Going to law school was a hard decision, but really, it was the right one for Tampa Bay area couple Bryan and Elizabeth Devolder. The easy part was recognizing and knowing that a legal career was something they both wanted to do. The hard part was making sure it could work for them; given that they both came from management positions, making good salaries, and working around family life and the day-to-day responsibilities that go along with it.
Bryan and Elizabeth did what anyone should do when looking into making an important, life-changing decision – set aside the emotional drivers, look at the pros and cons, then do the math. They also looked at the big picture, not just short term obstacles. Bryan Devolder first posed the questions, “Where do we see ourselves five -10 years from now?” They wanted the opportunities and open doors that a law degree would bring. Among the options – running their own law firm. The Devolders like the idea of “making our own decisions, and creating our own future.”
By quantifying the investment (salary calculator) – seeing if going back to law school would financially pay off – both Bryan and Elizabeth felt they could justify their decision to go back to law school. Even while allowing for a temporary salary decrease in the first few years of learning a new career, and calculating only mid-range salaries as their experience grew, the long term showed a likely and significant salary increase for both of them, and with plenty of years to enjoy that increase before retirement.
Visualizing Your Future is very important to the couple, along with taking control of what you can. Bryan worked in IT for a Fortune 100 company, and although his salary was good, he had limited opportunity for further growth. He asked himself, “Is this what I want to be doing for the rest of my life?” He wasn’t ready to accept that he had reached his maximum potential, nor that he had reached his maximum salary. They both envisioned greater career success.
Not Your Traditional Students
“I’ve seen it happen with so many friends and colleagues, said Bryan Devolder. “Mid-career professionals that find themselves out of a job through no fault of their own – then they can’t find a job. Finding a job is always easier when you have a job, not when you are out of work.”
Elizabeth Devolder described the challenge. “People usually wait to make a change until they are: 1) unhappy, 2) unhealthy, 3) unsafe, or 4) insecure. And by then, financial and emotional resources may be too low to jump to the next adventure. Think about what you can gain.”
Another good question to ask yourself according to the Devolders: What happens if you do nothing? Could you be laid off, downsized, marginalized or forced to work in a job or environment, or for a boss, that you find unpleasant? The Devolders took control of their destiny by adding marketable skills that would improve their ability to compete for any job, and provide an opportunity to strike out on their own.
Mom and Student
“It’s scary to go back to school at nearly 40 years old,” stated Elizabeth Devolder. “When I made the mid-career decision to stay home for a few years and have babies, I found that I could also use this time to improve my skills for when I return to work. I even had a baby while in school. I didn’t want career to get in the way of family, so we have been doing it all. There are certainly days where it is hard, but I am so excited to show my children that learning is a lifelong activity. I’m creating better opportunities, not only for me, but for them as well.”
Experience Good for Them, Good for Family, Good for Our Future
Applying Practical Experience – the Secret Sauce
According to Bryan Devolder, what really connected the dots for him was the chance to take everything they had learned in law school and then doing it for real – an opportunity they didn’t feel they would have had anywhere else. Participating in WMU-Cooley’s client competition while in law school gave both Bryan and Elizabeth the kind of experience you only see as an attorney. In their mind, it is the client interaction and relationship building that is going to make you a successful attorney.
Great Coaching: We Didn’t Get There Alone
The coaching was nothing short of amazing, according to the Devolders. “It felt like she (Dean Christine Church) told us exactly what we needed to know right before we needed to know it,” proclaimed Elizabeth Devolder. “Many other schools didn’t even send coaches to the competition; WMU-Cooley’s faculty investment shows how much they value practical application of skills that lead to real success.”
Great Teammates: Collaborating Across All Campuses
Team Devolder also thought their teammates were really great and supportive, despite the fact that they were from other campuses in Michigan. “We could see them, they could see us (using the technology available today), we would do a role play, they would be able to critique us, we could do the same for them. There was absolutely no barrier. It was nice to see that you could establish that close of a relationship with other students, even across the country.”
The National Competition Experience
The Devolders competed against the top 12 teams in the country – one from each region, and represented WMU-Cooley in its region. They took first place at the American Bar Association (ABA) Law Student Division Client Counseling Competition National Finals. Bryan thought the competition was very challenging and it felt like the real deal. “We got some very unique training, and some very unique practice, that we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else,” stated Bryan Devolder.
The Devolders are excited about a variety of ways they can use their new degree. Although opening a firm, or working for one, is a strong possibility, Bryan and Elizabeth can also leverage the experience they gained in the previous careers in IT and sales. “The legal field is large, and many of the opportunities fall outside the traditional image of a lawyer. Many industries are affected now, more than ever, by legal considerations. Someone who knows the law and also has experience in a particular industry, such as IT, nursing, psychology, public relations, journalism, real estate, accounting, or engineering, to name a few, has the potential to be valuable to both law firms AND corporations. A law degree can help set you above other applicants, even for an operational or non-lawyer position.”
Bryan and Elizabeth were the cover feature in the summer 2015 Benchmark Alumni Magazine.