Insider Tips for Part-Time Law Students

Yes, you can. It’s not easy, but part-time students learn how to balance family, day jobs, extracurricular activities and law school.

When Brandy W. started law school in 2005, her life became a physical and mental marathon. The 30-year-old single mother with a 12-year-old son, worked full-time for the U.S. Department of Justice as a management analyst, while attending George Mason University Law School four nights a week.

“I had no personal life,�? she said. “I studied mostly on weekends and often an hour or two after work. I had to squeeze in quality time with my son. He spent a lot of time at school with me, sitting in on my classes and doing his homework.�?

But she made the sacrifices because she was shooting for a goal she had had since she was a teenager. She eventually learned to manage her workload, and even worked on the law journal, served as a writing fellow and competed in moot court.

Although part-time law students are over-booked and over-worked, they’re often among the most committed students on campus, say administrators and faculty. They’re determined to get that J.D. despite the stress and work. They’re usually split about 50-50 between men and women, although men sometimes hold an edge. Part-time students tend to be older by average than full-timers, but most are still in their 30s. Generally, where part-time programs are available, from 25 to 35 percent of students are part-time, except for schools that specialize in part-time law.

“There don’t seem to be more drop-outs among part-time students than full-time,�? said Alison Price, associate dean and director of admissions at George Mason’s law school in Arlington, Va. “Part-timers really want to be in law school. They’re very committed.�?

The transition

Attrition rates for part-time and full-time students are very similar, said Susan Goldberg, associate dean for students at Widener University Law School in Wilmington, Del.

“I’m so amazed at their drive and commitment,�? she said. “And they bring real world knowledge into the classroom.�?

Even so, many part-time students said they had a tough transition as 1Ls. After all, they’re not going half time — it’s more like three-quarters time. They generally take 10-11 hours of class a term, compared with the 12-15 hours for full-timers.

“I don’t know how I managed,�? said Sheila Miller, now a judge in Clinton Township, Mich. “I got off from work at 5 p.m. and started classes at 6 p.m. I took 10 credits a term and had no summers off.�?

She graduated from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich., in 1990 after about three years as a part-timer. Throughout law school, she worked “everyday, all day�? as an administrative assistant in the Michigan Legislature. She was also a member of the school’s national trial competition team, won an American Jurisprudence Book Award and served as a teaching assistant. Her efforts paid off with a job as an assistant county prosecutor after she passed the bar.

Though not working full-time by day, for mothers like Maureen Semple-Hirsch, simplifying life a little bit more made class by night a lot easier.

“I was taking a class toward my master’s in nursing, I was serving on an institutional review board and I had other volunteer commitments at my kids’ school and at a hospital,�? said Semple-Hirsch, a South Texas College of Lawgraduate. “Then I got my first semester grades back and decided to remove some of those things. That’s the best advice I can give to someone thinking about part-time law school: Do empty your plate as much as possible. Be pro-active about time management.�?

For many students, law school has been a lifelong dream, as it was for Matthew Feher, a lobbyist at the Massachusetts Municipal Association in Boston. He started at New England Law at age 28 while working at the association. A spring 2009 graduate, he’s now awaiting bar results.

“Ever since I was a kid, I’d been intrigued by politics and the law,�? said Feher, now 32. “As a lobbyist, I interacted with lawyers in all areas and I wanted to know more. I loved my job and I didn’t want to leave.�?

Finding the time, and money

Students said they gave themselves whole-heartedly to their jobs while going to law school at night. Some said they even got promotions while in night-time law school. But employers aren’t always entirely sympathetic to the idea.

Tamika Crawl-Bey worked as an engineer for a manufacturing company while going to Widener.

“They didn’t want me to go to law school,�? Crawl-Bey said. “So I didn’t tell them until I was two years into it.�?

At that point she was just about ready to quit her job to take an externship with the law firm where she now works.

Scores of law schools in locations throughout the country offer part-time programs. Most schools expect students to finish in three-and-a-half to four years. American Bar Association rules say students must finish in no more than seven years.

The biggest motivation for going to law school part-time rather than full-time may be a financial one: less in student loans to pay off.

Derek Bottcher, a 2008 graduate of George Mason Law, was a manager for Charles Schwab when he started school. He paid for school out of pocket and was able to reduce his debt significantly, making it easier for him to choose a job.

“Loans put you in the position of having to seek enough pay to sustain your loan payments,�? he said. “If you don’t have to wear golden handcuffs, it frees up so many things in your life.�?

Bottcher is now an associate with Hastings Janofsky and Walker in Washington, D.C., and practices in labor and employment law.

Insider’s tips on how to handle part-time law school

�? Pick a school close to job and home so you can limit commute time. “Between the office I worked in and the law school, the only separation was a parking lot,�? said Judge Sheila Miller of Michigan. She also lived just a few blocks away from the school and from her home in an efficiency apartment.

�? If you start part-time, you may be able to switch to full-time later. Maureen Semple-Hirsch, for example, switched to full-time toward the end of her time at South Texas College of Law in order to speed up the process. Not all schools can let you make the switch, however, due to schedule conflicts.

�? Do you work nights? Some law schools offer programs that allow you to go to school part-time by day while working at night. Part-timers have “always been part of our mission,�? said Judith Greenberg, associate dean at New England Law, where 30 percent of the 1,100 students attend part-time.

The school ha
s part-time day and evening programs and even a special combination of day and evening classes for parents with primary child-rearing responsibilities.

�? Be sure to fit in time for internships and externships that will help you land a job later.

This article was authored by Rebecca Larsen and published in the 2010 Winter issue of preLaw Magazine. Click here for the digital edition of the 2010 Winter issue of preLaw Magazine or vist the preLaw Magazine website for more great content about law school!

To hear more on this topic, listen to Law School Podcaster’s podcast, Part-time or Full-time Law School: Which One is Right For You?. Law School Podcaster Host/Producer, Diana Jordan. interviewed Andy Cornblatt, Dean of Admissions, Georgetown University Law Center; Stephen Brown, Fordham Law School, Dean of Enrollment Services and Jannell Roberts, Assistant Dean of Admissions, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles to get some insight into how the admissions committees weigh part-time applications, the timeline for applying, the credentials of full-time versus part-time applicants and the differences they see in applicant pools.