Checkbooks, Pantsuits, and Other New Things: What Law School Feels Like in Your Early 20s

A friend of mine recently asked me whether I felt like I was “wasting my 20s” on law school. I don’t think he meant the entirety of my 20s—obviously law school doesn’t take 10 years to complete, and he is just 26 himself—but the part of your 20s that really captures the essence of the decade. The “young” 20s, “fun” 20s, “drink with no hangover” 20s (though I have learned that comes to an end soon after legality). The supposedly carefree portion of your life when you can just pick up and leave at any time, start a new job or a new adventure without having to consider mortgage payments, spouses, or those miniature versions of themselves people in their late 20s have on the brain.

In that sense, no, I do not feel like I am wasting anything. In fact, this is always sort of where I pictured I would be at the age of (almost) 23: in law school, studying a lot, working a little too hard, maybe with a few pantsuits hanging in my closet alongside my ripped jeans. Of course, I always envisioned myself more like Elle Woods at Harvard than part-time nanny, part-time neurotic law student. But still, this is exactly what I thought my early 20s were for, and while it may seem strange that I didn’t dream of traveling or working or doing something other than sitting among dusty case books in a library, I’m pretty okay with my situation.

“If you know you want to practice law, why wait? I get to start my career when I’m 24. On the other hand, I haven’t heard anyone who took a year or two off say they regretted it. It has the benefits of putting some extra money in your pocket, adding something to your résumé, giving you perspective, and probably increasing your work ethic.”

A cute baby boy is dressed in smart business clothes and is with his laptop ready for work. Studio shot Isolated on white.
Sometimes in law school you really feel your age. (Flickr Creative Commons)

In some ways, actually, I am living the dream. I think graduate school often holds this reputation as being a halfway house for post-grads—another stepping stone between the safety of our parents’ protection and that moment of terrifyingly complete independence. We are able to defer our undergraduate loans for a few more years, rake in the benefits of the student discount, resist the drone of the 9-5 (or, for those of us pursuing big firm life, more like 8-8) job, maybe even squeeze out our last few occasions to drink cheap beer in a crowded dorm room. No judgment.

But that isn’t even close to the whole picture, and certainly not why any of us would elect to pay for a few more years of studying. And I can tell you, as one of the “baby” classmates, as my friend so lovingly puts it, of NYU Law 2018, coming straight into law school forces you to grow up much more quickly than you ever expected. I just ordered my first checkbook six months ago, and now I’m putting on a pantsuit and parading around receptions held by the top New York law firms. Everything feels more important here, more high-stakes—as if they plucked me from my college graduation, gown and all, and placed me squarely at the crossroads of financial independence, academic pursuit, and career purpose with just a pat on the back.

“I think as a whole, the people that took a few years off were much more stressed about exams. The people that went straight through are much more stressed about jobs.”

It is certainly intimidating to enter one of the top law schools in the country and find out you fall in the bottom 20 percent—not only in terms of age, but also in terms of professional and life experience. School is something I am good at. School is something I know how to do. The rest of this stuff—the professional mixers, speed networking, business lunching—it’s kind of new to me. Maybe it is my own insecurity, but each time I interview with a potential employer I feel the need to compensate for that nonexistent wealth of professional experience many 1Ls have sandwiched between undergraduate and law school. Answers to questions such as, “Why law?” “What type of law?” “Why this job?” are often answered based on a combination of gut feeling, general interest, and that constitutional law class you got an A in during college.

During one particularly humbling interview, the interviewer actually made the comment, “What is there to ask? You went to college, now you’re in law school.” And in those moments, your mind goes numb. You can’t recall rapidly all of the reasons and achievements that got you to where you are today, or the fact that your grades are just as good as those of your older peers. For me, all I could manage to spit out was a half-hearted, “I’m interesting, I promise.”

“When we first began school, I saw individuals that had significantly more ‘life experience’ than I had. My ‘peers’ were no longer my age as they had been in college; they had real-world experiences, issues, and interests to speak about. Initially this took me out of my comfort zone. As time went on, I learned to adapt to the general mood and atmosphere of the crowd, though I know my lack of said ‘life experience’ shines through at times.”

Adults sign
Is this much adulting legal? (Flickr Creative Commons)

So no, I have never felt that I was “wasting my 20s” by going straight into law school. But I have questioned whether it was the right move for me career-wise, and I have, regretfully, allowed it to shake my confidence at times when there was no real reason to feel insecure or inferior. As one first-year associate described it to me: we are all the same in “law years.” Yes, we all come from diverse circumstances—from different schools, different majors, different geographic areas, different professional backgrounds, and different ages—but we all take the same courses, gather in the same study groups, go out to the same bar reviews, vie for the same job openings, and fall together on the same curve. It is the best part about NYU: the sense of community that transcends that competitive need to distinguish and disparage.

We are not alone on this path to professional success. We have the advice of our peers, the insight of our professors, and the resources of NYU Law’s Office of Career Services (OCS) to guide us. (Admittedly, if I had taken advantage of any of OCS’s interview skills workshops or open office hours, I may have mustered up a more confident response than “I’m interesting, I promise.”) But it is all a learning experience, and I am fortunate enough to be taking my crash course in adulthood as the “baby friend” alongside a remarkable group of peers that, despite our friendly teasing, never lets me forget what I bring to the table. Whether straight-through or several years out, the important thing is that I have found a community as intent on sitting among dusty casebooks as I am. That, to me, means I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

For those of you in a similar position to mine, check out these helpful resources from the OCS website: