Starting Over: Staying Grounded and Reaching Up

By Suzanne Gilman posted 03-06-2018 13:52

Originally published in the Young Lawyers Division Newsletter Dictum Vol. 42, No. 2/February 2018. For more information how to join an NJSBA section or committee, email

Do you remember a time when you started a part of your life completely over? Whether a small or large undertaking, you might have experienced fear, wonder, enlightenment…or complete chaos. I would like to share with you my starting over experience, which has included obtaining my law degree this past May. This article will explain why I made the decision to enter law school when I already had a profession, what it was like learning a second career and being ‘older’ than the other students, and what career avenues I seek to pursue.

After practicing dentistry for 12 years, I developed a physical problem due to its repetitive nature. Since few career options exist for a dentist who is not treating patients, I knew that in order to re-establish my professional identity I would have to obtain another equivalent graduate degree. One reason law appealed to me is that a licensed attorney has almost unlimited career options. To illustrate, how many movies and television shows can you think of that have an attorney or law firm as the main character? Now, how many movies or TV shows can you think of that have a dentist as the main character?

The other reason I chose law is that I was interested in the way it impacts the practice of dentistry and medicine. For example, several years ago, a case concerning a dispute over treatment between a dentist and an HIVpositive patient made its way to the Supreme Court. The Court’s decision created resounding changes in how dentists and other medical professionals practice. More recently, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection implemented a program to reduce the discharge of mercury from leftover silver filling material into the environment. On a more basic level, I had arbitration experience as the chair for my local peer review chapter of the New Jersey Dental Association. Our small committee of dentists provided a service to assist dental patients and dentists resolve conflicts over treatment. The service provided a no-cost and less stressful alternative to the court system or the state board. 

As a private citizen, I began to appreciate an awareness of the law and the importance of good legal representation. When my daughter was in high school, she had a problem with one of her teachers that caused us to seek legal advice. Another difficult situation arose when a relative was taking money, unauthorized, from my deceased mother’s estate. With a law license, I would have a better understanding of what to do and where to go for help if these situations arose again, and how to help other people in similar situations.

So, a year after my daughter started college, I entered Rutgers-Newark School of Law as a lLE, and right away I felt as though I was thrown into the deep end of the pool. In dentistry, a file was an instrument used to perform root canals, a transfer was something you did with that instrument, and the only required writing involved prescriptions and entries in the patient records. 

In my dental school experience, students were chastised for being creative or going against the basic tenets of physics and chemistry. While innovations in the profession certainly exist, dental school professors encouraged students to stay with what was already established. Every test question had a concrete, black or white answer. As I quickly learned in my new environment, even though law students work with precedent, they were rewarded for going further in their thought process. It often was acceptable for the correct answer to land firmly in that gray area.

The 40 students in my evening class represented a mix of ages and professions. My classmates bonded with each other quickly and formed a friendly and helpful group. After a few weeks, I noticed that not only was I the only ‘doctor,’ but I was significantly older than both the day and evening students. At first, I did not think about it—like the human who is raised by wolves, I thought I was like everyone else. Over time, however, I started to notice the age gap in subtle or amusing ways.

In employment law, when we discussed Diana Ross’s defamation case the professor asked if anyone knew who she was. Not only did no one else raise a hand, but I was probably the only student in the class who had once received her “Love Child” album as a birthday gift. When Patty Hearst’s case was presented in evidence, and the professor asked if anyone knew who she was, a few people were vaguely familiar with her as a “terrorist.” I was probably the only person who had watched her heartbroken parents on TV, in real time, as they listened to the tape-recorded messages sent by her kidnappers.

When the entertainment law professor was discussing trademark, he told the class a story about how an entrepreneur had once made a lot of money by creating an “ideal pet”—a small rock, along with some straw, in a pint-sized box that had air holes cut into the top. The Pet Rock® sold in the millions and made a lot of money for the inventor. I was the only student who did not join the collective seismic shift in the room when the professor held up a prototype and all the other students realized that yes, someone had actually made money from selling a rock as a pet. 

In another class, I volunteered to explain to everyone how a typewriter worked.

It went both ways. I never wore an awareness bracelet and I did not know any of the music the DJ played at the Barrister’s Ball. Instagram still baffles me. If I were to keep up with group projects and clubs I had to quickly master the Chrome and Google apps. In one group project, we were discussing the hypo, which concerned an attorney who was being sued for sexual harassment. I said that the character reminded me of Arnie Becker from “LA Law.” The other students looked at me puzzled until I Googled his photo. “Oh yes,” they said, “that’s Henry Spencer from ‘Psych.’”

Being at law school with young and energetic people who want to bring change to the world gave me a keener awareness than I probably would have gleaned from watching the news or hanging out in my usual circle of influence. I was reminded on a daily basis to optimistically
believe that we could and would make a difference. 

I like to think that I was able to teach something to my younger classmates as well. A classmate once told me that attending school beside me helped her see that she did not have to worry about being “penned in” to a certain profession. We can learn one career, and then later on in life it is possible and acceptable to completely switch gears, due to desire or circumstance. Another student told me he appreciated the contributions I made, as a medical professional, to our health law class. For example, in the real world of treating patients, I offered that it’s sometimes difficult to know if you have adequately obtained their informed consent. In torts class, when we studied strict products liability, we
were discussing a case where the plaintiff had broken her tooth on a piece of shell that had made its way into a can of peas. Since I had only been in law school for two months, I did not understand the process of a lawsuit. I was nervous about giving my observation, but I wanted to volunteer that I didn’t believe the shell was the culprit, since it would be physiologically unlikely to break a perfectly healthy tooth. I felt flattered the next day, when a classmate told me he thought that was a great contribution and that he was going to remember it.

At graduation, the parents (who I did not know) of two of my classmates approached me and congratulated me on my achievement. They were familiar with the difficulty of law school because their kids had just gone through it, but they also appreciated the challenges of doing something like that when you are “older.” Their words touched me and made the day even sweeter.

My goal as an attorney is to combine my knowledge of the law with my strong dental, medical and science backgrounds. I am exploring opportunities in transactional law, malpractice, health law and patent law. There are many charitable organizations where dentists provide free or low-cost dental treatment to indigent patients. I would like to advise these dentists about the federal and state statutes that could impact their liability while providing that care, in order to make it a better experience for everyone involved.

Whatever you choose to start over, keep your sense of humor, take it all in, and just be yourself while you reach for the next big thing.

Suzanne Gilman is a native of Morristown. She graduated from Rutgers College in New Brunswick, New York University College of Dentistry and Rutgers School of Law-Newark.