Law School Late 5.10.20

Telling the Nutshell Version

I’m writing a series of posts to explore the experience of starting a JD at age 51. While everyone’s path is unique, the phenomenon of aging is common to us all: all of us are all the ages we’ve ever been, and all of us adults are coping with bodily changes, past regrets, and all of those deeply ingrained patterns and fears. All of us are inhabited by innumerable stories of love and loss, blessings and disappointments, gathered during our journeys around the sun—and, at some level, at least, all of us wonder how much time we have left, and what’s worth doing with that time.

Maybe something in my own journey will resonate with you, so I’m writing it down. (This is #2 in the series.)


After five decades of this, it’s hard to nutshell my life. Is the proper starting point my childhood? undergrad? the job I had before my kids came along? the long, lonely years of staying at home to raise them, and scrambling for ways to keep my mind awake and sharp? Or is it the crystallization of all of the above into the certainty that I wanted to apply to law school?

I didn’t always know I wanted to be a lawyer. In fact, the thought that this role might suit me exactly didn’t even enter my mind until five years ago, when I was challenged by a friend to try. 25-year-old me was too focused on teaching first graders how to read . . . 35-year-old me was preoccupied with educating my own two rambunctious sprouts . . . 45-year-old me was carefully navigating the waters as a public speaker and female theologian in a setting that didn’t yet have much room for women in these roles.

But in 2015 a switch was flipped. I landed on the idea of teaching U.S. history to my firstborn by way of significant Supreme Court cases and issues of race in America, and I dove in deep to prepare our lessons. For the first time, I was reading the judicial opinions instead of just reading about them.

And I was hooked. My experience with theological writings had equipped me to recognize where schools of thought influenced interpretations of texts, and to appreciate the value of knowing the historical and cultural context of every writer and trier of fact. The many long, slow, isolated years that I had devoted to study—largely out of loneliness and boredom—had kept my mind nimble, and now I had found a new field to run in. And, in contrast to the impoverished opportunities for service that I’d found as a female theological writer and speaker, this field held the possibility of worthwhile work that paid.

Challenged by my friend to go the distance, I set my sights on a point in time as yet five years off, giving my youngest sprout time to finish high school with me first. A volunteer role set me in the local courthouse weekly, so I could get a taste of the legal world and see if I could imagine myself participating in it one day (I could!). And, most recently, a six-month stint as a legal assistant reintroduced me (after twenty years!) to the professional world, letting me see myself as something other than isolated, bookish, and maternal.

And now I am, quite literally, on the eve of the first day of law school. When we begin classes in this season of social distancing we won’t be present to one another bodily, so I suspect that the differences in our ages—often signaled subtly by the way we carry ourselves physically—will be muted, even on Zoom. There may not be enough data yet for others to know that I have five decades to my name. This will remain my secret superpower for a while.

I like that I’m starting this new chapter after so many years of doing other things. I like that I know and am comfortable with the long, slow curve of getting to know a person—or a field of study, or myself. I like that I understand about sudden bends in the road, and that loss and grief can mellow into treasure over time. I like that I have had enough time to find these things out.

I like that I am all the ages I have ever been, and that I can remember being 21, and 34, and 42. Maybe my having walked through those years already will give me the sensitivity to guess how some of my classmates are feeling right now.

And maybe the challenges and gifts that these next two JD years will bring to the nutshell version of my life will be just what I need for the chapter after this one. Carpe diem, while the days are ours.