Retired teacher, mother of two earns law degree at 57

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Nancy Slezak has always loved to talk, a skill she put to good use as a popular elementary teacher in the Ann Arbor Public School District for 35 years.

She also knew that when she retired in June of 2010, she wouldn't want to stop talking. Or take up golf.

So four years ago, while still teaching during the week, Slezak stepped into another school on weekends.

Slezak graduated this past Saturday from Cooley Law School at the age of 57.

On Monday, she started sending out résumés.

"It's really important to keep learning," said the Ypsilanti resident and mother of two grown children. "I don't think it's ever too late."

During her four years at Cooley, which included classes at the Auburn Hills and Ann Arbor campuses, Slezak had her share of "What am I doing?" moments.

"It's easy to get into Cooley, which I appreciate," she said. "But it's very hard to stay in Cooley. It's a very challenging law school. But everyone was so accessible and encouraging."

One of Slezak's favorite classes was taught by John Nussbaumer, dean of the Auburn Hills campus, who also attended her group study sessions.

"Where else would a dean do that?" asked Slezak.

The average age of the 437 Cooley students receiving law degrees last Saturday was 29. The youngest was 23. Slezak was the oldest.

Slezak said she had to study harder than students 30 years her junior. But age has it's advantage, Slezak found. One of her fellow students -- a man in his 20s -- had threatened to jump off the building if he failed an exam.

She knew he was kidding. But she also knew that with age came perspective.

"In your 50s, you get it," said Slezak, whose husband died 11 years ago. "You say, 'I have to take it again. Oh well. I will. But I'm not going to give up.'

"Once I got a C-minus -- which is awful -- in a really hard class. But I thought, you can just fret, or you can work harder and do better. And that's what I did. And things worked out."

Slezak finished her last four consecutive semesters on the dean's list, and graduated in the middle of her class. She earned her best grades in her trial classes, which is the area she enjoyed most and in which she hopes to work.

Her initial goal was to become a prosecutor and go after people who hurt women or children.

"I thought: 'How can I defend people who I think have done something awful to hurt people?'" she said of her reluctance to consider criminal law. "That was a real moral dilemma."

Then she talked about the Constitution with a professor who had been a criminal defense attorney, and she interviewed some criminals in jail.

Now she wants to work in public service or criminal law, and is hopeful but realistic about the job market.

"I know it's going to be really tough because of my age," she said, noting that she just finished an employment discrimination class, and understands that while age discrimination is illegal, it does go on.

"What I'm hoping is that some of my life experiences will help me," she said. "I'm also willing to volunteer first."

Nussbaumer said Slezak's education background and life experiences give her a unique perspective that would be a bonus for anyone who hires her.

"About 8,000 baby boomers every day are now turning 65, and Nancy is part of a generation of individuals who aren't ready to retire and still have a lot to contribute to the profession and our society," he said.

Regardless of her career path from this point, Slezak is glad she went to law school because she met some great people, kept her brain on active duty, and learned a lot about the rights of American citizens that she hadn't appreciated until now.

From the start, she knew she wanted to be a lawyer.

"But I didn't want to become a jerk," said Slezak, whose perpetual smile and sweet personality make the very idea seem impossible. "I thought: I don't want to sacrifice my soul."

Slezak's advice to other law school students?

"Work really hard," she said. "Ask for help. Go to people for support. Go to your professors. And never, ever give up. You can do it."

Published: Thu, Jul 7, 2011

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