The Rev. David Cantrell was looking for a new career.
"My wife wanted a divorce," he said. "It's very hard to be a divorced minister."
So Cantrell decided to be a lawyer. At 40, almost 15 years since he had last opened a textbook, the Northridge clergyman entered law school.
Now struggling through first-year courses, Cantrell is no old-timer in the classroom. He attends the tiny San Fernando Valley College of Law in Sepulveda, where more than half of the 200 students are 35 or older. There are a handful of students in their 60s and one applicant in her 80s.
Older students are becoming more common at law schools throughout the country, administrators say. People in their 30s and 40s are turning to law as a second career, returning to the classroom despite the rigors and expense of a legal education.
"They are extremely motivated students," said Pam McConnell, a professor at the school. "They are here not because it's something to do after college but because they've made a choice and maybe some sacrifices to be here. It's a real dedicated group."
According to American Bar Assn. statistics, almost a quarter of the 55,000 people who applied to ABA-accredited law schools last year were 30 or older.
At Southwestern University's School of Law in downtown Los Angeles, 20% of last year's applicants were over 30, and the average age of students has risen to 28. Officials at USC and UCLA keep no such statistics, but report noticeable increases in the number of older students.
"We have a guy who was a violinist in the philharmonic. We have a guy who was a policeman," said Lawrence Raful, an associate dean at USC School of Law. "There are women whose children are grown who realize they may have missed something at their 21-year-old stage. There are still people who grew up watching 'Perry Mason' and are just now getting around to going to law school."
'An Opportunity School'
Older students have become unusually prominent at the San Fernando Valley college, in part because of the school's admissions policies. Applicants must score in the top 50% on the Law School Admissions Test and, in some cases, need not have earned a bachelor's degree. By comparison, this fall's USC law class graduated from universities with a B+ average or better and scored in the top 10% on the LSAT.
"We are an opportunity school," said Keith Sonne, admissions director at the Valley school, which is a satellite campus of LaVerne University in LaVerne. "We give an opportunity to the person who might not get it elsewhere."
The college is in a beige, two-story office building on Sepulveda Boulevard, between an Earl Scheib auto paint shop and Duke's Beer Bar.
Pam McConnell's first-year criminal-law class convenes in a smaller building in back. Although the classroom is classic law school--tiered in a semicircle with rows narrowing down to a podium--McConnell is hardly Professor Kingsfield. She is thin and attractive, with blond hair and wearing a bright blue dress. She smiles and jokes often, moving quickly about the front of the room.
"Teaching older students, you have to change your teaching techniques," she said. A former deputy district attorney, McConnell, 32, is younger than most of her pupils. "When you teach at night, you have to be more entertaining because many of the students have put in a full day of work.
"I won't wear a clown suit and honk a horn, but I try to be funny because it keeps them awake and it keeps them thinking."
Struggle to Stay Awake
The effort is not wasted on student Raymond Bock of Calabasas. He says that, at times, an entertaining professor is the only thing that keeps him from dozing off. Bock, 65, works part time as an industrial engineer for the federal government while attending law school.
"A man my age gets four hours sleep and then he tries to put in three hours of class after a full day of work," he said. "You bet that's tough. These tired old synapses don't work as fast as the young kids'."
Like other students who leave the business world to go back to law school, Bock found it difficult to reacquaint himself with nightly studying. Most of the older students attend class part time, only three days a week. But the vast number of law cases that must be memorized presents a formidable obstacle.
Long Reading Assignments
"The thing I hear most is, 'Oh, my God, how am I going to do all this reading," said Raful, the USC dean. "When you're working in the real world, you may read The Times or a novel, but you sure don't read 250 pages of text each night."
In the Kelemen household in Woodland Hills, studying has become a family priority. Chuck Kelemen, 43, is a first-year student at the San Fernando Valley law school, his wife has returned to college to earn a degree in social work, and their two sons are still in school.
Sal Porretta's family also has taken an interest in his homework. The 43-year-old retired Burbank policeman, a classmate of Kelemen, said his teen-age daughter delights in nagging him about studying.