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.

Law School Late 04.11.20

What’s Age Got to Do with It?

One month from today, I will begin a two-year JD program at Drexel University’s Kline School of Law. I am 51.

A month ago, these two facts seemed a sufficient premise for this blog on starting law school late in life, on the chance that my experience could be generalized to others on an unconventional path to a law degree. Everything seemed on track. On March 9, in fact, I was even present in person at Drexel, meeting other accepted students and chatting with professors standing not two feet away, excited for the beginning of things on May 11 and trying to resist calculating the hours till I’d be back for my first class. I came and went by train that day, testing my commute and finding it satisfactory. I was prepared to fall in love with Philly.

Well, I’m still going to Drexel—figuratively speaking—and I’ll still be writing this blog about being a late starter. But as with everything else in our lives, both of these ventures are now going to be shaped and constrained by the ubiquitous coronavirus. I am thinking that I could not have picked a worse two years of my adulthood to pursue this degree if I’d planned it: starting on lockdown, and riding wave after wave of social distancing till I end (hopefully, best case scenario) vaccinated and graduated, maybe having met my classmates and profs face to face in the meantime, maybe having had the rich hands-on experiences that drew me to Drexel from the start. But “hands-on” right now is really not an appealing modifier.

Ever since I concocted the bright idea of attending law school after my daughter’s high school graduation, this question about my age has haunted me. What difference does it make, starting after 50? The math fascinates me: I am more than twice the age of most of next year’s 1Ls, who are as old as my son. I’ll have a decade or more on many of the men and women who will be my instructors. After the bar, I’ll have what, maybe fifteen, maybe twenty years to work if I’m lucky? I’ve wondered if this is really the best decision for our family financially. And wouldn’t a two-year program be the best thing for me, to get me through that door faster and into practice somewhere? Or should I take the typical three-year route, and savor the experience?

The math on my other age-related questions has been much more difficult to calculate. How will I relate to those half-my-age cohorts? How many social cues will I miss, how much cultural vocabulary do I have to catch up on, how many apps don’t I know that I should know? How will I come across to professors who are younger than me, or basically my age? In part anxious to be liked, in part anxious not to offend, I’ve tried to guess how much my age will really matter. It’s like trying to read a note taped to my back.

Of course, that was my pre-pandemic list of queries and worries. I would guess that for some of those things, like just plain getting along with people, my age won’t matter one bit, or might at worst provide some levity when I miss a cultural reference sometimes. What’s of more pressing concern right now relates more to my place among the generations than to my raw score of trips around the sun. Now I want to know things like: Will I be able to take my virtual classes at my mom’s house in another state if I have to go take care of my elderly parents because of the virus? While I’m here at home with my little family, how am I going to take classes and spend the four hours it takes to wash all the groceries down after my biweekly trip to the store? Will we have enough bandwidth, snacks, and goodwill for a WFH CPO, a college senior, a high school senior taking college classes, and a 1L?

So we’ll see how this goes, and what I find out. I’ll post some reflections here occasionally, starting with some background on how I got to this countdown to law school at age 51 in the first place. Each of our stories is unique, of course, but hopefully something of my experience will resonate with someone else on a similar journey. It’s always nice to know you’re not alone.