Attending law school fresh out of college is an option chosen by many students. But while youth and energy may be an asset to such students, there are some advantages to entering the legal profession later in life, not the least of which is perspective, patience, and the advantage of hindsight.
Mary Fern Breheney is an elder law attorney and partner at Glenn & Breheney in the Hudson Valley, New York. Following graduation from St. Francis College (now University) in Loretto, Penn., she worked in the editorial unit at M.I.T. in the Applied Biological Science Department. After a two-year move to the Midwest with her husband and young children, Breheney found herself back home in Orange County, New York, where she worked at the community college. She began to teach English as a second language but soon realized that teaching wasn’t her thing.
“I searched my soul for what I really wanted to do, and I discovered that I wanted to become a lawyer to serve the aging population,” she said. In her late 30s, Breheney attended New York Law School, graduating in 1996.
“I needed to find a place to work so I could get some experience, I couldn’t just hang out my shingle. I was lucky enough to be hired as an associate by an elder law attorney, which was exactly what I was interested in,” said Breheney, which had been sparked by her early volunteer work with the Association for Macular Diseases.
Within a short time, she felt confident enough to open up her own practice, and, seven years later, in 2006, she formed a partnership with colleague, Stew Glenn.
Breheney never had an interest in working for a larger firm. “I didn’t want to have someone telling me what to do. I liked the control of having my own practice. I think some second career lawyers find the demands of a large firm hard to adapt to,” she said.
Another potential hurdle that “new” older lawyers could face is networking, particularly in a tightknit legal community. Breheney, however, immediately joined the Elder Law Section of the New York State Bar Association. “I made fabulous connections and friends who really helped me establish myself in the practice area. The man who gave me my start was also a section member and he introduced me to the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys where I formed deeper relationships with many of the New York and other states’ Elder Law practitioners,” she said.
She also joined her local women’s bar association, where she met other female colleagues. In addition, she says, practicing law in her hometown was a good resource for referrals.
Law school itself, she said, was a bit more challenging than the actual practice of law, having been away from a classroom setting for a number of years. But she wasn’t the only mature student; in fact, the valedictorian of her class was over fifty-years old.
For Breheney, being a legal late bloomer was the right move for her, particularly for the practice area that she has chosen, in that her clients take her seriously. “I would have had a very different career if I had gone to law school when I was younger; I may not have gravitated to this area of law. I didn’t know about elder law back then. This was a good fit for me. I was old enough to get right into it and be age-appropriate for the practice,” she said.
W. Jerry Liu is another late bloomer to the practice of law. Now a sixth-year associate with Fox Rothschild in that firm’s Princeton, New Jersey office, Liu was a senior research investigator with Bristol-Myers Squibb before entering law school at the age of 38; he had also worked as an assistant engineer in the technology development department of a chemical company in China.
With a B.S. degree in chemistry, a Master’s degree in polymer science, a Ph.D. in organic chemistry and work experience in the pharmaceutical industry, Liu was well-versed in scientific reasoning; and perhaps that was also his biggest challenge in transitioning to the legal way of thinking, in particular when attending law school. “I was a scientist by training. As a scientist, you always want to find the right answer. In law, there are no right or wrong answers; everything is a gray area,” said Liu, who graduated from Rutgers University School of Law in 2008.
Although he had a good job, Liu wanted to broaden the horizons of his career outlook. “After working for several years as a research scientist in the pharmaceutical industry, specifically, as a process chemist at one of the major pharmaceuticals in the world, I felt that the career had a rather narrow scope which I did not want to be limited in,” he said.
“I felt that the job became quite routine to me. I wanted to pursue some more intellectual challenges. I thought, and still think, that being a lawyer is an intellectually challenging profession,” added Liu.
Liu attended law school part-time in the evenings after working full days; at home, he was a father to three daughters, all of whom were very involved in extra-curricular activities, so study time was at a premium. However, because he attended school in the evenings, he was able to connect with other like-age students, many of whom were well into their 50s or even 60s. These students were called “OWLS”—Older and Wiser Law Students.
Becoming a patent lawyer seemed to be a natural extension of Liu’s experience as a chemist. However, he said, regardless of the amount of experience he had in his former field, he realized that he’d still be treated as a novice as a lawyer. And being the only “OWLS” in Fox Rothschild’s summer associate class of 16 was a little awkward, at first. “I am glad to say that we got along very well, and all of my younger summer classmates showed enough respect for the additional education and work experience I had. I still think that participating in Fox’s summer program by quitting my full-time job in that summer was my best decision in terms of my career transition,” said Liu.
Going to law school mid-life made sense for Liu. “At least in one aspect I am glad that I waited to go to law school until I became older, or let’s say after I accumulated a decent amount of knowledge in science and work experience in industry, because such knowledge and experience make me able to look at things from a different perspective. To do well as a patent attorney, one must be a fast-learner able to pick up and understand new scientific breakthroughs or improvements rapidly. This is why a scientific degree is mandatory for one to be able to sit in a patent bar exam,” he said.
And it wasn’t just the accumulation of knowledge that helped in his career as a patent attorney; it was the network of colleagues that he had built along the way. “The biggest advantage, now I realize, is my work experience, has paid off. I had a lot of former colleagues and friends. I had a bigger network, and it helped me develop clients. Many clients came from those people,” he said.
“Although I started late, I think I’m catching up pretty fast.”