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Leaping into the law later in life

Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights Director Michael Jordan used to joke with his law school classmates that he had clothing older than they were.

Jordan, who enrolled in law school at the age of 55, graduated from the University of St. Thomas last year. Prior to returning to school, he had a long and distinguished career in private and public service, including serving as the commissioner of the state Department of

Public Safety under Gov. Arne Carlson and as the public information officer for the St. Paul police. He’d also held a senior management position with Honeywell, Inc. and other companies.

Jordan and others who chose to go to law school later in life recently told Minnesota Lawyer that while it was a bit of challenge, they don’t regret their decision for a moment.

“If I made any error at all, it’s that I should have done it a long time ago,” Jordan said.

A bug for law school

For some who choose law after spending years in another profession, it’s a lifelong dream; others do it at the suggestion or urging of people they respect.

Jordan first thought about going to law school three decades ago as an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota but got “caught up in the corporate world” before he could do it. In 2002, Jordan finally enrolled, in large part due to the encouragement of UST law professor Neil Hamilton.

The idea of law school, St. Thomas in particular, appealed to Jordan, who anticipated that a law degree would give him more career options. While a law degree isn’t required in his current position with the city of Minneapolis, he’s certain that it didn’t hurt him when applying for the job.

“We handle law, so it clearly is helpful,” Jordan said. “I’m hoping that I am putting my newly acquired legal acumen to work.”

Minneapolis attorney Lee McGrath, executive director of the Minnesota branch of the Institute of Justice, left a 20-year career in the world of corporate finance to attend law school in 2001. His job as treasurer of Jostens had changed, so he decided it was a good time to pursue his longstanding interest in the Institute. He knew when he made the decision to go to into the law that was where he wanted to work, and he never wavered from that position.

As the son of a personal injury litigator, Inver Grove Heights attorney Gregory McEwen naturally considered going into the law. But he wasn’t sure. “I was on the fence as far as what I wanted to do — the theological seminary or law school,” he said.

McEwen initially chose the former and spent several years as a minister for two rural churches before changing his mind. “I enjoyed [the ministry], but I just didn’t feel as fulfilled as I thought I would,” he said. “I still had the bug about law school.”

Computer specialist turned public defender Janet Krueger, on the other hand, had never considered law school — at least not until she ran into U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone in 1999. Krueger, who had spent more than two decades with IBM, was heavily involved in a campaign against companies’ — like her former employer — use of cash-balance plans to fund older workers’ retirement plans. The crusade brought her to Washington, D.C., where she met Wellstone, who told her he admired her advocacy skills and urged her to consider a career in law. Krueger took the senator’s advice.

While she initially anticipated going into benefits law, Krueger got sidetracked while in law school. Following her second year she secured a clerkship with the public defender’s office in Rochester in order to be closer to home. She fell in love with the work and has been with the office ever since. Krueger’s only regret is that she didn’t realize her interest in criminal law earlier.

“In hindsight, it would have been better to figure it our sooner because I would have taken different courses in law school,” she said.

Nontraditional students

In some ways, entering law school as an older or “nontraditional” student can be a challenge, but in others it may actually be an advantage.

“I knew what I was getting into more than many people I went to law school with,” said McEwen. “I knew I wanted to do trial work. … I was very motivated because I knew what I wanted to do.”

In addition, because of his experience working as a minister, McEwen was perfectly at ease with public speaking while most other students were just starting to feel comfortable with it. He believes that his public speaking skills even helped him integrate with classmates, who looked to him for guidance in this area.

Jordan said his previous involvement in the criminal justice system, as well as the civil legal system to some extent, gave him an understanding of the practical aspects of the law, something that many of the younger students lacked.

“They were a group of aggressive young people at the beginning of their careers,” he said. “Their perspective was different than mine.”

One of the hardest parts of going back to school at a later stage in life, according to those who’ve done it, was doing homework again.

“Mostly the experience was energizing,” said Krueger. “But it was difficult to get into study mode. It was hard to pull out the books again.”

McGrath echoed that sentiment. “My classmates had more energy outside the classroom, particularly to study,” he said. He added that his classmates also had a high level of confidence that he didn’t have as a 22-year-old. “I really enjoyed interacting with them, and I was never made to feel like their father,” he quipped.

Past experience

Many who choose to practice law later in life say their past careers have served them well in their current positions.

McEwen compared talking with a congregation to talking with a jury, explaining that the public speaking skills he gained as a minister have helped him with jury selection, opening statements and closing arguments as a lawyer.

He added that his past has also helped him be more empathetic with clients. As a pastor he often met with people who were going through traumatic experiences like accidents or illness or who were dealing with the death of a family member. “That is no different from what I am doing now,” he said. “I’m equipped to handle and deal with people in crisis.”

McEwen said the only downside to having been a minister before becoming a lawyer is that initially he tended to be a bit too “trusting” of his clients, believing that if the plaintiff said something, it must have happened. So while as a minister he was able to give people the benefit of the doubt, as a lawyer he has to check into their stories a little more.

“You have to make sure that you’ve got a client who is telling the truth,” he said.

McGrath said his experience in corporate finance has helped him at least a little in his law practice, particularly in terms of his analytical and quantitative skills. “That gave me a bit of an advantage over other lawyers, who are often fearful of numbers,” he said.

McGrath also developed an appreciation for the free market system, something that’s helped in his position with the IJ, which works to secure individual liberties and restore constitutional limits on the power of government.

Minnesota Star Tribune – December 3, 2007 – By Michelle Lore

 

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