A ‘Nontraditional’ View: Law School at 40

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St. Mary's School of Law Dean Stephen Sheppard welcomes first-year law students. Photo by Lorna Griffin.

St. Mary's University School of Law Dean Stephen Sheppard welcomes first-year law students. Photo by Lorna Griffin.

I never graduated from high school. Not for any particular reason, I just didn’t consider education important at the time. After getting my GED at age 17, I began working primarily in service jobs and as administrative support, and although I enjoyed moderate success in those jobs, I knew that I would always be on the lower-wage end of the spectrum. My family relocated to San Antonio in 2008 and after years of working and not getting ahead, my husband and I decided that I would head back to school with the goal of getting a better job in the future. I traded in my full time job for part-time employment at a nonprofit organization and started classes at San Antonio College.

At community college, I was considered a “nontraditional” student, but I found that there were many other students just like me. Often, it was the older students that were better prepared for class and took learning more seriously. Slowly, but surely, I completed basics and eventually enrolled in the bachelor of public administration program at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). I chose the program because I was interested in how citizens interact with their government. I found I enjoyed learning about how our society governs itself and the areas of urban management and land use were of particular interest to me.

In the fall of 2013, I took a senior seminar course with an emphasis on civic engagement with Francine Romero, associate dean for the College of Public Policy at UTSA.  Romero also sits on the San Antonio Zoning Commission and during the semester had students attend a couple of sessions. In attending those meetings, it became apparent to me that something as seemingly mundane as land zoning was significantly more important to our society than I had previously realized.

A diverse group of friends, family, acquaintances, business partners, and professors takes part in sharing views during Part I of the project. Photo by Michelle Skidmore.

A diverse group of friends, family, acquaintances, business partners, and professors takes part in sharing views during Part I of the “To Pay or Not to Pay” project at UTSA. Photo by Michelle Skidmore.

That semester our class also participated in a community research project, “To Pay or Not to Pay,” designed to measure public opinion on city council pay. The course expanded my interest in public policy issues, but like many students, I was not exactly sure what avenue to pursue following graduation.

At the end of the semester, Romero extended an offer to speak with students considering future plans. She discussed some graduate school options with me and I shared with her that my husband once suggested the possibility of me attending law school. I told her I couldn’t see myself in a court room and she pointed out that there are attorneys out there doing all types of work related to public administration. She helped me realize that the law impacts our lives every day in ways we don’t even think about. Romero said something during our meeting that still resonates with me today, “Don’t limit yourself.”

After much thought and consideration, I decided to pursue law school. I met with an Admissions representative and found out about the part-time evening law program at St. Mary’s University School of Law. A juris doctorate program is typically completed in three years and most students complete the evening program within four to five years. After countless hours of preparing for the LSAT and submitting the application, I received my acceptance letter to St. Mary’s part-time evening law program.

I was ecstatic, but I was also concerned that the law program would be too rigorous. After all, I work (albeit part-time), I care for our four children, my husband works 60-70 hours a week, and I was about to turn 40. I asked myself if it was silly to start law school this late in life. Once I started the program, however, I realized I was not the only one with a full plate. There are 42 students in our evening section, and we all have similar life circumstances. Most work full-time jobs, care for families, or have other commitments, and despite the degree of difficulty and volume of required reading material, each classmate has demonstrated commitment and dedication to their studies.

Lorna Griffin (second from left) stands with co-counsel and opposing counsel during a moot court competition at St. Mary's University School of Law. Courtesy photo.

Lorna Griffin (second from left) stands with co-counsel and opposing counsel during a moot court competition at St. Mary’s University School of Law. Courtesy photo.

Although my schedule is jam-packed, I have participated in a couple of the school’s Ask-a-Lawyer events, a joint effort between the law school and Catholic Charities. There are several events throughout the year during which citizens in the community are interviewed by students about legal issues they are experiencing. The students then consult with volunteer attorneys who offer their legal expertise in providing information. These were terrific learning experiences and the citizens I worked with were comforted in knowing they had options, if not solutions, to their legal problems. The experience demonstrated to me how compassion, knowledge, and the intervention of someone with a sense of fairness and legal expertise makes all the difference. There are several other volunteer opportunities with the school and I plan to continue to get involved as much as my schedule will allow.

One issue that consistently looms overhead is my student loan debt. Like thousands of other students in similar circumstances, the debt will be significant. I am counting on the many years I have left in the workforce in order to pay it all back. There are a few student loan forgiveness programs out there that I am considering, but I still find myself wishing I had gone to school years ago.

The Griffin family visits Mission San Jose. Photo by Lorna Griffin.

The Griffin family visits Mission San Jose. Photo by Lorna Griffin.

At this stage in my life, I should be saving for retirement instead of racking up student loan debt. However, this is my reality, and despite the debt, I am still glad I made the choice to go to law school. It was the right choice for our family and in so many ways, we will be better off from it.

After completing the required first-year courses this fall, I will be able to select courses that better suit my interests. I am not sure which area of law I would like to practice, but a career in the public sector would be especially meaningful work. I hope to increase my understanding in the areas of land use, urban planning, and zoning, as they are still of great interest to me.

For now, I am concentrating on my studies. It is a struggle to do well in my job, manage the day-to-day activities of a busy family, and fit in the necessary three hours of preparation for each class. Law school is incredibly demanding. I must confess that at times I wonder if this is worth all the trouble, but when it comes down to it, I love it. I feel like I am achieving something important while giving our children an example of hard work and dedication. I want to make a difference in the community, and although I’m not quite sure how, I know I belong in this field and that I am on the right path.

*Featured/top image: St. Mary’s University School of Law Dean Stephen Sheppard welcomes first-year law students. Photo by Lorna Griffin.

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13 thoughts on “A ‘Nontraditional’ View: Law School at 40

  1. the cost of graduate education, and resulting student debt – is a big deterrent for many who would like to go on to pursue something beyond their bachelor’s degree. The cost of just a bachelor’s degree can also be alarming.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. You’ve inspired me, and have my (rusty) wheels turning for my post stay-at-home-mom future! Cheers!

  3. Lorna, your story is such an inspiring one, from GED to law degree. I’m sure your husband and children are very proud of you. I hope you find work in a field that allows you to contribute to San Antonio’s public well-being and that makes you eligible for tuition debt forgiveness. Thanks for sharing your story with us. –RR

  4. Lorna, Good luck. When I read looming struggle – it reminds me that fear and excitement are the same emotion – just a different outlook. Hard work is energizing when you have a sense of purpose. At 40 now a days, your life isn’t half over. It seems that the best attorneys I’ve worked with have come into it from somewhere else.

    As a person who changed careers at 39 and made the best decision of my life even though my friends thought at the time it was a mistake. If you like what you do, then get into it as quickly as possible with the best people you can find doing the things you want to do, and the degree itself is not the prize – working part time in the field and extending the school time is a viable alternative if it can save $$ and give you a good family/work/school life balance.

  5. I’d like a little more exploration on what seems to be a contradiction to me: the debt aspect she acknowledges and the “this is better for my family” aspect. Does the author expect to have more free time to spend with her family? Is it to set a good example for her children by pursuing an education beyond a BA/BS? It doesn’t appear to be better financially.

    I’m not trying to belittle her, but in general I think law school is an awful idea for almost anyone because it’s expensive and there aren’t many good jobs anymore. So I tend to make these kinds of comments so prospective law applicants might stop and consider the choice they’re making largely based on the American myth of lawyers being rich.

  6. Lorna’s story does well to capture the anxieties of non-traditional students, myself included. I particularly liked her “this is my reality” perspective on student debt versus non attendance. Truth be told, there are plenty of options by way of consolidation and income based installments to repay student debt without having go through the ringer – not to mention the upfront relief of scholarships and grants. While I wouldn’t disagree that secondary education is outrageously expensive, it shouldn’t be as big a deterrent as many allow it to become. After all, the take home in this piece is that you are never too old or too busy or too broke to follow your interests and do what you love.

  7. Hi, Lorna — I think your story is very inspiring. I work at UTSA College of Public Policy. I think it’s wonderful that you talk about the senior seminar class and how it influenced you decision to go to law school. Students can read this and see that they can major in public administration and have great chances of getting into law school. I love your hard work ethic. Great job.

  8. When we as a society find better, more intelligent ways to engage people people like Lorna who are willing to dedicate themselves to lifetime improvement and skill development, we will unlock enormous human potential in this country that will improve all of our lives. As we live longer, more productive lives, the notion of returning to any higher education at 40 makes great sense; let’s bring focused, experienced and mature talent into professional development and “recycle human capital” effectively. Other advanced economies have found creative ways to relieve the financial and other obstacles to empower those willing to make the personal sacrifices. I personally would prefer an attorney with well-round life experience grounded in a sensibility and wisdom developed through this type of personal journey. You will succeed!

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