Like many “nontraditional” law students, Chelsea Carlton’s path to law school had many twists and turns, ups and downs—a real rollercoaster, she said. But, contrary to what some might believe, those experiences and challenges were a blessing, not a curse. She says they better prepared her for law school.
If nothing else, that’s what she wants other nontraditional law students to learn from her story.
The winding road to law school
Flashback to 2007. Though she intended to head to undergrad right after high school, Carlton had to take some time off before college. So she worked full-time as a manager for a photography studio for about five years, working her way up the ladder.
Along the way, Carlton met her now-husband, and she eventually left her hometown of Atlanta for a small town in Texas, where they both worked at the same community college. He taught and, in a sharp professional turn, she served as a residence hall director. “I was in charge of keeping 200 18-year-old girls alive,” she says with a chuckle.
That’s when she decided to pick up her education where she left off and attend Texas Tech University full-time. As the resident director, she lived in the dorm with “her girls,” working from 6:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. Then she’d go to class bright and early the next morning.
Carlton ultimately earned a dual degree in Communications Studies and Spanish. After graduating, she made another professional leap, joining the liability determination unit for a big insurance provider. However, even though she loved the job, she knew it wasn’t the end of the line for her. “I wanted to go further in my education,” she says, “but I wasn’t 100 percent sure what I wanted to do.”
It was the legal-adjacent work she was doing that put law school in her sights. “I got to do some legal work at my insurance job,” she said, like communicating with attorneys, preparing documents for arbitration, poring over police reports, and even interviewing witnesses. “It was really interesting,” she said. “I loved it.”
One of her undergrad mentors also was a lawyer, and when she studied abroad with him in Mexico, she got to see some aspects of international law, which stoked her interest in the field. The mentor also gave her reading materials and lots of first-hand insights into the work. “He really encouraged me to go after my legal career,” she said.
Though she considered getting a master’s and PhD in communications, Carlton decided to apply to several law schools, evaluating their opportunities and financial aid offerings. A “really great scholarship opportunity” helped seal the deal for New England Law | Boston.
Not only that, “the craziest thing is when I decided I wanted to go [to law school], my husband also decided he wanted to go,” she says. “We have a two-for-one law school thing going on here!”
So they decided to ship up to Boston and enrolled at New England Law together. “We sold everything we owned and moved here in a very short time. It was kind of crazy,” she said. And the beginning of yet another curve in the rollercoaster.
Law school as a nontraditional student
Coming to law school was a “whole new world,” Carlton said. At 30 years old, married, and with a solid career behind her, she was decidedly in the nontraditional student camp. Of course, with her youthful face, bubbly personality, and seemingly boundless energy, it’s hard to believe she’s technically one of the older students in the school.
To be sure, that youthful energy has served her well: in addition to her current honors judicial internship, she’s Secretary for the Phi Delta Phi legal honor society, she’s been involved in the International Law Society and Jewish Law Students Association, she’s a New England Law Admissions Ambassador, and she just wrapped up an ABA Negotiation Competition. “This school just keeps throwing opportunities your way, and they’re all so interesting,” she said, smiling.
Her newest role? Executive Editor for Online Content for the New England Law Review, one of the most fulfilling experiences she’s had thus far in law school, she said. (Already, she’s taken her photographer’s eye to the Law Review’s website and has big plans for the future.)
Like many 2Ls, Carlton’s post-law school trajectory isn’t entirely clear. She’s interested in tax law and business law, and she thinks she’ll end up on the transactional side of things. But her honors judicial internship at Boston Municipal Court, working with gun court judges, might throw a wrench into her plans. “I get to sit in a courtroom with them all day. You really get to see what litigating is really like, and I’m a little hooked,” she said.
Advice for other nontraditional students
If you’re a “nontraditional” student considering law school, Carlton wants you to remember one thing: your experience is an asset, not a deficiency.
“Sometimes when we think of nontraditional students, we think these are people who have their backs against the wall. Maybe they don’t ‘belong’ in school,” she said. “That’s a really bad misconception, because I think my real-world work experience and my age has been the biggest help in law school. You’re coming in with a different level of maturity, you know your strengths and weaknesses…you know what hard work looks like.” She heaps extra praise on her nontraditional law school classmates who have children at home, who are still “doing amazing” as law students.
“If [law school] is something you really want to do, then you should do it. And you shouldn’t worry about what other people may think or misconceptions about nontraditional students,” Carlton said. “Nontraditional students have a lot to offer, and I think professors and staff really recognize that as well.”
Carlton said moving across the country for law school was “insane at the time,” but also life changing, and decidedly for the better. “I’ve never felt more like I’m going in the right direction than I am now.”
As for the future, Carlton said she loves Boston and is glad they came here, but she’s still thinking of taking the bar in Texas, where much of her family still lives. She also might pursue an LLM in tax or wills, estates, and trusts—settling into a “traditional” law career after jumping into the unknown. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I would encourage people to take that leap.”
Explore academic programs at New England Law, including multiple part-time JD options for law students looking for extra flexibility.