Editor's Note: This article is a sponsored post.
Hawley Troxell, Idaho’s full-service business law firm, is proud to announce two new associate attorneys to its Boise law offices. The firm added five new associate attorneys this fall, however, this Q&A features two extraordinary women who took the unconventional route to law school. Both have pushed through many barriers having had careers and going to law school while also raising their families.
Amy M. J. Knight specializes in real estate and banking practice groups. She is a recent graduate of Concordia University – Portland’s School of Law in Boise, having received her J.D., magna cum laude, as a non-traditional student.
Why law school, and why now?
I always intended to go to law school, because I love the law. My first legal job was as a runner for a law firm in Reno, Nevada, at 16 years old. The initial problem was getting through an undergrad degree. I was on my own after high school, financially and in all other ways, and even back in 1995, and even with student loans, college was too expensive for me to be able to afford it while also trying to provide for myself. As a result, I had to go slow and take evening and online classes while working in the legal industry full-time during the work day. I’ve been a runner, receptionist, billing clerk, coder, legal secretary, and paralegal, trying to learn everything I could about the law at each step. Meanwhile, I met and married my husband and had two wonderful children. The expense of college education—and the time it takes to complete it—combined with the demands of regular life slowed my progress, as I had to put the degree on hold from time to time. I finally graduated with a bachelor’s degree from BSU in 2011.
What was your greatest obstacle and greatest asset going to law school in an unconventional way?
Initially, the greatest obstacle to law school was that there was no law school in Boise prior to 2012, and my family resides here, and my employers have always been based here. I was not willing to leave my young family to go elsewhere to law school, and I was not financially able to quit my job outright to study the law. (And I had no real desire to quit working in the industry—that seemed like a benefit.) When Concordia Law School opened, it was a perfect solution because it incorporated a night program, which the U of I law school does not offer. So, I started law school in the fall of 2012 in the night program at Concordia, set to graduate in four years. However, a second obstacle arose when my husband was involved in a serious accident, which required a year of physical rehabilitation and total job retraining for him. Once again, I put my education on the back burner, and it continued slowly (and sometimes was put on hold) as he rehabbed and was retrained. He completed his own degree in the fall of 2017, and so I resumed my legal studies in the summer of 2018 at Concordia. Meanwhile, I worked full-time in the industry as a paralegal.
If you had to do it over, would you?
Absolutely, but it was a huge sacrifice for my family to spend so many parts of the past 20 years in night school. It has also resulted in a lot of debt. Two things stand out as being obstacles that we ought to work to remove: the prohibitive cost of law school, which dissuades many working-class people, and the time constraints of full-time law school. Particularly regarding the latter, the law’s continuing inclination to require students to attend traditionally structured day programs is an unnecessary obstacle. I was in night classes at Concordia with other paralegals, as well as nurses, entrepreneurs, schoolteachers, Idaho legislators, brokers, realtors, engineers—all of them were able to finish their J.D.s because of the time opportunity of the night program. These adult professionals added immensely to discussions in class and to the legal field upon graduation because of their other expertise.
Nikki O’Toole recently graduated from the University of Idaho’s College of Law, where she received her J.D. in May 2020. While in school, Nikki was a managing editor of the Idaho Critical Legal Studies Journal and a student attorney for University of Idaho’s Federal Low-Income Tax Clinic, where she worked closely with clients in their disputes with the IRS.
Why law school, and why now?
I was fortunate to get married and start a family immediately after undergrad, and by the time I was 28 years old, I had three boys. During my 10 years as a stay-at-home mom, I always managed to work in some capacity or another, but never in a position that necessitated putting my kids in childcare, the cost of which would almost certainly outweigh any financial gain said position would produce. I had always fanaticized about going to law school “one day,” but it never seemed like the right time between focusing on our kids, one of whom has special needs requiring excessive time and care, and my husband’s career. Instead, I rationally concluded that I’d think about what I wanted later, when all three boys were in school. However, this logical argument took its toll, and I grew more discontented with my present state as time went by.
I distinctly remember the moment when I decided I needed to make a drastic change, in the form of going to law school. It was the fall after my youngest son turned 3, and I was sitting at the table after the two-hour-long bedtime dance, angry with myself for feeling discontented with where I was at in life. While I loved being a mom—and still do—time was just passing me by. So, I decided instead of letting myself off the hook or justify why I needed to wait, it was time to take action and stop waiting for “one day” to get here. Without asking, I announced to my husband that I needed to push myself. I was going to do the hardest thing I could think of: I was going to go to law school. Before I lost my nerve, I signed up to take the next LSAT that same night.
While I ultimately made the choice to wait one extra year between getting accepted to law school and attending so that I could stay home with my youngest until he was old enough to attend kindergarten, I was able to start law school in the fall of 2017, at 33 years old.
What was the greatest obstacle/greatest asset for attending in an untraditional way?
The greatest obstacle was me. By that, I mean my guilt, whether over my time—if I spent too much time studying then I wasn’t home to put my kids to bed; conversely, if I volunteered in my son’s class or went to a field trip that was time away from studying.
Being in such a different place in my life as most of my law school classmates was also a challenge. I had a wonderful law school class and my peers were (and are) terrific, gracious individuals who never made me feel excluded or “old,” always inviting me to their social outings and study sessions. Yet, there was always a part of me that felt cut off from my peers—my own doing, I’m sure—but the distance had the effect of making me feel disconnected, which was an obstacle.
I would say the greatest obstacle of attending law school, in hindsight, was the impact it had on my husband. I want to be careful, as I feel its important to be authentic in answering these questions, but I don’t want to give the impression he wasn’t supportive—he was. But, from his perspective, you have a partner that is home with your kids for 10 years, ensuring all of their needs are met and the domestic needs of the home are met. Then, in a drastic transition, she is abruptly absent ALL THE TIME. He handled it like a champ, but, I think spouses of law school students are the unsung, behind-the-scenes heroes, constantly overlooked in the face of their partner’s triumph. The truth is he picked up all the slack, and I couldn’t have done it without him. Yet, believe me when I say that being married during law school was an obstacle, for sure, and one that we overcame together, to the great benefit of our marriage.
The greatest asset for attending law school in an untraditional way is, in my opinion, the perspective I had to offer. I found that my extra years provided an additional, real-world viewpoint to classroom discussions, for example.
Additionally, younger law school students have a tendency to get very wrapped up in the day-to-day, with their entire self-esteem wrapped up in their class ranking or midterm grades. Having lived a bit, I rested easy knowing that at the end of the day, I needed to work hard and do my best, but my dreams would not be crushed if I wasn’t in the top 10%—and I wasn’t. But that was OK, because it was more important to me that I was home for dinner or bedtime with my sons than it was that I spent an extra two hours in the library.
Finally, though I don’t know if I’d choose the unconventional approach if I could rewind the clock, by making the decision to go back to school 10 years post-undergrad, I had no doubts or hesitations about my choice as that extra time afforded me the opportunity to get to know myself and, in turn, know that practicing law was the right path for me. We lost several students after the first semester of 1L year, and several more the summer after 1L and even 2L years. There were even a few students that completed all three years, but confided that they knew they didn’t want to practice law early on, but decided they’d finish law school because a parent wanted them to, or because they didn’t know what else they’d do with their lives. That was never a thought for me. I knew unequivocally that I was in it from the moment I stepped foot into ILJLC, and I have never questioned my choice. I knew who I was before I applied for law school and am confident I am in the exact profession I was meant to be in, without any doubt or hesitation.
If you had to do it over again, would you?
Simple answer: in a heartbeat.