There is no single definition of a non-traditional law student, but most schools agree it is someone who does not take the kindergarten to law school (K-JD) path uninterrupted. Many non-traditional students are those who pursued a career right after college to gain valuable experience, or have taken time to start a family. Whatever the circumstances, going to law school as a non-traditional student comes with some major benefits, and some drawbacks, that you should consider.
If you are coming to law school after having another career, consider that an advantage. You have been in the working world, you know how to follow directions, to manage your time, and for some, to lead. You have experience with expectations and chain of command. One big complaint from law firm employers is that many newly minted attorneys do not have any real-world experience to draw from. Traditional K-JD students come straight to a firm from the theoretical world, requiring a transition period once in the “real world.” This is where you can set yourself apart from others during an interview with a firm or for a clerkship. You know how to work, and employers will be impressed with that!
Another potential advantage is your experience in balancing obligations (although some may struggle with this as discussed below). Many non-traditional students will enter school with a spouse, and some will have children. If that is your situation, it is likely that you already know the value of work-life balance. You will need to be able to figure out how much time you can allocate to each, because law school is as much of a job as raising a family. Since you have come from the working world, you already have a leg up on the balancing act routine. If you have a family, they can also be an excellent source of emotional support, which is a must during law school.
Older non-traditional students have the advantage of age and experience. You will be able to ride the waves of emotion and stress that come with law school better than your younger colleagues. You may also be more comfortable seeking out help when you need it, because older people are typically more adept at asking for help—they already know they don’t know it all. Older people also tend to have confidence and maturity on their side. They may be less afraid to ask questions in class, or to volunteer to answer as best they can. Depending on your age, professors may even see you as more of a peer than a student, and may be more respectful of you.
Usually, the non-traditional student is in law school because they want to be there. You have already had other life experiences, and now you are focused on law school and becoming a lawyer or doing something that utilizes a law degree. The first year of law school is tough, but you will have the focus and determination to see it through and meet your obligations. The K-JD students may think they want to go to law school, but they have not had sufficient time to really understand the why. By taking time between undergrad and law school, you have made a conscious decision to attend law school, and that dedication to get there will not go unnoticed.
One challenge you may face is that you probably haven’t studied or taken a test (besides the LSAT) in years. Figuring out the structure of classes and examinations may be difficult—and there is definitely a formula to almost everything you will do in law school. A law professor once told this writer that being in law school is like asking you to speak Chinese—except they haven’t taught you Chinese yet (Thanks Professor O’Mellin!). Transitioning back into the classroom will be tough. You may even cry, but that’s OK. You will get the hang of it! Some schools have adjunct professors teaching first year and practical classes. An adjunct is often more approachable than a tenured professor. Go to an adjunct with questions or concerns, and ask them for advice about the structure of law school. You may also want to utilize online resources to see how a good outline is created and what you should be doing for your outlines. Another way to acclimate is to make friends with other non-traditional students who are 2Ls and 3Ls.
Another obstacle you may encounter is that you are coming to law school with other obligations. Spouses, children, and other commitments, like coaching or volunteering, will need your time and attention, too. Not everyone is an expert at balancing school with other ongoing obligations. Evening classes may interfere with your home life, so try and register for daytime classes. If you can, schedule your classes to give you some hours in-between to do assignments and study so you have less work to do once you get home. Scope out space in the law library (some libraries will allow for assigned cubbies to work from) and use your “down time” to get ahead. This will not always be possible, but try and get as much done on campus as you can (and if you are remote, stay in your learning space during the day to work). Then ,when you arrive home it feels like you are ending a workday, and can concentrate on your life outside of school.
The cost of law school and the loans necessary to attend should give you pause and may be a challenge. Law school tuition gets more expensive every year, and you must consider your current expenses, which may be even steeper than those faced by traditional students. Those costs do not cease just because you are once again a student. Car payments, mortgages, and childcare are not cheap. A lot of student loans are limited to “reasonable” living expenses beyond the cost of tuition. These will not even come close to covering expenses like a mortgage in many situations. Make sure you have a plan for how you are going to handle this situation. If you are married, does your spouse work, or can they work during your schooling? Can one income cover the cost of you focusing solely on school in your first year? If not, you may want to look for a law school that has a part-time program, allowing you to work and take classes over a longer period. One cannot escape the discourse these days about the overwhelming cost of student loan debt, so make sure you really look at the financials before signing on the dotted line.
Finally, unless you are willing to relocate for school or commute, being a non-traditional student can limit where you attend school, absent an online program. You may have to settle for a law school with a lower ranking because of your proximity to it instead of attending your dream school. If you cannot give up on your dream school, you will have to balance uprooting your life to make it work. This iseasier said than done.
Overall, while law school may seem intimidating and daunting at first, you will prove yourself to be a valuable asset to the school and to the profession. Your prior experiences will assist you in obtaining success, and any challenges will eventually be overcome. Buckle up and enjoy the ride; you can be assured it will be an experience you will not soon forget!
Next month, Vault will release its annual Top 100 Law Firm rankings. Nearly 17,000 associates from across the country participated in our survey this year, rating their own firms on quality of life issues and rating other firms on their overall prestige as well as regional and practice area strengths.
Going to law school isn’t—or at least shouldn’t be—something you decide to do suddenly or aimlessly. Such a commitment of time, money, and effort should be taken on only after much deliberation and preparation, especially since your career and your future are at issue.
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