You are currently viewing Podcast 13: Nontraditional Law School Applicants & Students – Tips to Help You Apply, Find the Right Fit and Succeed

Podcast 13: Nontraditional Law School Applicants & Students – Tips to Help You Apply, Find the Right Fit and Succeed

Nontraditional law school applicants and students might look a little different on paper and in-person, but they still have to face the same daunting law school admissions process as those coming straight from undergraduate schools. As students, they will face the same rigorous academic curriculum and the same job search challenges as others, but they do so coming from a background and a perspective that may not always mirror that of their fellow law students. We explore this topic with law school admissions deans, a dean of career services, an admissions consultant and we talk with a non-traditional student who has traveled down this road.

Guests include:

  • Johann Lee, Assistant Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Northwestern University Law School
  • Frank Motley, Assistant Dean for Admissions, Indiana University Maurer School of Law
  • Heather Frattone, Associate Dean for Career Planning and Professionalism, University of Pennsylvania Law School
  • Adam Hoff, Director of Admissions Consulting, Veritas Prep
  • Jim Quattromani, J.D. Candidate, Class of 2010, Northwestern University School of Law


Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Diana Jordan.

While it often seems like most students heading to law school are 23 to 26 years old, coming straight from college, many these days come to law school with a different story. They may be older or they are raising families. Some, like our student guest on today’s show, have served in the military.Some have traveled, pursued other degrees, or devoted time to not-for-profit work. Others have established careers in businesses outside of law but are challenged to enhance their career skills in their current positions or are looking to change careers entirely.

The reality is that a large number of law students today are nontraditional and take a variety of paths that lead to law school. According to recent data from the Law School Admission Council, one in four law school applicants was between the ages of 26 and 29 and another 18% were over the age of 30. That indicates that many applicants have taken time to do interesting things after college and before they begin law school.

In this show, we look at why the numbers of nontraditional law school students seem to be growing. How, if you’re a nontraditional applicant, you can present yourself competitively to the admissions committee, even if you’ve been out of school for a while and we’ll examine other challenges you may face as you navigate your way through law school and through your job search.

You will hear from deans of admission at Northwestern Law SchoolIndiana University Maurer School of Law, and you’ll get career insight from the Associate Dean for Career Planning and Professionalism at University of Pennsylvania Law School. We get the perspective of a Northwestern law student who was a Navy Seal during 9/11 and was admitted to Northwestern two days before classes begin, and we will hear from a top admissions consultant at Veritas Prep who has helped guide nontraditional applicants successfully through the law school admissions process.“Right now is a really good time for nontraditional students to consider going to law school because, I think that the combination of the overall dynamics that have shifted and the cautious optimism about the overall market, should make for a pretty decent job market for them in 2013, 2014, and the years ahead.”

Our experts tell us that the balance has shifted and that nontraditional students find themselves with an advantage both in the classroom and once they get their JD.These students who deviated from the traditional path of going straight from undergraduate to grad school were sometimes formerly viewed suspiciously by potential employers that thought these students were a greater risk and would leave without a backward glance for greener pastures, whereas the conventional wisdom held that traditional students would stay for their entire careers.

The focus now is instead on the strengths of these nontraditional students.These strengths are evident from the more sophisticated questions they ask admissions officers and in the classroom, where they often have more in common with their professors than do their younger peers.

As for who is the typical nontraditional law school student, Jim Quattromani, who is in the class of 2010 at Northwestern University School of Law, says they come from all walks. “Somebody could be out of school for, say, five years but if they were maybe working in academics or working as a paralegal or working as a congressional staffer, it’s still a more natural path to law school. So, I’d add that for someone like myself who, I was in the military, or I have a good friend who is a professional baseball player for several years, another woman who is a psychotherapist and a mother of two for, I think, a good ten years prior to coming to law school, that to me are sort of the archetypal nontraditional law student.”

Assistant Dean for Admissions at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, Frank Motley, says that the times have indeed shifted.It used to be that it was most valuable for students to start young and remain in their profession of law virtually all their lives.“Let’s start that the idea that someone is going to be a lawyer at 26 or 27 and then remain that all his or her life has changed.So, I think law schools are looking a lot more positively at nontraditional students, among other reasons, because they bring a lot more experience to the table and it makes the classroom discussions much more enlivened by their participation because they have real-world experiences and they can bring that to bear on some of the cases.”

At Northwestern Law, Johann Lee, Assistant Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, says there are several reasons why someone might choose to pursue a law at a later stage in life.“One is they see where their career path is going and they see a law degree as maybe a way to enhance their career path.For example, a person who is doing policy work and sees a law degree as a necessary step in order to take the next step with their policy career.Also, I see individuals that have followed a line of work and may have decided – in the past they’ve always thought about getting a law degree and they’ve realized that maybe that’s what they want to do at that particular point in time in their life.”

Northwestern University Student, Jim Quattromani who is now 32, was inspired to go to law school by a friend who was also in the military and whose father was a judge, but there was more to it than that.“I joined the ROTC, the Navy Reserves Officer Training Corps, and was on that scholarship at Stanford University in California. And with that scholarship, you incur a minimum active duty obligation of four years. And just to give a little more sort of historical context to that, I graduated in the Winter Quarter of 2000, entered the service in 2001, so that should sort of ring some alarm bells. September 11th happens, of course, at the end of 2001. At that point, I was well into the first year of my military training.Specifically, I was in a special warfare track in the Navy, which means that I eventually became a Navy Seal and connecting the dots there, you know, we were quite busy in the War on Terror.So, I ended up in the Navy longer than I had initially planned to be and ended up in for about seven years.So, that took me right up until the summer of 2007, and I entered law school in the fall of 2007.”

The Director of Admissions Consulting at Veritas Prep, Adam Hoff, says, ironically, there is a silver lining to the recent economic crisis for nontraditional students.“Law schools are starting to become a little bit more cognizant of people’s long-term plans and their ability to sort of roll with the punches. I think somebody who has had an ability to land on their feet in the past, who has had an ability to handle adversity, to be resilient, to try new things, to show versatility. These are all things that are going to give a law school admissions officer more confidence that at the end of the day, this person will find their path.”

Dean Frank Motley says, when he started at Indiana in 1977, most people applying had not taken any time off.Increasingly, students are taking time off to work before coming to law school as is often seen with business schools.“Well, business schools require that students have some work experience because they find that they become better students and add more to the classroom experience.While law schools haven’t required that, I think that people are seeing one or two years experience does add to their maturity and makes the law school experience much more relevant.”

At Northwestern, Dean Johann Lee adds that nontraditional students tend to have time management skills, also a great help.“If you’ve been holding a very competitive complex job, then you learn time management skills.You learn really good time management skills.And so I think when you enter the law school environment, having to juggle a lot – juggle your class work, extra curricular, co-curricular activities, I think old students tend, to me and historically, they seem to do well because they have the ability to juggle a lot of things and do a lot of things effectively.”

So, there are new advantages for nontraditional students.What about the fit? Adam Hoff at Veritas Prep says while traditional students will more likely target the law school for its ranking, nontraditional students have more intricate questions, and Hoff advises you to look to schools that prize diversity and real-life experience. He also suggests laying your cards on the table with admissions.“With the nontraditional applicant, often times they have deep roots in an area and it’s important, I think, to communicate that to the school because it gives the school a measure of comfort that there is at least a high likelihood that they would attend if admitted.So, I think that there is a certain advantage to being very honest about those real-life decisions that play a role.”

That was the issue for Quattromani, whose wife was in medical school and got her residency at Northwestern. “Initially, I was waitlisted here at Northwestern and admitted into the University of Michigan. I sat on the waitlist but I was good marching forward with just going ahead and going to Michigan and then maybe transferring or simply living apart for those three years. But again, just sort of, I was diligent I think and proactive in saying to Northwestern, you know, hey, if you’re willing to take me off, I’ll be the first student to show up.What ended up happening was that I was admitted on the last day of orientation, so basically about two days before classes started.”

Dean Lee at Northwestern says recruitment of nontraditional students is refreshing. For them, choosing a school is more than looking at the rank of the law school.“What is the learning community like?What’s the interaction with the faculty members? What are my peers like?What’s the area around the school like?You know, I mean, for students that have children, it’s school systems. Where can we live? How long is the commute? Will I be – what is the work-life balance at that particular school?So, I think that decision calculus becomes a little more nuanced with older students or students with other concerns besides just how and what’s the rank of this law school?”

Dean Motley at Indiana encourages nontraditional students who have more to consider and more people to consider when evaluating the fit of a school to ask questions about the quality of life. “Talk with the Career Services Office and talk about the experiences they’ve had with ‘nontraditional students’ in that regard.That would be the main thing I think I would do.The other thing is I’d love to see is their faculty and their experiences, I think many of the faculty may have had other careers, things like that, maybe able to identify with the nontraditional student.Again, I think that’s important and there may be a student group of nontraditional students. So, here at Indiana Bloomington, they’re called OWLS – Older Wiser Law Students.So, I mean it’s nice to meet with – to have peers in that regard. And it’s also interesting to find out that there is a support group of spouses because not only that the law students go through challenges in three years but the spouses or significant others of law students go through challenges as well. So, if the law school has those kinds of support mechanism, support groups, I think that’s important for the nontraditional student to make sure that there is support while he or she begins their study.”

Hoff, with Veritas, says law school is a numbers game — until it isn’t.“Schools are not able to just disregard the LSAT or disregard the GPA. Even if they think those markers are not as appropriate for a nontraditional or an older applicant. But what they are able to do is say, look, we think that the rich experience this person has, we think their nontraditional approach, is going to add so much value to the experience for other students. They’re going to bring so much diversity and spice to the classrooms that we’re willing to absorb the hit on this particular LSAT score.”

Law student, Quattromani says Northwestern has a premium on work experience.So, students tend to be a bit older.His other numbers… “For Northwestern specifically, I was comfortably within the 25 to 75 percentile range, but just under median for both LSAT and GPA. Having that in mind, I was benefited by my work experience.I’m not sure that someone with no work experience at all or with maybe a slightly more expected work path would have gotten in with my specific numbers. I obviously – I don’t know what happens behind closed doors in the admissions office, but my sense is that someone who’s below median in both categories would struggle to get in without something exceptional, sort of in their work history.”

Dean Johann Lee says, there is one critical piece of information Northwestern wants. “Somewhere in the application, the question of why I want to go to law school, and why I want to go to law school now, needs to be answered. At Northwestern, it could be in the personal statement, it could be the interview process, it could be in the addendum process.But somewhere in the applications, somewhere in between in that file, it needs to be addressed.”

Hoff concurs.He says it is common knowledge that with tough economic times, more people head back to school.Hoff says, your personal statement should reflect that your interest in law school was sparked long before the economy tanked.“It’s been very hard, I believe, for law schools to tease out who really wants to be in law school and then take that degree and run with it and who is just seeking asylum.And that is something that, I think, applicants who are aware of that dilemma that schools are facing and use their personal statement to position themselves properly, to get out in front of it and to say ‘this is where I’m going,’ especially if their career path is suggestive of another direction or is ‘nontraditional’, then I think if they use their personal statement, they use this opportunity to explain at the law school exactly why they’re pursuing this, I think it helps a lot.”

And tell admissions when you originally became interested in going to law school.“If I’m a law school admission officer and I’m reading your file and you’re telling me in very rich detail the things in your career that led you to an interest in law and then you’re telling me things about my program that speak specifically to do that and then you tell me about the career path you want to have afterwards, I now have a pretty strong sense of who you are. I am pretty comfortable with the fact that you really want to go to law school and most importantly, I am every comfortable with the fact that you want to attend my law school. And so those are all things that really work in a candidate’s favor.”

Quattromani’s personal statement focused on his military experience – the death of a friend and how that impacted his life. He says his letters of recommendation weren’t from anyone famous.“I gave heartfelt thought to who I thought knew me best, both my strengths and my weaknesses, and I was happy to have them say as much as they wanted on either front. I suspect they were good.One was a Navy captain who I really respected and thought could say nice things about me and about how I performed in the military.And then the other one was actually the good friend’s father who is a judge. I’ve always thought that the genuineness that comes out of a letter of recommendation is more important than picking the fanciest person you can think of.I approached it the same way a few years later applying for judicial courtships and I haven’t had the luxury of having the most prominent law professors here that I was really close with them.Instead, I went with professors that I just had a natural sort of rapport with. So I think that, for me, personally, it’s great if you have a very prominent person and you’re genuinely close with them. That’s great. But if it’s a choice between someone you know well whose name isn’t going to jump off the page, and President Obama, but you only met him for five minutes once, I would definitely go with the former.”

Dean Motley says nontraditional students can boost their application with solid letters of recommendation. “If a person who graduated 15 to 20 years ago and still the faculty members remember him or her, that’s obviously a plus.On the other hand, after 15 to 20 years, most faculties would have forgotten many of the students. So if we don’t see letters of recommendation from the people who have been out of school for a decade or so, we’re not – it doesn’t hurt, but if we do see letters from people, that often, that’s a positive, so I think there’s a plus.But I guess what we look for are letters of recommendation from people who have been in some supervising capacity who could speak to the person’s intellectual or academic ability.So obviously, the best ones are the college professors they have had but also their jobs in which there is a great deal of intellectual firepower that’s necessary. And if the supervisor could speak to that, that’s very helpful to us in making those decisions.”

Hoff says choose your recommenders carefully. “For a nontraditional student, where there may be questions of what their motivation is for going to law school, there may be questions about their recent collaborative experiences and team work. There may be questions about their maturity and academic focus.These are areas where someone who writes a great letter of recommendation can really help answer those questions.”

The résumé, one page. The numbers, Dean Motley says, it’s better to have mostly A’s in school so the admissions committee knows you do well in the classroom. “If you don’t have a strong LSAT and your academic record is uneven, then you really do have a challenge. Then somehow the committee is supposed to look beyond the LSAT and the GPA and it puts a lot of weight on the work experience to give the assurance to the committee that you can do well in academic situation.So those things, that’s the challenge is just to make sure that you hit that threshold. And then once you hit the threshold of (A) you can do the work, then [B] the question of all the people who can do the work, why you versus someone else?The one we are looking at is, if there are 100 people who can do the work, when we’re only going to admit 50, who are the most interesting 50? Who will make the classroom situation more interesting?Who would be a good fit for that particular school?”

Hoff adds that law schools want five traits – intellect, maturity, motivation, teamwork, and leadership and each must be demonstrated.As long as students fall within the school’s threshold, superior work experience can counterbalance lower LSAT numbers.“While their experiences and their unique qualifications might be weighed more heavily, it might give them a little bit more latitude in terms of their LSAT score or in terms of some other academic profile number.It doesn’t wipe and clean and it doesn’t give the school carte blanche to admit whoever they want with no ramifications. Every school is beholden to these numbers because they’re what drive rankings and they’re what drive perception, and they have to eventually pool all of these scores and create an average. And so, schools are unable to just disregard the LSAT or disregard the GPA.Even if they think those markers are not as appropriate for a nontraditional or an older applicant. But what they are able to do is say, look, we think that the rich experience that this person has, we think their nontraditional approach is going to add so much value to the experience for other students, they’re going to bring so much diversity and spice to the classrooms, that we’re willing to absorb the hit on this particular LSAT score.”

Applicants who are not coming directly from undergraduate school can benefit from a private admissions consultant or they can turn to their undergraduate pre-law adviser for help, even if they’ve been out of school for several years.Quattromani did not use a private admissions counselor.“I did, however, reach out to the Stanford law school adviser, the career office at Stanford and they were great.I mean, even though I was at that point about six or seven years out of undergrad, they were very helpful and they really kind of treated me as if I was just there on campus like anybody else.So, they provided a lot of good resources and were very helpful.”

Once in the classroom, Quattromani says there is a subtle difference on how professors treat nontraditional students, partly because students are closer in age and have vast applicable experience. “There are some times when your specific career is relevant.I’ll mention a woman who is a friend of mine who is a psychotherapist that has come up in some cases.And then for me personally, of course, my military background has come up in some cases. I can think of one time when my criminal – constitutional criminal procedure professor took about 15 minutes and just wanted me to share my experiences specifically with respect to how we did interrogation training in the military and what my feeling was on that because it was relevant to sort of criminal interrogation and some War on Terror legal cases we were reading.So, that’s obviously another great bonus.”

Hoff, with Veritas, says professors tend to appreciate nontraditional students.“Somebody who has gone out there and worked in policy and government and business bounced around, even someone like me who worked in admissions between college and law school.You know, you just have stuff to draw upon.You have things to say. So, law school professors, I think, look kindly on nontraditional students.They enjoy older applicants who they can sit down and have a real-life discussion with.”

Dean Heather Frattone is Associate Dean for Career Planning and Professionalism at University of Pennsylvania Law School. U-Penn attracts an extremely diverse student population. “We have had students come to us with five years of government experience or five years of political experience or four years as an investment banker.And with them, we really work with them to figure out how they want to use, one, what their ultimate career goals are and two, how they wanted to use their JD to accomplish them.So, some of them may say, hey, I want to practice for a couple of years and then I want to get back into the business side of things or want to get – I want to run for office.And we really work with them to try and figure out, one, what they can do in the short term to develop their skills as quickly, efficiently, and as in depth as possible. And then, [two] how will they be able to transition from that initial, sort of more traditional legal job to whatever it is they want to do after that.”

There has been a shift in what employers are seeking, which can benefit nontraditional students. Dean Frattone says now, they want strong skills that are softer than what you might expect.“They are looking for people who have strong communication skills, who have strong relationship-building skills, who can understand an organization and their place in it and can figure out how to advocate for themselves, how to be valuable to that organization from the minute they arrive, have a strong achievement drive, are committed to doing their best and are really focused on adding value to the organization as soon as they arrive.”

Dean Motley says nontraditional law school students may face additional challenges when they begin job hunting. “There is a slight bias by major firms towards the students who are younger. But I don’t think that’s across-the-board. I think each firm will have some nontraditional students but they will be pretty special in that regard so that if you’re a pretty unique nontraditional student, I think those law firms will be interested in you.But if you don’t have some specialized skills, those firms will find students fresh from law school or who are younger more attractive because they’ll have 10 to 15 more years of productive life than the one student who will be turning 55 than those who will be turning 40.That’s 15 more years of productivity.So, I think it’s by and large, there is a challenge for nontraditional students, but it’s not one that can’t be overcome.And then many of the nontraditional students know what they want to do. They may have been in real estate prior to their interest in law school.Their intention is to get a law degree and then go back into real estate where they’ve got their friends and colleagues and this will just enhance what they’re doing.Some people have taken time off of work and will be able to ‘go back’ to their firms. In a different capacity, they have been in human resources, without a law degree, and then they plan to go back to human resources with a law degree.So, I think, about, my own experience is that about half of nontraditional students already have their career track planned out, and this is just getting more of a credential, and the other half of people who are interested in changing totally out of their prior field and looking for law as entrance to something else.”

Dean Frattone says the tougher economy has positively impacted students.They strategize. She says University of Pennsylvania Law works closely with students to be more targeted, strategic, and thoughtful about what they want to do and how they will conduct job searches. She says they offer as much individual outreach as possible.On the employee side, the law school is working with alumni who have taken different trajectories to develop different opportunities and to show students there are many more paths.“We’ve been working with a number of alums now who are general counsels at universities and working with them on, is there room for younger lawyers? Or is that really just a path for somebody who has been out practicing for a while? And we have seen some movement in there. We’ve been working with people who are working on [Capitol] Hill, in more policy-oriented jobs, is that an area that students might be interested in and some of the hot areas, like energy or transportation, those kinds of things. Government employment has been an area where we’ve traditionally had a smaller population of our students pursuing immediately upon graduation but many more within three to seven years out of law school. So, we’ve really been exploring ways that our students can have those opportunities immediately upon graduation as opposed to having to get a couple of years under their belt before they’re able to do that.”

Quattromani will be working for a federal judge in Chicago for two years.He credits his military experience for the judicial clerkship. “I also have then a follow-on job with the law firm that I summered with, the law firm, Sidley Austin, here in Chicago.” Quattromani believes nontraditional students have a better shot in the job market. “Relative to the field, nontraditional students still hold an advantage and I think there are two key reasons. One is simply the inherent value of work experience to law firms, the hopefully greater maturity you get from your life experiences, although there are certainly mature people that don’t need to have a job for a couple of years and there are some people that hold a job for several years and never quite achieve maturity.That aside, I think it’s an advantage.I think, all other things equal, having a nice career to lay back on, having some practical successes, is nothing but helpful in the search process. The second way is, I think, nontraditional students, again on average, there are always exceptions. But on average, I think, the nontraditional student is better equipped to deal with the stresses of a tougher market. They’ve maybe stumbled along the way. They’ve made mistakes. They’ve learned how to correct for them. You know, life hasn’t just been a series of academic triumph after academic triumph, rather they’ve had some stumbles in the real world and learned to adjust and overcome and that’s a great asset to have coming into a tough job market.”

Quattromani has advice for potential students who are contemplating law school after a break from classes. Crunch the numbers. Realize that it will take a bit to feel comfortable in the classroom again.But know too that your life lessons and maturity will help. And Hoff from Veritas is optimistic. “When you look at the admissions prong of it, when you look at the actual experience in school, and then you look at the hirability element, it’s a good time for nontraditional students, then you throw in a fact that three or four years from now when they eventually graduate, we could see an overall softening improvement of the market. It’s a good time to apply.”

For more information, a transcript of this show, or to sign up to receive more law school podcasts, visit Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. I’m Diana Jordan with Law School Podcaster.Thanks for listening. Stay tuned for more shows as we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.