79-Year-Old Graduates From Law School, Begins Career in Elder Law

At an age when work is a distant memory for most people, Alice Thomas is embarking on a career in elder law. In December 2009, Thomas graduated from Pacific McGeorge School of Law at age 79. She was older than all but one of her professors, not to mention her classmates, and is one of the oldest people ever to earn a law degree from an American Bar Association-accredited school.

Although she has yet to pick up her diploma or pass the bar exam, Thomas has already lined up a job working on elder law issues at a Reno, Nevada, law firm. In an interview with the Sacramento Bee, she said she hopes that her time in the field will allow her to "nibble at" some injustices.

"[A] lot of older people just sit and watch the grass grow, and they end up disintegrating," Thomas said. "When you quit learning something, you might as well crawl into a coffin and pull the dirt in after you."

Thomas's feat is all the more remarkable because during much of her first two years at the Sacramento-based law school, she was caring for her long-time companion who had Alzheimer's disease. Before his death, her grades fell and she was placed on academic probation. But she petitioned for reinstatement and completed the normal three-year program in four years.

When Pacific McGeorge opened an Elder Law Clinic in 2008, Thomas was the first student enrollee, and the school says her volunteer work helped numerous senior citizens handle a variety of legal issues.

"Initially," reports the Bee, "she was reluctant to be pigeonholed as someone who wanted to work only on behalf of seniors, but she says she grew to love the work and embraced the wide range of challenges."

Thomas, who formerly had a long career doing office work in the construction industry, now begins the grueling process of studying for either the Nevada or California bar exam. She probably won't find out whether she passed until well past her 80th birthday in July. In addition, she has to begin paying back $70,000 in student loans.

Thomas seems to have taken studying alongside classmates one-third her age in stride.

"Most of the time, the other students acted like I wasn't even alive," she told the Bee. "Some of them asked if I was really serious. I told them I could take a first-class trip around the world and not spend as much money and not have to work as hard."

"She has been a delight since the day she got here," said Tim Naccarato, McGeorge's principal assistant dean.

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