Terri Natoli knew she wanted to be a lawyer.
But with four young children to raise -- and a full-time job she enjoyed -- it didn't make sense to head back to school full time.
So she went part time, earning her law degree from George Mason University in four years instead of the usual three, graduating first among the part-time students in her class and picking up several awards. She also gave birth to her fifth child. Her husband accompanied her when she went to Roanoke for the bar exam, and she nursed the baby during breaks. (Yes, she passed the bar -- on the first try.)
Now, few are gifted with Natoli's focus and efficiency, but plenty of people share her success at making it through law school part time.
Many law schools offer part-time programs, including some of the best schools in the country. Catholic University's law school is especially popular with part-time students, with about a third choosing the evening option. Thomas Haederle, a spokesman for the school, said its evening students are motivated and disciplined -- and the school feels obligated to accommodate them.
Those who studied law this way say there is one big advantage: saving money.
Many part-time law graduates said they could not have afforded to quit their jobs in order to go to school full time. Many had children to support, as well as substantial student loans to pay back from undergrad years. Going part time, often subsidized through tuition assistance from their employer, was the only way to fulfill their dream.
Of course, going part time also has drawbacks.
One common concern is that a part-time program is less rigorous than the traditional full-time option. The schools that offer such programs say that is not the case -- and their graduates back them up. The core classes are the same, and often so are the teachers.
Another concern is that potential employers might not take the degree seriously.
Mark A. Robbins, a 1988 George Washington law graduate, said he was surprised by the hesitation by many "blue-blood" firms in hiring lawyers who attended a night program. "There seemed to be a misperception that admittance standards into night programs are lower than day programs," Robbins said.
"Even today, after what I consider to be a relatively successful career to date, and with my experiences, I am occasionally asked about 'the night program,' " said Robbins, who is general counsel for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
What will concern employers most, however, is a lack of law-related experience. No matter how great a law student's previous career, legal employers are not likely to be impressed. They scan resumes for clues as to what kind of lawyer the student will be -- as evidenced by clerkships and law journal articles.
This puts night students at a disadvantage, Robbins said. Students who work full-time jobs rarely have time for these extracurricular activities. "And my grades, while good, certainly evidenced other priorities on which I had to concentrate during my four years at GW," he said.
However, the stigma may be fading as more successful lawyers earn their degrees this way. Robbins said he prefers part-time graduates. "Now that I am in a position to hire attorneys, I'm much more impressed with students who could balance various aspects in their lives while doing relatively well in all of them than those who got very good grades but had no other responsibilities for three years," he said.
For those who find the idea of part-time law school appealing, consider this (free!) advice from lawyers:
"Take care of your health," said Jacqueline M. Richardson, a GW graduate. She said the hectic schedule left her and her classmates with "sallow complexions and bags under our eyes."
Also, maintain your sense of perspective. The best way to do this, many part-time graduates say, is by not neglecting your social life.
Dian Stevens, another GW graduate, stressed the importance of keeping in touch with friends outside of school. "Don't get me wrong. It's important to have friends that are going through the same experience," she said, but she always welcomed "a few hours away from my law books."
Despite these cautions, many part-timers recommend the route.
Natoli, who is now an assistant division chief at the Federal Communications Commission, is encouraging. "Make no mistake, it was not easy and I used every minute I had to the maximum point of efficiency, but I have no regrets. It has made me capable of handling anything and everything that has come my way since then."
In other words, exactly what you would want in a lawyer.
Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at 2 p.m. Nov. 5 at www.washingtonpost.com.