When I entered UC Hastings College of the Law in 1979, my class included a 55-year-old empty-nester. In the crowd of bushy-haired twenty-somethings, her wispy gray hair was conspicuous. I spoke with her a few times, but do not remember her name or what motivated her midlife change. I wish I could, because she ended up inspiring me decades later.
I was one of only a few students at Hastings who did not necessarily envision a law career. Although I found law fascinating and felt I had some aptitude for it, I had focused on journalism in high school and college and my first job was reporting for a newspaper. I loved writing and being close to the news, to new worlds unfolding each day. Tax law did not inspire me in quite the same way.
So after I got my law degree and passed the bar, I pursued journalism and barely looked back, working in Washington, D.C., Honolulu, Tokyo, Seoul, Lake Tahoe, and the Napa Valley. I worked for new services, newspapers, and television stations and wrote books. It was never monotonous. I wrote about the law at first, but then other worlds beckoned: the governments and cultures of Asia, entertainment, travel, and food and wine. I interviewed and wrote about people from the very famous - film directors and stars, heads of governments - to lesser known souls fighting for change in the world. It was sometimes glamorous and exciting, and almost always the kind of stimulation I sought.
But when I turned 50 several years ago, something changed. For the first time, I took special note of receiving my new California State Bar card. (I had been paying dues as an inactive member for decades, because I'd heard that otherwise I would have to pass the bar exam again to rejoin. That was unthinkable - I am not a masochist.) As I placed the card in a desk drawer as I'd done each year when it arrived, I thought about the older woman in my law school class and told myself, "You are five years younger than she was and law school is behind you. It wasn't too late for her, and it might not be for you."
But why bother with the law? I wasn't quite sure. I did not envision it as my new occupation, and I was still skeptical whether it was for me (we journalists always are). So I chose to volunteer a few hours a week in the field of elder law. It was relevant - to my elderly parents, and in a couple of decades to myself and my peers. It was dynamic - the unprecedented generation of baby boomer seniors is a burgeoning population. And it seemed meaningful - seniors are so often vulnerable.
Being "of service" and "giving back to the community" are well-worn clichés that as a writer I prefer to avoid. But there was some element of that in my desire to finally start out in the law, so long after my legal education. Had I ever really been of service to anyone in my career as a writer? Maybe, but if so it was pretty indirect.
Though I continue to write, I now work about ten hours a week at the Senior Self-Help Clinic in Martinez, and at Contra Costa Senior Legal Services. My background as a journalist turns out to be useful: Asking questions and eliciting relevant information is second nature to me. But seniors bring new challenges, especially those facing crises such as financial abuse at the hands of loved ones.
Distraught clients often pour out a jumble of grievances for us to sort out. Or they may yell or scowl at us for telling them things they don't want to hear. Often we have to struggle to get them to understand us because of the indignities that come with old age, such as weakened sight or hearing, or the fading ability to focus mentally. It is indeed a new world.
For decades I thought law school had been a waste of time; today I'm grateful it opened a door I can walk through at this stage in my life. I'm also thankful that law school is behind me. Though I still have much to learn, I don't have the fortitude my inspirational classmate did when she entered law school at age 55. I hope she had a satisfying encore career. I'm optimistic I will too.
Attorney Janice Fuhrman writes about food, wine, and travel and works at the Martinez Senior Self-Help Clinic and Contra Costa Legal Services.