Letter from Law School: The Oldest Student in Canada’s Youngest Law Program Nears the Finish Line

Law school

Rebecca Field Jager, 60, didn't know she would be the oldest student at Canada's youngest law school when she applied, but nearing the end of her program she says she's found an accepting and supportive community among her younger classmates. Photo: Vladstudioraw/Getty Images

“What do you think?” I asked my daughter as I did a final check in the entranceway mirror.

“You look great, Mom, but it’s time to get going.”

It was my first day of law school in August 2022 and, as Samantha ushered me out the door, it was not lost on either of us that this was a role reversal of a scenario that took place some 30 years ago. Mind you, back then, she went off to meet a bunch of same-aged kindergarteners, whereas I, at 60, was about to enter a cohort of students with an average age of less than half that. 

I would not be in law school if it weren’t for the pandemic. In 2018, after decades as a professional writer, I enrolled in a paralegal program to explore my interest in law. Shortly after I got my licence and landed a part-time position at a boutique firm, COVID-19 struck, and I lost the gig.

Single and living alone in Toronto, I knew I had to do something to waylay the feelings of emptiness that settled in by week four of the lockdown. So, I enrolled at the University of Toronto to complete the criminology degree I’d started in 1986 but abandoned to marry and start a family.  With all classes on Zoom and zero distractions, I did well and graduated. A female lawyer acquaintance encouraged me to start studying for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) so I could apply to law school.

My first thought was that I’d be almost 63 by the time I wrote the bar (barrister’s licensing exam). As far as my return on investment, with the loss of earnings over three years and ghastly tuition fees (in Ontario they range from $10,000 to $33,000 per year), would I have to work till the grave to come out ahead? 

The answer lies in the state of one’s savings and tolerance for debt. I learned about financial tools such as the Canadian government’s Lifelong Learning Plan (LLP), which allows you to withdraw up to $20,000 from your RRSPs; the only caveat is it has to be paid back within 10 years. Further, different banks partner with different law schools to offer a professional student line of credit up to $150,000 at a variable annual interest rate. The Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) may be available, depending on whether you’ve reached your lifetime limit (generally 340 weeks). And, in my case, as a freelance writer and paralegal, I could make a few extra dollars during the school year and over the summer break.

But then it hit me. Why talk myself out of applying without knowing whether law school was an option? Lincoln Alexander School of Law at Toronto Metropolitan University – which opened in 2020 –  attracted me, in part, because one of its pillars is inclusivity and it promises “to build a legal community as diverse as the community you serve.” The acceptance rate hovers around seven per cent, which is similar to the other two Toronto law schools, at York University and the University of Toronto. So, going to a Canadian law school isn’t a choice in the purest sense of the word. Law school chooses you.

At a virtual open house, one of the recruiters rallied hopeful candidates with “never let anyone tell you to stay in your lane.” In the personal statement accompanying my application, I wrote how those words resonated. “Yes, I am a 59-year-old woman trying to get into law school and I’m not surprised by people’s resistance. But I am done with limitations. This is my lane. This is my time.”

I didn’t know I would be the oldest student at Canada’s youngest law school when I started classes, but I didn’t expect a band of boomers to hang out with either. I was afraid, however, that I’d end up eating lunch alone every day or feel my face flush as classmates crossed to the other side of the hall when picking project groups.

In retrospect, my fears seemed somewhat ageist. Not only did many students go out of their way to make me feel included, someone always brightened my day with a random act of kindness, such as complimenting my “fit” or offering to help when they saw me struggling with software I’d never used. From time to time, a few classmates  even approached me for advice about life.

Institutional ageism was also less than expected. If a professor or two was startled to see my face in a sea of gen-Zs and millennials, they hid it well. Now and then, announcements from outside organizations irked some of my fellow members of the Mature Students Club; can somebody please replace opportunities for young lawyers with opportunities for new lawyers? Once in a while, a visitor to the school mistook me for a prof. There are worse things.

Now two-thirds of the way through the three-year program, my success in the job market remains to be seen, but I am an outlier, given the low percentage of folks over 45 applying to law schools (approximately 1 to 1.5 per cent at Lincoln Alexander and 1.3 per cent at UBC’s Allard). Still, so far so good: I landed a part-time student caseworker position at a family law clinic this winter, and I was thrilled to land a full-time summer job at a law firm in downtown Toronto. 

Interestingly, I experienced overt ageism from my peer group. Although there were many well-wishers who congratulated me and cheered me on, there were naysayers who either could not understand or outright challenged my decision. Some simply couldn’t get past taking a risk so late in life, while others questioned my ethics. How dare I take the place of a young person starting out?

Should post-secondary and grad schools have a cut-off age? Unlike the focused young women who wow me every day in the classroom, law school wasn’t even on my radar when I was in my 20s. Did I selfishly set down my doily on too coveted a spot, or was the universe patient and held my place?

Obviously, university is not the same for folks over 50 as it was the first time around. My first-year exams were tough as I was initiated into the concept of open-book tests. Unless you carted in a hard copy, there was no book to open, but all online casebooks, papers, readings, assignments, lecture notes, course outlines, videos and podcasts were fair game to consult. Trying to pop in and out of multiple windows on my little laptop and type the answers onto the exam page in a race against the clock was overwhelming.

But technology was only part of the difference. While campuses are still a hub of activism, the modern classroom doesn’t look and feel the same. The diversity of students and professors, coupled with the progressiveness of the pedagogical approach, made for a learning experience that reached beyond academia.

Did I worry I might stumble over my words or unwittingly offend? Yes, but I tried to focus on how engaging in difficult discussions with people outside my circle of friends added depth and richness to life. Surely law school will leave me a better person than it found me. Socially, it already has.

There are myriad associations and clubs to join, reflecting various ethnicities, areas of law and special interests. As a member of the student editorial board of the Wrongful Conviction Law Review, I stayed true to my writing roots and enjoyed working with students I might not otherwise have got to know. I was recently asked to pen its first podcast review and fell in love with a new style of writing.

I also pitched an idea for a free legal clinic, and I’ve loved collaborating with students, faculty advisers and volunteer lawyers from the community to create the Pro Bone-o Pet Dispute Clinic, which launches this spring to help couples determine who gets the pet after a split-up. 

Second year has been particularly rewarding because we got to break away from the steady stream of mandatory classes and meet different students as we came together in courses we choose. From the candy box of options – family law, intellectual property, criminal procedure and privacy law, for example – I struggled to narrow down my choices, but happily, I have a third year to fit in all of my interests.During  opening-day remarks, we were told law school is a place where students make friends for life. But as many gen-X and boomers know, establishing meaningful new friendships can be difficult as we get older. I am happy to report I have a tiny trove of new besties. One is a successful entrepreneur in her late 40s who leaves her home in Kitchener, Ont., on Sunday evenings to spend weekdays in a small apartment she rents near campus. I am close to other students as well, especially the core group of rock stars who helped me survive the blur of first year.

Now, with a year to go, the finish line is in sight. With it comes giddiness and a growing sense of astonishment: I’m actually going to be a lawyer!

Have I done the right thing? My son, Trevor, often asks how school is going, and I know he is proud of me. But he recently told me he always thought if he ever had kids, I’d be a babysitter, not a lawyer. My heart burst at the mention of being a grandmother, so I felt a moment of melancholy. It’s not surprising that boomers, who redefined social norms at each stage of their lives, are changing the landscape of this phase of life, too.

I’ll figure out a way to be both. 

By The Numbers

  • The oldest person accepted at the University of Toronto Law School between 2019 and 2023 was 51
  • Nine of 470 students enrolled at Toronto Metropolitan University’s Lincoln Alexander School of Law in 2022 were 45+
  • The oldest applicant to Lincoln Alexander since it opened in 2020 was 68; the oldest accepted was 59 (me)
  • At UBC’s Allard School of Law, about 8 of an estimated 1,500 applicants were 50+ in 2022
  • At University of Calgary’s law school in 2022, the average age of students was 26, while the oldest were in their late 40s

Sources: law.utoronto.ca; TMU law admissions office; law.ucalgary.ca; UBC law admissions office