Bulletin, February 1998 (also republished in the Suffolk Lawyer, 1998, and in All About Mentoring, Issue 12, April 1998); reprinted here with the permission of the author.

The decision to apply to law school in pursuit of a law degree and ultimately a career in the legal profession certainly ranks among the most important decisions an individual will ever make. In most instances the decision is never an easy one, and the choice made will undoubtedly result in a life altering career path. The decision-making process becomes even more heart-wrenching and, in most respects, the consequences must be weighted more severely in the case of many of our students.

I would distinguish among three categories of law school applicants: Group A is made up of younger or “traditional” law student applicants. Group B is made up of older students, ranging in age from the mid-40s onward. And Group C is made up of what I would call the adult learner. Members of Group A face the kinds of personal and academic questions and dilemmas any applicant to a professional program have to deal with. Those in Group B are typically empty-nesters who are often retired from a previous career and are eagerly seeking to commence another, or to fulfill a lifelong ambition long postponed. (Members of this group are generally in a better financial position than those of the other two groups.) It is the adult learner, Group C, who is truly caught in the middle in practically every way. This is usually a person who bears a substantial number of responsibilities with the most heavily laden one generally revolving around family concerns. Another dilemma the adult applicant faces involves his/her current career path and its envisioned trajectory. That is, this adult student has to decide whether his/her current career is worth pursuing further, or whether it is better to cut one’s losses while the possibility for a change of course still remains viable.

The question thus becomes: Can the adult student approach this decision in a methodical manner without emotional overindulgence or conversely, without sole reliance on financial and/or cost benefit analysis? The answer (as you probably guessed) is yes! However, a sound decision cannot be arrived at without using a step by step analytical approach. This could take the form of a series of questions with which the adult student may grapple in order to comb through the multitude of issues he/she must confront. Many of these questions are obvious; others are not immediately apparent but certainly no less deserving of serious scrutiny and thought.

Firstly, the career issue. The potential adult law student must ask him/herself: Do I really want to be a lawyer? This question opens the door to a slew of possible answers and sometimes subconscious motives that are buried beneath the surface. Our society views the legal profession with mixed feelings. At best, we see it as a financially rewarding career with a degree of prestige and respectability. At worst, however, it is seen as a profession which is often unscrupulous, opportunistic, and even unethical. Thus, while this is an emotionally driven question, for many, how one is perceived by peers and society is very crucial to their lives.

Another aspect of the career question is a more pragmatic one. What is the cost I can expect to incur, and how much can I realistically expect to earn once I’ve undergone the full transformation from student to licensed attorney? This question is much more easily answered by members of Group A, for whom the analysis is relatively straightforward: The cost of a legal education ranges from $50,000 to $100,000; it requires a commitment of three to four years, and is invariably accompanied by its opportunity costs – that is, a loss of potential earnings directly related to employment for this time frame ranging from $100,00 to $120,000. These two items are measured against the promise of a higher starting salary coupled with the prospect of higher earnings throughout the lifespan of one’s new career. Salaries and earnings vary so dramatically that in order to ascertain a figure, the question of which field of law is contemplated, the law school one expects to attend, and the rank one will attain by the end of one’s career, all play a pivotal role. Suffice it to say, however, that freshly minted new lawyers’ annual salaries cover a wide spectrum from the middle to high 30s through the $90,000 range.

The adult students in Group C face essentially the same financial realities as those of Group A, but the numbers may vary somewhat on both ends. Specifically, the opportunity cost is more likely than not, higher – and sometimes substantially higher, given that the adult student has already been involved in the workplace for a number of years. The potential starting compensation package at the other end might also be more lucrative especially if the chosen field of practice is related to that individual’s expertise prior to law school.

The next career-related question is what I call the “dead end career syndrome.” A good number of adult students are presently in careers that simply pay the mortgage and car payments, and put food on the table; otherwise, they are uninspiring, offer little opportunity for promotion, and can generally be regarded as unrewarding. Typical questions the student might ask are: Is my discouragement with or overall alienation from my current position the major motivation for moving to what I hope will be a more fulfilling professional life? To what extent is this a realistic assessment? Have my feelings about my current job distorted my understanding of law school or future legal work?

More than either the Group A or Group B applicant, the member of Group C must contend with complex issues regarding family life. Two sub-issues arise here: time and finances. The adult student is more often than not the parent of growing children who require a substantial chunk of his/her time. A serious commitment to law school places substantial demands on time, a situation that is exacerbated if the adult student is pursuing legal studies on a part-time basis while holding a job (a not unlikely scenario). Family finances can also be placed in serious jeopardy if proper planning hasn’t been done. The questions that often arise are: What are the sacrifices of each member of my family if I choose to pursue legal studies? Is everyone in the family (adults as well as children) aware of the significant changes in everyday responsibilities that will result from this new direction? Have I adequately planned for this major reorganization of my priorities and my time?

Should the adult learner consider law school in this day and age of rising tuition and ceaseless talk of the legal profession being overcrowded? My answer to this question is also yes. Severe competition can be a formidable obstacle to overcome, particularly if one is not lucky enough to attend a first tier law school and consequently may be facing a hostile job market upon graduation. The rewards can nonetheless by quite impressive as well, including an education in a field which does have a noble history and which continues to grow at a steady pace. A legal education can also lead to venues other than the practice of law. (Note that 25-35 percent of current CEO’s in the U.S. hold law degrees.) And, the legal trade – arguably more than any other profession – still does hold the promise of making a difference and having an impact on our lives.

Ultimately, a legal education and a license to practice law are only tools – but valuable ones, that can be instrumental in bringing about positive change and growth. It is worthwhile remembering that such tools can only come to life through practitioners who must enter the law from every segment of our society, including the adult students whose on-going contributions to the profession – and to the country – are so critical. But our students who are contemplating this shift in their lives must not forget that they have to grapple with their responses to the kinds of questions introduced above. It is only in so doing that they can seriously and honestly arrive at a conclusion about this most significant planning decision.