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The Non-Traditional Law Student

2L, The University of Richmond

I would like to thank Dean Wendy C. Perdue of the University of Richmond School of Law for her help in preparing this post!

I began law school at the age of 29. This fact lumped me into a group known as "non-traditional" law students. Anyone who does not come to law school directly from their undergraduate education (known as the K-JD route) is considered non-traditional. To be fully honest, my situation was even more "non-traditional" as I not only worked in the real world, but I completed, a mere two weeks before starting law school, a Masters' Degree. However, the undeniable fact is that the average age of 1Ls is rising. This means that each year, the "non-traditional" law student is becoming more and more traditional. I pose that being "non-traditional" has a number of advantages over following the K-JD route.

Firstly, those of us who do not follow the K-JD route have experience in holding jobs in the "real world." Whether they are working minimum wage jobs at Wal-Mart, or like me, work in the insurance industry, we have a different experience with interacting with everyday situations. For me, to get licensed in the Insurance industry, I had to learn quite a bit about Healthcare Regulation. Secondly, throughout my career, I had to make sure that my actions fit within the HIPPA regulations. I am not alone with this outside legal knowledge. My friends who were teachers had to know about mandatory reporting laws. My colleagues who had careers where they had to be a part of a union knew labor law, or at least its rudiments. Being "non-traditional" therefore, means that those of us who go into law school after some time in the "real-world" actually have an advantage in our knowledge of the law.

Secondly, those of us who spend time in the real world before attending law school learn non-legal skills which are vital in being a successful lawyer. Dean Wendy C. Perdue, Dean of the University of Richmond School of Law, believes that "some time before law school can help students develop the "soft skills" that are actually quite important for lawyers – teamwork, negotiation skills, judgment, time management, emotional intelligence, etc." Time management, in particular, is a skill which is arguably more vital in law school than in undergraduate education. Though we take fewer classes during our 1L year than we did as undergraduates, the work load is significantly higher. My experience in the insurance industry instilled upon me a new appreciation and a significant improvement in my ability to manage my time. As an undergrad, professors may be slightly fluid with deadlines. In the insurance industry, if you do not meet your goals by a certain time, you could lose your job. Law professors are unlikely to extend deadlines, unless there is some significant and compelling reason.

Along with the idea of time-management, Dean Perdue mentions teamwork and negotiation skills. She hits the nail on the head with this assertion. Very rarely does one work alone in the real world. As an undergraduate, students often read alone, write alone, and take their tests alone. Likewise, attending law school can be a solitary experience. Unless one takes courses in negotiation, collaborative law (my particular area of study), or ADR, you do not learn "soft-skills" in law school. Therefore, spending time working a 9 to 5 job can provide law students with invaluable skills for practicing law.

Dean Perdue also states "students who take some time between college and law school may come to law school with a better understanding of themselves and their goals, aspirations, strengths and weaknesses." I could spend an entire blog post on how this is a huge advantage. To put it mildly, having time in the real world, where you learn what you like and don't like, learning your strengths and weaknesses is vital towards handling law school, which can at times be quite overwhelming.

I have found as a "non-traditional" law student that I can pass along the advantages both Dean Perdue and I see as being inherent in spending time in the real world to my K-JD colleagues. This is not to say that all K-JD students lack these capabilities, or that all "non-traditional" students immediately have them. I want to clarify that neither Dean Perdue nor myself are saying that each "non-traditional" student immediately has these qualities. In fact, Dean Perdue began her response to my questions by saying "Of course everyone's situation is different." For those of us who are "non-traditional" and possess the qualities which Dean Perdue state can be helpful in navigating law school, we can be useful in helping our fellow students who do not possess them excel in law school and beyond. I also want to be clear that "non-traditional" students face some disadvantages over our K-JD colleagues. For many of us, it takes some time for us to return to the student mind frame. Also, for many of us it has been awhile since we have taken tests. I am an outlier as I came straight from writing a Masters' Thesis, but for many of my fellow "non-traditional" colleagues it could have been years since they last wrote a formal paper. I do believe, however, that these disadvantages are easily overcome.

I want to end this post on a different note. I strongly believe that in today's law school atmosphere that the term "non-traditional" is no longer appropriate. In my 1L class, we have 17 out of 140 students who are married. A number of us hold graduate degrees, a surprisingly large percentage are veterans. This "non-traditional" student is becoming more and more common with each passing year. While we are not the majority, I do not believe that we are so uncommon as to still be considered "non-traditional." I would propose that we are called "returning" students. Such a term does not have the same connotation of being different that being called "non-traditional" does.

In conclusion, I believe that there are significant advantages to spending time in the real world before attending law school. Doing so allows future lawyers to see how the law affects every day situations. It gives us time to do self-reflection on our goals, strengths, and weaknesses which allow us to succeed in law school. Finally, as Dean Perdue rightly asserts, spending time in the real world gives us training in the so-called "soft skills" inherent in being a lawyer, including team work, negotiation, and collaboration.

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