Navigating Law School as a Non-Traditional Student

Navigating Law School as a Non-Traditional Student Please welcome back guest writer Kala Mueller, Director of Public Interest Programs at the University of Nebraska College of Law. She’s discussing how to handle law school if you’re not a “traditional” student.

Most people equate “non-traditional” with being older, but if a “traditional” student is one who has gone straight from college to law school, then “non-traditional” might encompass anyone who has not. Still, I typically think of a non-traditional student as someone who is entering law school after at least a few years out of an educational setting. I worked full-time for one year between college and law school, and while that might technically mean I was a non-traditional student, I certainly wouldn’t have felt that the label was fitting for me.

Part of the reason is that I don’t really think my experience was unique from that of my classmates coming straight out of college, whereas most non-traditional law students feel that their experience is different, at least in some respects, whether it is due to the fact that they spent a few years in the workforce, are significantly older than many of their counterparts, or have children. Although maturity and life experience are usually beneficial, it probably will not come as a surprise that life as a non-traditional student is not all sunshine and rainbows. There are both positive and negative implications of the characteristics we often associate with non-traditional students.

Shaking off the Cobwebs

After you’ve been out of school for a period of time, it can be hard to go back to being a full-time student. It may take some time to adjust, particularly if you had a fairly regular 8-5 work schedule. Law school is definitely not an 8-5 gig. However, most non-traditional students put a lot of thought into the decision to go back to school and often welcome the opportunity to be a student again. Having a break might make you appreciate it more, and those 8 a.m. classes probably aren’t going to phase you at all, especially if you have children. Speaking of which…

Family

Not all non-traditional students have children, nor is parenthood the exclusive territory of non-traditional students. It is quite possible that you or others in your law school class are “traditional” students who are married or have a child. Whatever other labels you may have, if “parent” is one of them (and it often is for non-traditional students), this section certainly applies to you.

Although I have gone to law school and have several children, there was no overlap between these two major life experiences. Having now done both, my hat goes off to those of you occupying the roles of law student and parent at the same time. This is no small feat, and it certainly adds an extra layer of complexity to life as a student. However, you’re probably more mature because of it, not to mention the fact that it can provide a welcome reprieve from the law school environment (your kids don’t want to hear about the Rule Against Perpetuities) and force you to be more disciplined. In a recent post on advice from current students, I touched on the importance of maintaining a schedule, and that applies doubly if you’re a parent.

Prior Career

As a non-traditional student, you probably have more work experience than many of your peers and may have even had a successful career before law school. Generally speaking, this is advantageous. Someone who can handle responsibility quickly with minimal supervision and has experience working in a professional environment is attractive to an employer.

If an employer has any concerns regarding your work history, it might be that you won’t be teachable. I think this is something more likely to come up if you’ve had some previous legal experience – perhaps you worked for an attorney as a legal assistant or paralegal. I think in most situations an employer will view this as a benefit, but you might encounter someone who worries you’ll be set in your ways and that it will be difficult to train you/unteach certain habits. Again, I don’t think this is a frequent problem that non-traditional students face, but a potential concern to be mindful of going into interviews.

Employers often ask students why they decided to go to law school, but I think they are particularly interested in hearing from non-traditional students about what led them down this path. Thus, it’s very important that you’ve thought carefully about how you’ll respond to this question, as it’s almost certainly something you’ll be asked to discuss.


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About Kala Mueller

Kala Mueller is the Director of Public Interest Programs at the University of Nebraska College of Law. She received her B.S. in Criminal Justice from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and her J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School, where she served as a senior editor for the Wisconsin Journal of Law, Gender & Society. Before joining the law college, Kala worked as a prosecutor and with a civil litigation firm where she practiced primarily in the area of personal injury defense. She lives in Lincoln, NE with her husband and three sons.

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