Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Non-traditional law students seek new skills, challenges

Natalie Carpenter, left, an evening student at University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, sits with her children Marlowe, 18 months, and Beckett, 7. (The Daily Record / Heather Cobun)

‘I can’t compete with the young people who have no commitments on the weekends and no kids looking at them saying, “Mommy, please play with me,” so I don’t try,’ says Natalie Carpenter, a second-year evening student University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, whose children Marlowe, 18 months, and Beckett, 7, enjoy coming on campus. (The Daily Record / Heather Cobun)

Non-traditional students at Maryland’s law schools have different reasons for returning to the classroom, from a desire for a career change to fulfillment of a long-time goal.

For Natalie Carpenter, a contentious divorce opened her eyes to how difficult it can be to navigate legal proceedings.

“There’s so much that you don’t know,” said Carpenter, now entering her second year in the evening program at University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. “It’s very exciting to me to see how relevant it is and how much it relates to everybody’s lives.”

An equity trader for 20 years, Carpenter was looking to change careers as her skills became less in-demand in the industry. She planned on transitioning into something more altruistic, and after representing herself in the appeal of the divorce in California, people kept telling her she should be a lawyer.

“I do know what it feels like to feel helpless on the other end of that but my goal is to have skill I can use until my mind no longer functional,” she said.

Mark Cather also had people suggesting law school as he navigated legal issues in his role as the chief security officer at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Cather spent a lot of time with a campus attorney discussing technology’s intersection with the law and compliance issues for the school, which led him to enroll to get the necessary knowledge himself.

“My old motto is I hide behind lawyers,” he said.

Now entering his final year in the evening program at UM Carey, Cather said a degree to expand his skillset has become a new way of thinking and allowed him to make contacts throughout the region.

“I’m actually becoming a lawyer, not just an IT guy with law knowledge,” he said.

Law school was always in Elizabeth Strunk’s plan after she took an admiralty law course while at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. After graduating with her degree and a Coast Guard license, Strunk sailed for five years with the civilian Military Sealift Command, spending as many as 10 months away from home a year.

She resigned to pursue her goal of being a lawyer, taking the LSAT and choosing the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she began as a full-time day student last year.

“I think I kind of approach law school with a more well-rounded kind of approach,” she said of her background.

After wearing a uniform in college, Strunk said law school has been more like the typical college experience she missed.

“It was hard and different but also I was excited and intrigued because in undergrad, it was regimented,” she said.

School-life balance

Strunk worked two internships this summer, one with a federal judge and one with a law firm, and is already looking forward to an internship next summer.

“The school part, I was mentally ready for that and I kind of knew what I wanted to get out of it,” she said.

Elizabeth Strunk drives the USNS Arctic alongside the USNS Leroy Grumman in 2016 while serving as chief mate (1st Officer) in the spring of 2016. Strunk sailed for five years with the civilian Military Sealift Command after graduating from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy before resigning to last year to become a full-time day student at the University of Baltimore School of Law. ‘I think I kind of approach law school with a more well-rounded kind of approach," she said of her background,’ she says. (Submitted photo)

Elizabeth Strunk drives the USNS Arctic alongside the USNS Leroy Grumman in 2016 while serving as chief mate (1st Officer) in the spring of 2016. Strunk sailed for five years with the civilian Military Sealift Command after graduating from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy before resigning to last year to become a full-time day student at the University of Baltimore School of Law. ‘I think I kind of approach law school with a more well-rounded kind of approach,” she said of her background,’ she says. (Submitted photo)

But not having the time or the funds to travel has been frustrating for someone who spent five years constantly on the move.

“It’s kind of driving me crazy,” she said. “This is the first time I haven’t been out of the country in such a long period of time, I think, since I was in high school.”

As parents, Carpenter and Cather both said finding time for their families has been a challenge while in school.

Cather said “logistics become a real factor” as a parent returning to school.

“It was intense,” he said. “Not only was I going back to school for the first time in a significant number of years… my life had completely changed having a family and a job that I didn’t have the last time I was in a classroom.”

Cather said there was a family meeting when he began considering law school. His children were ages 7, 9 and 11 when he started.

“Basically, we are all going to law school if I go,” he said. “The words from my wife at that point were, ‘Well, we can do anything for 16 weeks.’”

To graduate from the evening program in four years, Cather said he has basically taken five straight semesters of classes, including over the summer.

“There’s been deferral on some of the yard work for some of that time but where I can I absolutely do reserve that time to try to be with the family and reconnect,” he said.

Carpenter’s children are ages 7 and 18 months, and her husband works in New York and comes to Maryland on weekends.

“It’s not something you would advise people to do,” she said. “Marriages in general suffer when you have infants to begin with. …You compound that with our unusual set-up and it’s tough. We are getting a routine.”

Having time for her kids is a priority, Carpenter said, and her day job is being a mom.

“I can’t compete with the young people who have no commitments on the weekends and no kids looking at them saying, ‘Mommy, please play with me,’ so I don’t try,” she said. “And that’s the beauty of being an older student.”


To purchase a reprint of this article, contact reprints@thedailyrecord.com.