In January 2013, my boss asked me to come into his office. He gave me a choice of accepting a demotion or starting a “Performance Improvement Plan” that would essentially lead to my firing. I was devastated by this news. I had been with the same company for 12 years and assumed I would be there for life. My wife and I had adopted our son only two years before. They both counted on me. Now, faced with the choice of a demotion or likely being fired, the choice was pretty simple. I took the demotion and once again became a claims examiner.
I dove right in. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed working in depth on one file and digging into the details of a case, especially those in litigation. At about the same time, I traveled to Edinburg, Texas to attend a trial for my company. I saw the defense prevail in a venue that we considered less than favorable for defense verdicts. A light bulb went off. I knew I was reasonably bright. I started thinking about becoming an attorney.
This was a big change for me. I had never considered the law as a career. When I thought of attorneys, I usually thought of Matlock or Perry Mason. I didn’t imagine myself as a golden-voiced orator like William Jennings Bryan or Clarence Darrow, but I knew that I could put the pieces of a case together and help a jury understand my client’s story. I took the LSAT. I also researched law school, employment outcomes, and common salaries. I saw all the negative information out there about job prospects, but it seemed to me I could still make a good living and eventually pay down my student loans. As far as the kind of work I would get to do as an attorney, I hoped it would be something intellectually challenging. My company did mostly car accidents and personal injuries. One of the attorneys we worked with referred to it as the “fast food” type of law. I knew that I wanted to aim for something other than that.
I got into the evening program at SMU Dedman School of Law. I started in August of 2014 and my company agreed to let me work part time. It was scary trying to start a new career as a middle-aged dad with a family. But, at orientation they said the oldest starting student was 44, so at 39 I didn’t feel so bad. I met some other second-career students with children and we quickly bonded over our experience.
If anyone tells you law school is easy, they are either considerably more intelligent than I or are doing it wrong. But, as I worked through that first semester, I got my confidence back. I remembered how much I liked to learn. I learned how to make a cogent argument based in logic. I didn’t do so bad the first semester and I did even better the second semester. Thankfully, my years in the workforce had helped me develop time and stress management skills which have proved invaluable for law school. I was also pleasantly surprised about my career prospects. Law firms came to the school to recruit students for jobs that paid considerably more than the median salary I was expecting based on my pre law school research.
I started working with a career counselor at my law school who taught me about networking. It made me a little queasy. The last time I thought about networking was when a friend of mine offered me a “business opportunity” in a network marketing company that sold soap or insurance. But this wasn’t that type of networking. I learned that we should set up informational interviews with lawyers who were doing the kind of work we wanted to do.
I had met an attorney who graduated from my school’s evening program and worked as an adjuster while he got his J.D., so I emailed him and we set up a coffee. I showed up with a sheet of notebook paper filled with questions. I wasn’t sure how it would go. This person worked downtown in a high rise where most guy’s suits cost more than I was making in a month. I figured he’d be annoyed spending his time me when he had this demanding career, but he spent an hour answering my questions about law school, what to take, and how to get a job. His insight helped me a lot.
A few months later I read Rachel Gezerseh’s post about getting into big law on Above the Law and I reached out to her through her website. I told her about my situation, and how I wanted to find a career that could help my family significantly in the future. I really didn’t expect much of it, I just wanted her to know I appreciated her story about getting a job in a large law firm even though she went to a lower ranked law school and was an older, nontraditional student. To my surprise, Rachel reached back out to me. We worked on some plans for networking and focusing my job search. She gave me strategies on how to use my existing contacts to reach out and find people who may be able to help in my job search. We brainstormed. I told her how Gibson Dunn had assisted my family in the adoption of our son and how impressed I was with their reputation. Rachel suggested I reconnect with the attorneys who worked on our adoption and let them know that I was now a law student. I emailed and set a meeting with one of the attorneys. When we met, we talked about her career at Gibson and what was in store for me. I also brought her up to date on my son, and let her know about the great impact her pro bono adoption work had made on our lives.
I am now through two years of a four year degree program and looking forward to on-campus interviews in August. Even though people will talk about the glut of lawyers and how law school is a bad idea, there are still quite a few firms that actively recruit law students as associates and woo us with receptions, T-shirts, flash drives, and coffee mugs. To me, the future looks bright. My plan for this summer is to continue to reach out to people I have met and others while working on interviewing skills. The law school journey so far has been exciting and rewarding and I look forward to seeing what comes next. That 2013 demotion that hit me like a body blow has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.