Do any of the following scenarios sound familiar? You have been working for years in a high-level career that is not taking you where you want to go. Or you have been slaving away working on your Ph.D. and are facing many more years of fairly thankless work in other peoples' labs at student wages before you see any chance for autonomy or recognition. Or you have one of those degrees (such as in electrical engineering, computer science, or physics) you have heard all the intellectual property law firms are seeking. If you are a sophisticated, bright individual who has done a little poking around, you may have come to the conclusion that studying law as a mature student and obtaining your law degree will be the solution to all your problems-your ticket to Nirvana, the inside track to wealth and prestige! And it might even lead to interesting work.
Before you start filling out law school applications, it is critical that you understand the legal lifestyle and the proper strategy for crafting a successful legal career. Simply earning a J.D. is not enough. Depending on your ultimate goal, making a thoughtful transition into law as a non-traditional law student requires your consideration of a number of factors before you take the leap.
This article will examine what an individual with an advanced degree or an established career needs to consider when wanting to go to law school later in life and approaching a transition into law. A subsequent article will examine how to have a successful career as a law firm associate if you come to a firm with an advanced degree (or degrees) or significant career experience.
So you want to be a lawyer? Do you think you might be too old for law school? How much do you know about what lawyers do? Do you have friends in the law? Have you been perusing law firm websites, reading bios, and hearing about those entry-level salaries for associates at top firms? Don't get caught up in fantasy. Do your research. Talk to people who are doing the work you think you might enjoy. Take them out to lunch. Ask about hours. Ask about how they spend their days. Ask about client contact and participation (or lack thereof) in law firm management. Take an inventory of what you have enjoyed in your professional life and what drives you crazy. Learn what lawyers do, and decide whether living out that reality would make you happy.
The potential salaries are seductive, but be realistic. Most of the associates earning top dollar at the big firms are billing between 2,000 and 2,300 hours per year. And that doesn't include "non-billable" hours. This can be a shock to someone who is considering law school after 35 and is trying to balance family needs with the demands of being a junior associate. Many firms expect you to work into the evenings and on weekends. Many firms expect you to take on rush projects with very little notice. Many associates will say, "Your life is not your own." All of this is palatable if you are doing something stimulating that you enjoy, but it can be burdensome if you are doing work just to generate a paycheck. The firms paying the top salaries will also expect you to possess top credentials in terms of your law school and your grades.