Let’s talk about age, baby. Let’s talk about above-average age for new lawyers, specifically. Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be.
Recognizing the realities of nontraditional students and modern practice, DAYL recently expanded its membership criteria to include those in their first 12 years of practice. Until then, there were less options for older people new to practice. This is significant for attorneys like us because we still want to get up on opportunities to commiserate with and learn from others who are going through the same peaks and valleys that new lawyers face on a day-to-day basis.
We are not “kindergarten through juris doctor,” or K-JD for short. The most common age for a law student seems to be between 22-24 years old and likely no more than 3 years out from college. Nothing wrong with that, but it is not the path that everyone follows. Some people have a first career and then decide to go to law school and start a second career as a lawyer. In our case it included military service in the Air Force (Alex & Miguel) and Navy (Nick). There are benefits that come with being older as a new attorney, but some have downsides as well. Because inquiring minds want to know, here are the pros and cons of being ooh-baby-baby lawyers and silver foxes at the same time:
PRO: People assume you have all the answers. Generally speaking, people have a tendency to assume your appearance matches your experience level. Looking learned and wise is great for getting clients to trust you. In that way, we are fortunate to get to bypass the “do you really know what you’re doing” stage of initial client interactions.
CON: People assume you have all the answers. But since you probably don’t have all of the answers (confession, dear reader: we do not) there is constant fear that you will fail at something and the façade will crumble. This fear is just another—nastier—flavor of impostor syndrome, the thing that unites us all from time to time.
Being looked at as if you should know the answer and not being sure of yourself is a thing that every new attorney has to wrestle with. But looking rugged and like you have done this before tends to ramp that feeling up to a whole other level. It can be scary to think that the client that trusts you may quickly realize that you are in the same class as the attorney they did not want to talk to simply because they looked “too new” to law.
PRO: Previous experiences helps provide perspective. Having the experience of a previous career can help bolster confidence for on-the-fly decision making. It also helps when it comes to the rigors and stressors you encounter when starting in law. We know that we will make mistakes. We have been there before. And like we have done before, we will learn, make the necessary corrections, and move forward. On the bright side, there are no more drill instructors yelling at us.
CON: Previous experiences can make you feel behind. There are K-JD attorneys who graduated college the same year as us, started law school immediately, and have already completed the traditional 7-to-8-year partnership track or are up for consideration this year. This can lead older attorneys to feel perpetually “behind” those who were once their peers and anxious about making progress quickly enough. Especially because trends suggest that the path to law firm partnership just keeps getting longer, with the average nearly nine years now.
To put this in perspective, someone who starts law school at 30, lands a job at the best law firm, and truly excels will nevertheless wind up being a 40-year-old associate. This can lead to uncomfortable and unfortunate presumptions. Prospective clients, and perhaps even your own contemporaries, may assume that you are someone who has been passed over for partnership.
PRO: Established support systems. Older attorneys benefit greatly from established support systems from their background before law. In most cases, that support system, in whatever form it exists, is precisely how and why they were able to successfully pivot from one career to another.
CON: Increased and varied demands on your time. We do not produce widgets, we sell our time—and our time is finite. Alas, we are all chasing that elusive work-life balance. Some find it, but most do not. In the context of a law firm setting, an attorney’s value can often be reduced to the number of billable hours generated. To that end, older attorneys with family or other commitments will routinely compare themselves to that 25-year-old first year associate, with seemingly unlimited availability, who is determined to bill 2,600+ hours this year. If you dare to compete, notwithstanding all of your personal commitments, you will find yourself in a no-win situation, where succeeding in one area of your life means that you are failing in another.
Whatta Conclusion, What A Mighty Good Conclusion. In short, besides the aches and pains that can happen just from sleeping wrong, being a new attorney with gray hair is not much different than being a young new attorney in both age and time of practice. We applaud the DAYL’s membership change and look forward to continuing to contribute to the organization that we love.