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Law School for Mature Students
By A. Harrison Barnes

Do any of the following scenarios sound familiar? You have been working
for years in a high-level career that is not taking you where you want
to go…or you have been slaving away working on your Ph.D. and are facing
many more years of fairly thankless work in other peoples’ labs at
student wages before you see any chance for autonomy or recognition…or
you have one of those degrees (such as a degree in electrical
engineering, computer science, or physics) you have heard all the
intellectual property law firms are seeking. If you are a sophisticated,
bright individual who has done a little poking around, you may have
come to the conclusion that obtaining your law degree will be the
solution to all your problems—your ticket to nirvana, the inside track
to wealth and prestige! And it might even lead to interesting work.

Before you start filling out law school applications,
it is critical that you understand the legal lifestyle and the proper
strategy for crafting a successful legal career. Simply earning a J.D.
is not enough. Depending on your ultimate goal, making a thoughtful
transition into law requires your consideration of a number of factors
before you take the leap.

This article will examine what an individual with an advanced degree
or an established career needs to consider when approaching a transition
into law. A subsequent article will examine how to have a successful
career as a law firm associate if you come to a firm with an advanced
degree (or degrees) or significant career experience.

So you want to be a lawyer? How much do you know about what lawyers
do? Do you have friends in the law? Have you been perusing law firm
websites, reading bios, and hearing about those entry-level salaries for
associates at top firms? Don’t get caught up in fantasy. Do your
research. Talk to people who are doing the work you think you might
enjoy. Take them out to lunch. Ask about hours. Ask about how they spend
their days. Ask about client contact and participation (or lack
thereof) in law firm management.
Take an inventory of what you have enjoyed in your professional life
and what drives you crazy. Learn what lawyers do, and decide whether
living out that reality would make you happy.

The potential salaries are seductive, but be realistic. Most of the
associates earning top dollar at the big firms are billing between 2,000
and 2,300 hours per year. And that doesn’t include “non-billable”
hours. This can be a shock to someone over thirty who is trying to
balance family needs with the demands of being a junior associate. Many
firms expect you to work into the evenings and on weekends. Many firms
expect you to take on rush projects with very little notice. Many
associates will say, “Your life is not your own.” All of this is
palatable if you are doing something stimulating that you enjoy, but it
can be burdensome if you are doing work just to generate a paycheck. The
firms paying the top salaries will also expect you to possess top
credentials in terms of your law school and your grades.

Some people choose law as a second career for philosophical reasons.
They want to become advocates for people, animals, or causes. Many of
these individuals choose to work for the government, nonprofits, or
smaller firms where profits per partner may not be the sole criteria for
judging success. If the zeal of advocacy, rather than the vision of
making partner, is your driving motivation, you can take a more flexible
route through law school.

Some choose law as a second career based on fascination or experience
with specific subject matter. Many experienced individuals have had
exposure to specific areas of the law in their professional lives, such
as employment law, landlord rights, or real estate, and can further
their careers by getting the J.D. Again, the route through law school
can be more flexible for these individuals, depending on the sizes of
the firms they hope to join.

A J.D. can open the door to a multitude of opportunities within
firms, within the corporate environment, within the nonprofit sector,
within government, and for individual entrepreneurs. BCG specializes in
placing attorneys in law firms; thus, these recommendations will focus
on the individual pursuing a J.D. with employment in a law firm as his
or her immediate goal.

Before you consider where to apply to law school, it is imperative to
know what type of law firm you may want to set your sights on.

Below are run-downs of some of the types of law firms you may be interested in joining.

Large, Prestigious National and International Law Firms

The top-tier national and international law firms
tend to be large, with multiple offices, high-profile clients, and
significant profits per partner. These firms offer access to the premier
lawyers in their practice areas, sophisticated and challenging work,
the prestige connected with association with a top firm, and
opportunities to develop careers that may lead to national and
international recognition. These are the firms that pay the top
associate salaries. However, most of these firms are very rigid in their
hiring criteria. Many will only consider candidates from the top 20 law
schools, as ranked by U.S. News and World Report. Many also
require GPAs in the top 10- to 20-percent range, law review experience,
and, in some cases, judicial clerkship experience. Competition to get
job offers for beginning associates at these firms is intense. And you
need to understand the process involved.

These firms hire the majority of their associates through their
summer programs. The firms conduct on-campus interviews during students’
first and second years of law school to consider who they might invite
to work for them as summer associates. If you have a successful
on-campus interview, you will be invited to the firm for one or more
call-back interviews. If you do well at these interviews, you may
receive an “offer” to be a summer associate. Depending on how your
experience goes during the summer, the firm may extend an offer to join
them after you graduate.

If you set your sights on a prestigious firm, you need to have this
process in mind when choosing your law school, approaching your studies
and exams, and getting involved in extra law school activities. Don’t
expect to be granted special notice or credit for life experience in law
school. If you want to get into a top firm, your GPA will be a critical

Boutique Law Firms

Many individuals with concentrated experience in specific subject
areas will set their sights on law firm boutiques that specialize in
areas of the law that complement their backgrounds. A few examples
include boutiques specializing in healthcare law, employment law, real
estate and environmental law, municipal law, or intellectual property.
Often, these boutiques may be more locally or regionally based.
Attending a local law school with a decent reputation (ranked in the top
100) and having a strong background in the relevant subject matter may
be enough to land you a first job. Grades will still be important, but
hiring partners will probably take a broader view of what you are
bringing to the table and what subjects you emphasized during law
school. If you know what area of the law you want to practice in, it may
be smart to consider which law schools are highly rated for programs
specific to your area of interest. For example, in some cases, attending
a school that is ranked highly in environmental law may be more
important than attending a school in the top 20 that may not have a
strong environmental program.

However, be advised that the national boutique law firms that carry
prestige and serve the big-name clients will probably be as demanding as
the big general practice national and international firms.
These high-profile boutiques want to be able to flaunt top-level
credentials on their attorney bio web pages, and top-notch writing
skills are a prerequisite.

Smaller Regional and Local Firms

Firms with 50 attorneys or fewer are incredibly variable in terms of
their practice mixes and the types of junior attorneys they may want to
hire. Some smaller firms are just as elite and particular as the large
international firms. A good rule of thumb is to explore a firm’s website
and look at the attorneys’ backgrounds and academic pedigrees. The firm
will be looking for junior associates with the same types of
backgrounds. If you find a small firm that emphasizes the practice that
interests you, make contact with one of its attorneys and find out if
and how they bring in new attorneys. Most attorneys enjoy speaking with
people who want to learn about what they do, as long as they are not
asking for anything more than information. The process of hiring junior
associates in these firms can be informal, based on word of mouth
referrals or Internet advertising, or it can be based on a summer
associate program as rigid and formal as those at the larger firms.

The Special Case of Intellectual Property

Those individuals with strong science or engineering backgrounds make
up a unique group. In some markets, intellectual property law firms are
aggressively recruiting junior associates from among first-year law
students who claim these credentials. If you have an electrical
engineering degree, a computer science degree, a physics degree or a
Ph.D. in the bio arts, as well as significant industry experience, a
recruiter may be able to represent you as a new graduate. The
top intellectual property firms are selective and expect students from
top-20 law schools, although students from law schools in the top 50
with strong intellectual property programs may be considered. Grades are
important, but extracurricular activities related to intellectual
property are also weighed heavily. Speaking to a BCG recruiter with
expertise in the intellectual property market while charting your course
through law school will keep your options open, as you plan submissions
to firms and progress through the associate ranks. A legal recruiter
can be incredibly helpful long before you need him or her to help you
find a job.


Do your research. Have some idea of where you are headed before you
jump into law school. As a first-year law student, I had a sudden
awakening. I thought I was taking time off from life to contemplate a
new career, try things out, enjoy the luxury of simply being a student,
and explore whatever might interest me. I was jolted out of this reverie
by the law school career counselor who gave the first-year students their October orientation. She stressed that we were not allowed
to submit resumes to law firms in pursuit of summer associate jobs
until December of our first year. I seemed to be the only student
surprised that we were expected to start approaching potential employers
only 12 weeks after beginning law school. I remember walking out of
that meeting dumbfounded, thinking about how I had no idea what I wanted
to do after law school. How was I to know where to submit resumes?

Although not knowing what you want to do is not a terminal condition
in your first year, if you end up setting your sights on the top-level
firms, you will be behind in the game if you did not enter law school
knowing that was your goal from the beginning.

Other considerations for the older student include the debt load you
are willing to shoulder to achieve your goals in the law, the issue of
geographic relocation, and how well you will be able to balance law
school and the legal lifestyle with your current lifestyle. I will
explore these topics, as well as day-to-day strategies for “older”
associates in sophisticated law firms, in future articles.

Posted on: 11/25/2010 04:27 AM | Number of feedback 5


Thanks for this posting, I've been considering law school for a couple of years. I became a CPA in 02 and have owned a construction company since 06. How impossible is law school going to be with a family in tow - three kids wiping their own you know what and the oldest is almost driving! I've done some litigation support, some tax, audit, etc. loved the litigation support, I've been ruined by the taste of the dispute resolution process. As for schools, UMKC is the closest to me, not sure how good it is, saw it listed #99 in 4 way tie. As for applying to firms starting in December as you wrote, I was planning to start up a smallish tax practice while in school and morph it into a tax-law practice of my own but...I know enough to know I don't know a lot. Being an employee might be refreshing too, but I am anchored to the family and will not be an absentee Dad, if thats the price I'll wait til they're in college themselves.

Thought please?

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