Thirty-year-old Mark Fitzgerald LAW ’12 once graced the runways of New York. But he now spends his days in the hallways of Yale Law School.
Fitzgerald belongs to the one-third or so of Yale Law School students who begin their studies more than two years after graduating college. The financial crisis is now motivating some older professionals to attend law school, just as applications to law school — and graduate school in general — is on the rise: 20 percent more people took the Law School Admissions Test in October 2009 than October 2008, reaching a high of 60,746.
But age is no obstacle in post-graduate job searches. These second-career students said they are no more concerned about the effect of the recession on job prospects than their younger peers.
“At some point, some employers might have some questions,” Jim Silk LAW ’89, a clinical law professor who obtained his J.D. at the age of 42, said. “But the real question is whether you went to Yale Law School or whether you went to another very good law school that is not perceived to be as prestigious. Really, it is almost a non-issue [for our graduates].”
Yale Law School actively seeks to admit a diverse student body, Law School spokeswoman Jan Conroy said, including students who accumulated real-world experiences before their admission to Yale.
Fitzgerald, for example, graduated from Brown University in 2002 with a degree in English and spent the summer after graduation traveling through Europe. On a train from Rome to Switzerland, Fitzgerald said, he was approached by a man who wanted him to become a fashion model.
“No, I’m not kidding you,” Fitzgerald insisted. “This guy just started chatting with me and wanted me to meet with his booker back in New York.”
After three successful years in modeling, Fitzgerald felt that the experience was beginning to run its course so he decided to enter the food industry, first as an assistant researcher on a new vegetarian cookbook and then as the co-founder of a specialty food company — CoolBeansDip.com — which he ran with his brother.
One of Fitzgerald’s classmates, Ted Wittenstein ’04 LAW ’12 —now 27 — spent five years pursuing a career in foreign policy while working in intelligence and at the state department. His first job was as an intelligence policy analyst on the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, established in February 2004, and he was one of 10 drafters on the final report that was presented to the president. He then became executive assistant to John Negroponte ’60, then the Director of National Intelligence, and followed him when he became deputy secretary of state. This past January, Wittenstein became an assistant to University President Richard Levin, and enrolled in the Law School in September.
Kennedy Gachiri LAW ’12, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a joint degree in economics and nursing, said that he was unhappy with some aspects of consulting and found himself being drawn towards public service.
“While working as a consultant I wasn’t very happy with the fact that consultants weren’t in the driver’s seat,” Gachiri said. “Some of the time they take your advice, but you are not the one implementing the decisions.”
But for other students, the economic downturn was an opportunity to gain expertise that would help them in their current careers.
Last year, Fitzgerald and his brother had trouble obtaining credit and investors for his business, and so decided to sell CoolBeansDip.com and go back to school. His brother is currently overseeing the transition of the company but will matriculate at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management in 2010.
“I think the financial crisis has had a very sobering effect on young people,” Fitzgerald said. “They now have an awareness of how vulnerable you can be in the market, and how it can be here today, gone tomorrow. I’ve heard that my class in the law school is a pretty intense and serious class, so maybe that’s a sign that people are feeling this urgency.”
The six second-career law students interviewed had very different plans for their lives after law school, but none of them thought that their age would impact their success in applying for jobs.
Chris Hurtado LAW ’12, a 28-year-old who worked as a consultant in the non-profit sector before starting his law degree, said he thinks that law firms would value the extra maturity of older law graduates and would feel more comfortable assigning more complex cases to these lawyers. But he added that the law firm model only promotes some associates to partners.
“They tend to bring associates in and work them hard until they move on,” Hurtado said. “In that sense, they might be less interested in someone who is older.”
Hurtado, who wants to work directly with individuals on private philanthropy and estate planning after graduation, also said firms could become concerned that older potential employees might prioritize having children and settling down over committing to the firm.
Fitzgerald said he was not sure whether the idea that older graduates would have greater difficulty making partner in a law firm was a rumor or a fact. He said he wants to work for a large private law firm after graduation in order to “learn how to be a lawyer” before entering either transactional law or social entrepreneurship.
“I’ve heard some rumors that in big global law firms that have thousands of attorneys, [being older] can be problematic, but I don’t know if that’s actually true,” he said. “I don’t anticipate having a problem, based on Yale’s tremendous success in job placement.”
A spokesman for a major international law firm, who did not wish to be named, said that he thinks experienced graduates do have an advantage when applying for law firm positions.
“I think that law firms are looking for people with a diversity of experiences, and typically the older applicants have business or professional experience that benefits them in their new legal career,” the spokesman said, adding that many successful intellectual property lawyers have a background in science or engineering.
For the class of 2008, 96 percent of Yale Law School graduates were employed at the time of graduation and 98 percent were employed within the first nine months.