First published September 6, 2012.

Diane Bradshaw, Attorney-at-Law.

“Law school almost killed me. It almost kills even the 22-year-olds,” says Diane Bradshaw, a petite dynamo at 57. A singer-dancer-actress for a quarter of a century, she finally yielded, when she was 48, to the continuing call of a college education. After earning her bachelor’s degree through the CUNY/BA program at Hunter, she pressed on to get her law degree at New York Law School. It was tough—and not just financially. “Law school tore up my guts,” she says. “But I’m glad it did, because practicing law tears up your guts too, and a lawyer has to be able to withstand that.”

Diane is as delicate and diminutive as her husband, Tom, an actor and operatic baritone, is tall and imposing. They have spent the 30 years of their marriage as “one soul,” struggling to survive financially as they pursued careers in the arts. Taking on law-school debt was a tremendous risk for a couple whose income has been so erratic that they have had to live on food stamps.

“Law school came as a surprise to me,” Tom drawls ruefully. “I knew that Diane had to go back for her bachelor’s; she has an enormous degree of intelligence, and she’d had 25 years of guilt for dropping out of college. But when she wanted to go to law school, that was a shock. I thought I had escaped that bullet. We had no savings, and I was approaching 60.” Still, he supported her decision: “We jumped into the loan situation and borrowed all this money from the government so she could go three straight years to law school.”

The Hazards of Reinvention

Diane is “reinventing her life,” as the inevitable term would put it. And, unlikely as it may seem, the inevitable fairy-tale ending has already come to pass—at least in part. This risky decision, Diane says, is “the happiest choice I ever made, except for marrying my beloved husband.” She is fervently grateful that she made the change, despite her current long commute, her 12-hour work days, the minimal (recession-degraded) financial compensation she receives, her precarious hold on her present “galvanizing and meaningful” research-and-analysis job, and the mountain of debt she is carrying—at her age.

“I was always successful academically,” she says, “but I didn’t have the emotional strength for college. I had several emotional crises during my college career. So I went into the peripatetic lifestyle of a singer, then an actress; I worked as much as I could as an artist and supplemented that with work in business offices. But I felt guilty—as if I had betrayed myself. I had some of the most frightening nightmares, and I couldn’t tell you why. But the nightmares stopped as soon as I went to college. So it must have had something to do with my sense of self—with no longer feeling that I had betrayed myself.”

Bradshaw as a “party guest” in Strauss’s “Salome” at the Metropolitan Opera House.

And there was a fairy-tale job, for almost a year. After a two-year search, Diane became, at 55, the “juniorest” lawyer in a Madison Avenue boutique law firm. It takes grit to absorb gracefully the rigorous training-from-scratch that all neophyte lawyers endure. “They really beat me up, and they did it on purpose, because they were trying to hammer me into their kind of attorney,” Diane acknowledges. “I took it. That’s what you need when you go to court. You have to be prepared to have your argument rejected or be yelled at by a judge.”

She knows that it was extraordinary to land a job as a novice lawyer at 55. “It was a small, quirky firm, and I’m sort of quirky,” she acknowledges. “They wanted me because I had life experience but was trainable, because I could write well, and because I could come cheap to them. I am so fortunate that they were willing to take a chance on me.”

The firm’s client base shrank in the deep recession, and as the juniorest lawyer, Diane had to go. She went back into a devastated job market as a 56-year-old legal fledgling. Not surprisingly, she ran into rejection after rejection—hundreds of “no” replies, or no replies at all. Daunting indeed, but Diane failed to be fazed—“because that was just my situation as an actor,” she says. “So I was able to draw on my skills at facing rejection.”

She and Tom have been toughened by their decades-long struggle to find work as actors, Diane says. “We spent our life savings, and put a daily rigorous, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual investment into chasing a mirage.” Besides her never-say-die temperament, it is the grit acquired during that long chase that keeps Diane going and finding jobs in this devastated economy. They are short-term, contract jobs, mostly in the field of mortgage foreclosure, securities and investment issues—a month here, six months there, a year somewhere else. To get them, she goes on a “substantive offensive”: During her protracted unemployment, she never goes a day without sending out résumés, trolling for jobs, continually broadening her perspective on what she can do, widening the net.

To reinvent your career in midlife, you have to have moxie, you have to love a challenge, and Diane acknowledges that she does. “I value and treasure that trait in me,” she says—pointing out that her career change “has borne out that taking risks is a good thing to do.”

Tom, too, is transitioning—from singer (mostly opera: “I’m a tenor who should have been a baritone,” he says) to character actor and founder of his own small accounting firm, BradshawBookkeepingConsulting.com. (He has an accounting degree; he writes business plans, organizes financial affairs, pays bills, helps the elderly with their financial and general household needs: For the elderly, his services are “generally rooted in household life-support.”).

And what is the greatest satisfaction Diane has found in becoming a lawyer? “I’m cognizant of the power that is bestowed upon me because I’m a lawyer,” she says, “the power to do good, to make effective social change. It’s humbling the way people come to you and want to know your opinions; in some ways it’s unsettling, but it’s enlivening and inspiring too. People put their precious selves in your hands. So I must be very mindful and careful about how I respond. Being a counselor , . . it’s a step beyond being an actor. This is what I was meant to be doing. I just have to make sure I’m doing it well.”

What benefits does a middle-aged career-changer bring to her employer?

Tom points out that many young lawyers-in-the-making are unenthusiastic about the career they’ve chosen, and that in their twenties and thirties, people are consumed by other things—the search for their identity, the search for a relationship.

“What you bring at my age is such commitment and passion for what you’re doing,” Diane says. “Because you’re so sure. You’ve been just dragged to it by the force of the life you’ve lived—like a wave. I feel as if I have come to myself. I can’t explain it any other way.”

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