How to Master Law School and a Legal Career Later in Life
Have you ever gone to work, sat in your desk, and had a nagging feeling that everyone was living their dreams except you?
That was me over a decade ago.
I was working as a pit boss in Las Vegas when one of my colleagues at the casino decided to apply for law school. Before I knew it, he was graduating and talking about taking the bar exam. I thought, “Well, if I would have done what he did, I’d be in his shoes.”
During a time when most people are having mid-life crises, I decided to drop everything and return to the classroom. Little did I know, I wouldn’t just find a job; I would find my vocation. Plus, I’d learn a lot of valuable lessons along the way.
Deciding to attend law school later in life means deliberately choosing a difficult but rewarding path. If you’re wondering whether you should attend law school in your 30s, 40s, or 50s, consider it carefully. Working as a lawyer can be incredibly rewarding, but it doesn’t come without a few challenges.
The Path Toward Law School
The decision to attend law school in my late 30’s stemmed from several moments in my life. I was born in Arizona in a trailer park in a little army town. We didn’t have much, and I remember asking myself, “What can I do to avoid being poor when I grow up?”
My first choice was to join the army, so I became an army medic. While I was in the army, I saw a golf pro giving lessons to a beautiful young girl, and I wondered how I could do the same. So, I became an assistant golf pro for a few years. After that I sold cars, waited tables, served as a bartender, and more.
As rewarding as my experiences were, I always wondered whether I should attend law school. Time was my biggest concern. I had a family, and I initially thought that I couldn’t possibly drag them through a process that would take years. In making my decision, I consulted my wife, and she encouraged me to go for it.
Before I knew it, I was gearing up for a challenging three years in hallowed halls. Plus, I worked during school and raised my kids. When I passed the bar, I turned down several offers that were not the right fit. In fact, it wasn’t until I found my current job at a nationwide personal injury firm that I knew I was in the right place.
Admittedly, it takes a specific type of person to be a successful trial lawyer. Life experiences matter in this field because you meet people from all walks of life. Contrary to the negative stereotypes attributed to personal injury lawyers, our work depends on our ability to genuinely connect with people. My clients call me when they are at a low point in their lives, and it’s my job to position them in a better place. My job is also incredibly fast-paced and accuracy is key.
How to Succeed as a Law Student and Lawyer Later in Life
If you’re still on the fence about attending law school, or you’ve already received your acceptance letter, here are a few important things I wish I knew before I stepped foot inside a law classroom:
- Make the most of free time in law school.
If you are considering law school, you might be surprised to learn that you do have free time; however, you will (mostly) spend it studying. Be intentional with your free moments and make them count. For example, if you have a long commute to class, listen to case discussions or oral arguments in the car. Some law professors even provide audio lessons that help students navigate key concepts.
Between law school, work, and my family, every moment I had was pretty much spoken for. One of the best aspects of law school is that most people in your class are high performers. They want to do well. If you gravitate toward a certain group of people and develop the same study habits, these people can help you understand ideas much more quickly and perform better on exams.
Just as you wouldn’t show up to work late or unprepared, always prepare for class and exams. Treat law school like a job because it is one. I found that older students who worked or had families outside of school were able to treat law school more easily like a workday. I didn’t do a lot of the extracurriculars or other activities most students did because I really had to focus on everything else.
- Set yourself apart from job applicants.
Before I landed at my current firm, I remember searching for jobs one morning and came across an ad for a firm that promised $150,000 per year, no experience required. I took a shower, put on my suit, and waited for the firm’s doors to open that day. I did this for about five days in a row, and no one would meet with me. The attorneys would not even come out and say, “We’re not hiring.” I began to think, “Wow, I really don’t want to work here.”
I knew that my first job out of law school had to be the right one because I simply didn’t have the time to work somewhere for three years and realize I was in the wrong place. When I found the personal injury firm I currently work for, I applied for an attorney position in person and dropped off my resume. Our CEO has a policy that if you do that, you automatically get an interview.
I also knew that if I stayed in the mix with the college kids and didn’t set myself apart, I wouldn’t get the job I wanted. It’s very hard to stand out in this field, so you’ve got to meet people and make connections to get noticed. You have to show that you are more dynamic than your resume, especially in personal injury law. I also found that it was better to apply to my top three places and really nail my cover letter, resume, and interview, rather than putting minimal effort into several applications at once.
- Accuracy is crucial in practice.
When I was a pit boss, my job was to make the casino happy and handle large bets. I mean, huge bets. We’re talking millions of dollars. It was a high-pressure environment that forced me to work quickly and accurately, and mistakes were not part of the equation.
As a trial lawyer, you must be quick on your feet and avoid misstating the law, as that can have a detrimental impact on your case. People who have already learned that in previous careers tend to have a leg up over other lawyers and law students. Everything I do has an impact on a client’s life and their legal rights, so I must be quick but thorough.
If you have a keen attention to detail but can plow through a day’s work quickly, working as a lawyer could be for you. If you prefer a more relaxed career, reconsider law school. As lawyers, we constantly work to hone our skills and become better at our craft. There is no such thing as perfection, but excellence is a must.
- Remember connection and empathy.
When I was a car salesman (yes, that was a thing), I immediately noticed the difference between a good car salesman and a bad car salesman. Great car salesmen listened more than they spoke. They learned what customers wanted and used that information to figure out how to get it for them. The bad salesmen talked more than they listened and lost customers as a result.
Similar to car sales, practicing law also requires incredible listening skills because attorneys must make genuine connections with their clients for clients to feel comfortable and for cases to succeed. When a client comes into your office with a problem and is looking to you to fix it, they are also searching for ways to relate with you. Some lawyers don’t realize this, but you have more in common with your clients than you think. When they visit with you, remember to find common ground to build a meaningful relationship.
Now you’re probably asking, “Can clients tell if your connection isn’t genuine?” Yes. I have yet to meet someone who couldn’t tell if their lawyer was faking it. For example, I’ve seen lawyers say “howdy” or “ya’ll,” even though it was not natural for them. You can’t force or fake connection, so the best thing you can do for your clients is bring your whole self to work. This includes your past experiences because a lot of people may relate with them.
- Don’t wait for lessons (and opportunities) to find you.
When you’re a new attorney, you should actively try to learn as much as possible. One of the first lessons I learned in practice was humility. In law school, you are expected to know more than your peers. When you are practicing under senior attorneys, however, it’s important to admit when you don’t understand a legal theory. By doing so, you learn valuable lessons instead of missing a learning opportunity. Truthfully, a lot of people struggle in practice for a while because they fail to admit when they don’t know what they are doing.
Plus, you may get more autonomy in practice when you are honest about not knowing the answer. As a personal injury attorney, it’s so important to know what you don’t know. As you gain experience over time, people begin to trust that you know where to find the answer to a problem. Admitting what you do not know also pushes attorneys outside of their comfort zone. This has been key to my progress at a personal injury firm.
Importantly, no one is going to tell you, “I don’t want you to do work I don’t want to do.” If there is a part of case you think you can handle, volunteer to work on it. At the right firm, people will always encourage you to learn and help. While it’s tempting to say, “I can’t handle this wrongful death case, so I’m out,” offer to handle the investigation or review the deposition transcripts. The best attorneys take up space and volunteer for responsibilities earlier in their careers.
If you are considering law school and a legal career later in life, it’s time to set clearly identifiable goals and work on achieving them, even in the early stages. What type of law do you want to practice after law school? Where do you want to be five years post-graduation? The last thing you want to do is go to law school without a plan. With the right background, skill set, and drive, you can excel as a lawyer if the law is your calling.
Jason Aldridge is a senior trial lawyer at Zinda Law Group, where he handles car accident cases, traumatic brain injuries, product injuries, premises liability cases, and more. He is licensed to practice law in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico. He is also a Lifetime Member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and was honored as Texas’s Top 10 Attorneys by Attorney and Practice Magazine. You can learn more about Jason here.