Going to law school has recently gotten a bad rap.1 The high cost of law school and waning job prospects often translate to a high debt burden and low morale for recent graduates. According to a recent study, just 20 percent of graduates “strongly agreed” that their law degree was worth the cost and 38 percent would do it again.2
Working through law school is one way to ease the debt burden and gain valuable experience and connections. However, most first-year (1L) law students do not work. Many law schools prohibit students from working at all as a 1L and from working over 20 hours a week as 2Ls and 3Ls.3 ABA Rule 304(f) also forbids working more than 20 hours per week if the student is enrolled in more than 12 class hours.4 Thus, law students can work if they are not enrolled full time.
However, attending law school part time is not exactly encouraged. Would-be law students are warned that their first year is challenging enough without working and that it effectively determines one’s class rank.5 Not to mention, if you work, you will be competing against peers who “have more time to study than you do.”6
Approximately 87 percent of law students follow this conventional wisdom and complete traditional three-year law school programs.7 The other 13 percent work all through law school — typically four years of it. For many part-time students, the reason to work throughout law school is simple: “It’s the only way to afford a law degree and still meet other commitments.”8
Part-time law school students are often described as “non-traditional,” meaning older. Many have families and already-established careers. I was one of the non-traditional law students enrolled in a part-time program at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland. I chose the part-time program not only to keep my debt down, but also because I wanted to be with classmates who were closer to my age and experience level.
The practicality of studying and working in law at the same time also appealed to me. Many of my classmates had families and careers. Some, like me, were making career changes; others were enhancing their current careers.
As part-time students, or “evening students,” we worked during the day and attended class at night. During our 1L year, we were grouped together in a cohort of 40 students and took all of our classes together — 6 to 9 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. No class on Wednesdays. The “day students” took five classes a semester; we took four. After the first year, our evening classes often included day students. We competed with day students for class rank and for spots on law review.
At first, I continued to work in education, but soon found a job as a law clerk at a small, white-collar criminal defense firm. I worked at this firm with two of my evening student classmates, Erin and Andrew. I recently asked them to reflect back upon our experiences working through law school.
We all chose the evening program for a similar reason: to keep our debt burden low. A low debt burden has allowed Erin to be a criminal defense attorney and to keep her options open if she ever wants to change careers. For Andrew, with two small children, the evening program was the only way law school was affordable. I had paid off most of my undergrad student debt and wanted to keep my debt load manageable. I also did not want to take out loans to pay for rent and groceries.
Working between 30 and 40 hours a week meant our schedules were full and rigid. Work all day, go to class at night, repeat. We studied on Wednesdays and on the weekends. In our 2L and 3L years, we all added law review to the mix. This schedule left very little room for error and very little time for anything but work and school.
The schedule was brutal, yet simple. I found that very quickly my time management skills improved dramatically. For me, I considered the strict routine and compelled efficiency to be a distinct advantage. When I asked Erin and Andrew how they survived four years of working and going to law school, they also both mentioned the importance of routines.
A strong support network was also key to our survival. We all had friends and families who were understanding and encouraging. We also had each other. I was grateful to work all day with attorneys supportive of our studies and with law clerks with the same schedules and struggles.
Andrew remarked that being in a small group of evening students “felt like we were part of a little club,” which lasted all four years. Erin appreciated having classmates who were not only engaged in interesting careers, but also were committed, serious students bringing maturity, diversity and balanced perspectives to the study of law.
I can’t say my experience in the evening program was better or worse than that of a traditional law student. For me, it was not only an effective way to manage debt, but a great way to supplement the classroom learning.
What I learned at work helped me in class and what I learned in class helped me at work. I spent my four years with classmates I liked and respected, and who all worked extremely hard. It was grueling and exhausting, but like many things, you find a way to make it work.
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