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by Vault Education Editors | March 31, 2009

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Anna Ivey is a private admissions counselor who works with people applying to the top business schools and law schools. If you have a question for Anna Ivey, send her an e-mail.

Question: I am 45 years old and considering applying to law school. Am I too old and wizened for a career in law? Do law schools even want to hear from applicants like me? Can you give me some guidance?

Anna's Answer: I've received a lot of mail this month from older applicants -- "older" being a relative term, of course. I recently wrote a column ("Time Off Before Taking the Plunge") about the benefits of gaining some life and work experience before applying to law school, but it's certainly fair to ask if there's such a thing as too much time off.

Let's clear up the easy part of this question: admissions officers will be happy to hear from you. When they say they're interested in diversity, they don't just mean the check-the-box kind. Most admissions officers aren't spring chickens themselves, and they are quite sympathetic to the seasoned viewpoints that "mature" students can bring to the classroom. Older students who've been out in the real world raising their families, paying their taxes, refinancing their homes, battling their school districts and finessing their way through office politics offer a fantastic and necessary counterbalance to the youngsters who've never filled out a 1040 and still have Che Guevara posters on their walls. When the kiddies raise their hands to wax rhapsodic about 80 percent tax rates and express outrage about body piercing discrimination in the workplace, you'll be able to inject a nice reality check into the discussion. (Of course, you might be a 45-year-old pierced Che fan yourself, but that would make you interesting for different reasons.)

The important thing from an admissions perspective is to give admissions officers compelling reasons for your career change. Even if schools don't specifically ask applicants to discuss their reasons for going to law school in their essay questions (the dreaded, open-ended "tell us something interesting about yourself" essay), older applicants should focus on their reasons for applying, because admissions officers will be curious about those reasons in a way they're not when it comes to a college senior's motivations.~

The harder question you have to ask yourself is whether law school makes sense for you. First, there's the price tag. For a private law school, you can expect to spend $150,000, but even public schools aren't that much of a bargain anymore, even for in-state applicants. You'll also be paying considerable "opportunity costs," the things you give up in order to go to law school. Maybe you're giving up your salary and career advancement, or maybe you're giving up time with your kids. Whatever your personal situation might be, think long and hard about what you're giving up and be brutally honest about your expected return on investment. Assuming you have to borrow a good chunk of the expense, do you know how much you need to be earning every year after you graduate to bear your student loan debt? And will you be able and willing to work the kinds of jobs that can support those monthly payments? Much as it hurts, you need to do the math. You'll find excellent calculators on sites like www.finaid.org to help you run this analysis.

You'll also have to think about whether a law degree makes sense in terms of your career plans. Are you applying to law school because you're running away from something else? If so, be honest with yourself in thinking about whether a legal career is going to make you happier. I hear from a lot of older applicants that law school has been a dream of theirs for a long, long time, but be sensible. Some people fantasize about being astronauts and ballerinas, but they don't usually quit their jobs to pursue those dreams without good reason.

The stakes are much higher for you as an older applicant. You'll have less time than a younger student to enjoy a loan-free income stream, and if it turns out that law is not the right career for you (as so many freshly minted lawyers of all ages discover), you're going to be spending the rest of your career paying for that mistake, unlike the kiddies who can spend their thirties recovering from a bad investment and move on. Use your age and wisdom to think carefully about this career change before you take the plunge.

If you have your own question for Anna Ivey, send her an e-mail.

Anna Ivey is a private admissions counselor who works with people applying to the top business schools and law schools, as well as the author of The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions: Straight Advice on Essays, Resumes, Interviews and More. Formerly the Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, she has also practiced corporate and entertainment law in Los Angeles. She received her B.A. from Columbia and her J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, where she served as an editor of The University of Chicago Law Review. To learn more about her admissions counseling, visit annaivey.com.

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