Editor's Note: Robert K. Otterbourg lives in Durham, and is the author of several of several books, including "Switching Careers." He is writing a series of articles of how people can go into new careers.
While most of his Duke Law School classmates were in kindergarten, Daniel Sanchez was already on active duty in the Marine Corps.
Twenty-one years later, Sanchez retired last fall as a major, after he saw combat duty in Iraq, and served in advisory posts in Asia and Africa.
"I decided to go to law school after listening to some other officers who were also lawyers," he says. "I liked the advocacy concept in the law. And when I retired after more than 20 years in the Marines, I wanted to do something different."
His life as a student is hectic. Sanchez, 39, is married with two children. He goes to school in Durham Monday through Friday, then returns to his family in Wilmington for the weekend.
"Unlike the younger students, I know how to put things in perspective," he says. "Based on my experiences to date, I know what's important in life, something that's unknown to many students in their 20s."
When Sanchez graduates in 2013, he'll receive two degrees, one in law and the other a master's in international land comparative law. His goal is to use his overseas military experience by living and working overseas.
This, he said, will not take place until both his 10 and 14-year-old children graduate from high school. Sanchez pays for law school with funds from the GI Bill and Marine Corps retirement allotments.
Career changers not unusual
Career changing is not an anomaly in the makeup of a typical law school class. The Law School Admission Council reported that 20 percent of law school applicants were age 30-plus, and 5 percent are over age 40. Of the 89,000 applicants in 2009, 16,000 were over age 30.
The protocol to apply for law school is more flexible than those demanded by medical schools. As such, applicants are not required to take specified pre-law courses. The Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT) given four times a year is mandatory. Admission officials have an open mind toward older students.
Maria Manano, a UNC-Chapel Hill Law School graduate and now director of career services at the law school, finds that older students have an advantage.
"As career changers, they can blend their former career and their new career as a lawyer into a hybrid career which makes them more valuable in the job market," she says.
The economic downturn has hurt lawyers, both recent graduates as well as longtime North Carolina practitioners. Law firms in many instances are hiring fewer recent graduates as well as reducing the number of summer interns. Corporate and governmental law departments also have job freezes.
There are more than 24,000 licensed state lawyers; nationally the number is 1.1 million.
Despite what seems like a gloomy job market, North Carolina lags behind other states in the number of lawyers per capita, according to a study conducted by the Pope Center.
From journalism to law
Marc "Rusty" Jacobs, 43, patched together a series of careers that serve him well as an assistant district attorney in Wake County.
As a youngster and teenager, he acted in several Broadway shows and on television. He majored in journalism in college and worked for several years as a print journalist. In 2001, he relocated to Chapel Hill and spent seven years as a WUNC reporter.
For a number of years, he toyed with the idea of going to law school. His interest in law was furthered by covering several trials for a Connecticut weekly and a New York-based business publication. He was hooked by watching advocacy in action in the courtroom. Even so, it took nearly 10 years to make a new career decision. Finally in 2007, he entered UNC Law School.
"I knew from the start that I wanted to be an advocate," Jacobs says. "Here I can use my acting and broadcasting skills to project and tell a story. During summer breaks I worked one year for the Wake County district attorney and the other for Wake's public defender."
When Jacobs graduated this past May, he got a job working for Wake's district attorney. "I was lucky to get a job," he says. "If one didn't come along I was prepared to open my own advocacy firm with a UNC classmate. Even though I don't make as much money as I did with WUNC, I find that going into court each day is a challenge. The courtroom is similar to theater. The closing argument brings together acting and persuasion, two skills I used as an actor and in radio broadcasting."
For Jacobs there was a silver lining in paying for law school.
"Student loans paid for most of law school," he says. "I did receive several scholarships, but happily as an assistant DA, I have qualified for UNC's loan repayment assistance program for public interest lawyers."
The paralegal path
Somewhat like physician assistants and nurse practitioners in medicine, paralegals have become a key part of the legal profession. The profession also provides a cheaper and faster option for career changers interested in the law.
Paralegals prepare briefs, draft legal documents and do legal research. In North Carolina, they are restricted from independently giving advice to clients, representing clients in court, accepting a client or setting a fee.
The Meredith College paralegal program only meets in the evenings. Classes are held three times a week for three hours. Students are required to have completed their undergraduate education. The total cost: $5,510.
Duke's Continuing Education Division also has a two-semester evening and weekend program; the cost is nearly $6,000 a semester.
According to a 2010 survey conducted by the National Association of Legal Assistants, a paralegal with one to five years' experience should earn about $49,000.
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