Date: July 1st, 2009
At 79 years old, Alice Thomas is definitely not your traditional law student, but all her life she’s walked a fairly non-traditional path. Leaving home at just 16 years old, Thomas worked a variety of jobs to support herself including a drug-store waitress, a typist, and even an elevator operator. She eventually found herself in the construction industry despite the fact that it was and continues to be a “man’s world.”
Thomas started off as a receptionist but climbed the ranks and eventually became the first female controller of a construction company in Orange County, California. While she really wanted to be a builder, “in the days of Leave it to Beaver that was unthinkable for a woman,” Thomas says. She did stay in the industry though and eventually became one of the first female project managers for a major homebuilder in the area—she even ended up starting her own company.
It was during this time that Thomas decided to go back to school. Since she hadn’t graduated from high school, she went to a 2-year program at the community college. One of her favorite courses was political science, taught by a practicing attorney. It was then that she found herself hooked on the law and politics. Inspired to go to law school, she switched her major from accounting to political science.
Thomas worked her way through college because, at the time, she wasn’t eligible for student loans—she was too old at age 38. Unfortunately, her dreams were deferred when after graduating with high honors, a law school admissions counselor advised her that “she might make a good token woman.” She went back to construction wondering if women should even bother with the law.
Rediscovering her Passion
Years later, Thomas enrolled in a legal assistant class and fell back in love with the law. After some soul-searching she decided it was finally time for her to go to law school—she was in her 70s at the time. When asked why she decided to spend so much time and effort to start a new profession late in life, Thomas says she can’t afford to retire. But more importantly, she wants to keep learning new things. As she says “when you quit learning something new, you might as well crawl into a coffin and pull the dirt in after you.”
So Thomas enrolled at McGeorge School of Law. Never deterred by her age or convention, Thomas says that she’s “lived a long time—long enough to see airplanes moved from being a novel curiosity to a noisy nuisance…I have also lived to see the New Deal, the Great Society, the Contract, the Savings and Loan Scandal, and the Sub-Prime Mortgage disaster…I am the very model of a modern non-traditional student.”
Despite some challenges, Thomas has found her way at McGeorge and gotten very involved in the Elder Law Clinic. The clinic provides no-cost legal assistance to people age 60 and older who are dealing with a variety of legal issues including health care access, nursing home residents’ rights, elder abuse, creditor disputes, and even wills. Students in the clinic are supervised by a practicing attorney but get real-world experience working directly with the clients. Thomas describes the clinic as one of the bright spots of her law school experience and has been inspired by the professors of the elder law program—Annemarie Marcielle, Melissa Brown, Kathleen Friedrich, and Cecilia Arnold. The clinic has given her the opportunity to help many people who couldn’t afford legal help. One woman recently made a modest donation to the clinic to thank the staff—especially Thomas—for all the help they had given her.
Becoming a Caregiver
Law school is challenging on its own but Thomas faced even greater hurdles caring for her longtime companion as he struggled with Alzheimer’s disease. For almost five years Thomas took care of him on her own—24 hours a day—until she was no longer able to do so. As the disease progressed, Thomas watched her “partner, mentor, and best friend” deteriorate mentally and physically. She says that he changed “from being an utterly charming, kind, intelligent, cultured human being to becoming, at times, a totally aggressive, unreasonable person—who was undoubtedly terrified at what was happening to him.”
Thomas struggled to balance law school and full-time caregiving until she was forced to place her soul-mate in a nursing home because she could no longer physically care for him. Calling the experience gut-wrenching, Thomas describes Alzheimer’s disease as “not only a death sentence for the afflicted, but…also a prison sentence for the caretakers; it is literally our cruel and unusual punishment.” Her partner died in 2005 and Thomas now spends time reaching out with her story to encourage an unflagging effort to find a cure for this devastating disease. A Lawyer at 80 Despite a very bumpy road, Thomas is due to graduate this December. She’s unsure of what she’ll do afterwards but is hoping to practice elder law or real estate law. Unfortunately, while her age doesn’t matter to her, she’s finding that it matters to others. While she has sent out resumes that deliberately leave out her graduation dates, when it comes to face-to-face interviews, employers are no longer interested. Only those who know her are willing to give her a chance. But she’s not giving up. Thomas puts it quite simply—“In the game of life, we play the cards we are dealt…[i]t seems as though I was destined to walk this non-traditional path.”