Laura Yuen
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Their hearts are true; they are pals and confidantes.

Four friends, all in their 50s and 60s, weren't shy about channeling "The Golden Girls" while celebrating their impressive midlife milestone: graduating from Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul.

When the women posed for a picture in their caps and gowns, they made sure to assume the air of Estelle Getty, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Betty White.

"There were two ways that the photograph could have gone," said one of the new graduates, Michelle Garrod, 54. "It could have gone the 'Legally Blonde' route, which we decided was embarrassing and could have ruined a few employment prospects."

Garrod and her friends — Jessica Griffith, 51; Brenda Pfahnl, 57, and Julie Sell, 61 — decided there was no need to bend and snap, the signature pickup move demonstrated by Reese Witherspoon's character in the 2001 film. Instead, they gathered for a simple portrait — inspired by an image of the real Golden Girls — that captures their special friendship.

"I can't imagine having gone through the craziness of the past three years without this crew," Pfahnl wrote when she shared their photo on Facebook.

This is a story about women and reinvention, no matter how late in life. It's also about finding kinship with other dare-to-leap spirits along the way.

Mitchell Hamline offers flexible enrollment options that appeal to students in their second or third chapters of their careers, and these four are among the oldest in their class to cross the stage this weekend.

The women found one another in their first few days of law school, in the fall of 2019, during orientation. Garrod remembers taking note of Pfahnl from across the room. "We stood out quite significantly," Garrod said. Months later, the four grew so close that they gathered at her house to watch "Legally Blonde," a first for all of them.

Some of them had toyed with the idea of pursuing their law degree when they were younger.

"I decided in my early 30s that I was too old, but at 48 was just fine," said Griffith, who took time off from her career as a writer and journalist when her kids were young. "You can change directions, you can change course, and you don't have to be wedded to something forever."

It can be liberating to run directly at something that makes us afraid. Even Garrod, who practiced law in her native England for 20 years, wondered if it was too late for her to pursue a second law degree after relocating to Minnesota with her husband. "Am I crazy? Am I being self-indulgent?" Garrod asked herself.

Pfahnl left a career she loved in the world of community lending. She jokes that instead of having her midlife crisis at 40, hers came at 50, when she counted the years until retirement. It loomed closer than she had realized.

"The thought was like, 'Oh. my gosh, there's not that much time left,'" Pfahnl said. "Is that the last thing I want to do?"

A trip to El Salvador, where she met women imprisoned under some of the world's harshest abortion laws, solidified her desire to become an attorney. Back in Minneapolis, the murder of George Floyd, less than a year after she enrolled in law school, deepened her resolve to work toward systemic change.

All of the women acknowledge that going back to school is a privilege, and one that not every would-be student can afford. At a time when people lost their jobs or loved ones and grew more disconnected from the world, each of these Minnesotans say they're grateful to have experienced a genuine sense of community. Not to mention the intellectual exhilaration of being on campus again — at least until COVID-19 forced classes to go virtual.

"I mostly haven't felt my age since I've been here," said Sell, the eldest of the group. "It's almost been like going back to my undergraduate days when I was just a sponge soaking up interesting issues and debates."

Sell also learned from her younger classmates, including the answer to her question: Why am I the only one here studying in the library late at night?

As a first-year law student, she had been taught to brief every case, "which means reading it again and again and then developing an in-depth outline, crystallizing the key issues," she explained. "And then a few months into the year, someone said to me, 'You know there's an app for that, right?'"

They stood in awe of their younger classmates who impressed them with their conviction and sense of purpose at such an early age. The women might be spread thin by the challenges of managing aging parents, health issues of their own and caring for their children, but they say they were far from the only students carrying full loads.

"Although you have pressures and responsibilities when you're our age, you also have responsibilities and pressures when you're younger," Garrod said. "They're just different."

One thing the women decided they could let go of was any lingering insecurities of youth. They admitted when a lecture left them confused and worked together as they griped, commiserated and lifted each other up. Over WhatsApp, they shared their wins and losses. Their solidarity guaranteed their safe passage to this weekend's graduation stage.

They're busy this summer, cramming for the bar exam in July. But expect these Golden Girls of law school to be in touch for many years to come.

After all, they still need to set a date to watch "Legally Blonde 2."