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Non-Traditional Law Students

Jeffrey Zavrotny

Jeffrey Zavrotny

Over the past five years, more than 20% of all applicants to law school were 29 or older. Additionally, about half of all law school applicants over the same period were at least two years out of college when they applied to law school. So, the perception that all law students are young 20-somethings heading right to law school from college is inaccurate. A significant percentage of law applicants come to the process with more experiences and hopefully with a little more wisdom than assumed.

There are myriad reasons why non-traditional students choose to return to school and pursue a law degree. Some students have a passion for the law, want to make the world a better place, are looking for a career change, or see a law degree as a way to advance in their current careers. The reasons they return are of less significance than the process each student should go through to consider if law school is right for them at this particular point in time. Law school is different from most graduate programs, and prospective students must understand these differences to create the best opportunity for success.

Law school is different because of the nature of the study of law itself and the expectations placed upon students. The study of law is more than learning facts. It is more than learning what the law actually is. It is more than knowing about the trial process or any other legal proceeding. The study of law is about learning to think like a lawyer. Thinking like a lawyer requires a student to approach every problem with a critical eye. It requires that students look at a problem from many directions. It requires that students not just find an answer but understand why that answer is correct. It requires students to support their answers with facts and how to explain that answer as a reasoned argument. It also requires that students know the counter-arguments just as much as they know their own. That transformation of the student’s thought process begins with the very first class. This shocks many new law students accustomed to easing into a field of study.  

Law school also places high expectations upon students. Most law schools have mandatory grading curves. These curves are meant to reward those students who perform well and to inform those who don’t perform well that they are struggling. These curves can be harsh and lead to academic dismissal for some students. These expectations are not arbitrary. They are necessary to facilitate student success in law school and hopefully on the bar exam.

Non-traditional students also should consider more mundane factors when determining if law school is something they should pursue. Time allocation, family responsibilities, and expectations of employers are extremely important considerations. Law schools are still very traditional by nature. For example, there are strict limits on the number of missed classes. Students must request a leave of absence if they need to skip a semester. There are minimum course loads, and generally, course offerings have less flexibility. Balancing life outside of the classroom with external considerations is a must.

Even with the rigor of the classroom and the competing interests of school, work, and family, thousands of non-traditional students apply, enroll and graduate from law school every year. There are many reasons why non-traditional students succeed despite all the challenges. Probably the most important reason is the level of maturity a non-traditional student brings. A student with a previous career, graduate degree, or other accomplishments approaches law school from a different perspective than a younger student. Their previous successes inform them on how to approach the practical aspects of legal training. Many of these students understand what is required in a professional environment. They take on the challenges of law school as if it was a job and hold themselves to a high standard. These students also have experience managing multiple tasks and deadlines, which is invaluable as a law student. (Imagine having required readings for classes, exam preparation, and writing a legal memo simultaneously.)

Even more valuable than managing law school tasks, non-traditional students have experience balancing their lives with education and work. They tend to categorize, compartmentalize, and place issues in their proper perspectives. For example, earning an A in a class may be less important to a non-traditional student than actually understanding the material covered in the class. These students are more interested in the intellectual growth provided by a legal education.

Non-traditional students can be just as successful or more successful in law school as traditional students. Once a student has adjusted to and mastered the demands of law school, the experience is incredibly rewarding. The experience can be compared to that of raising a child. In the midst of it, it seems like it will never end. But when you are done, you will look back and wonder where the time went.

— By Jeffrey Zavrotny

Jeffrey Zavrotny, Esq., is associate dean of Admissions at Wilmington University School of Law.

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