From war zones to KU, older law students find they have much more in common than their age
photo by: Kathy Hanks
At first glance, it would be easy to mistake Eric McMillin and John Schoen for law professors walking around Green Hall.
But they’re not professors; they’re students — ones who, it turns out, lived oddly parallel lives before enrolling in the University of Kansas law school in their mid-50s.
McMillin, 57, and Schoen, 58, were classmates at West Point, although they didn’t know that at the time; with 890 students in the 1982 graduating class, they simply never crossed paths.
Their later tours of duty took them to some of the same countries and war zones, even at the same time, while serving as officers in the U.S. Army.
But they didn’t meet until they had retired from active duty and found themselves sharing cubicle space at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, where they both were teaching.
Once they discovered they had the 1982 West Point class in common, a friendship developed. Then, unbeknownst to each other, each man began pondering a second career in law.
“I was surprised when I heard John was thinking about law school because I had been thinking about it,” McMillin said, as the two men sat together in an empty classroom in KU’s Green Hall recently.
“We were all at the same function,” Schoen said to McMillin. “Your wife was there and I accused you of stealing my idea. At that point, your wife stood up for you and said you were talking about going to law school before I ever said. She shut me down.”
After realizing they shared the same goal, McMillin said, “It was kind of nice to know someone else was crazy.”
Now in their second year of law school, they’ve embarked on yet another life experience.
“Frankly, everything I do here in Green Hall for six to eight hours a day is stuff that is new to me,” Schoen said.
Stephen Mazza, KU’s law dean, said McMillin and Schoen were currently the only students in the 50-plus age range.
“While it’s not unheard of, it’s certainly not typical,” Mazza said. “A bit fewer than 10 percent of our students began law school at age 30 or later. The average entering age is 25.”
Mazza said KU law valued diversity in its student body, and that includes students who start law school later in life.
“Whether they’re drawn to the study of law by intellectual curiosity or a more targeted career move, older students enrich our classrooms and community with the experiences and perspectives they have gained on their longer paths to law school,” Mazza said.
After West Point, both men earned advanced degrees while in the military. McMillin has a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Chicago. Schoen has a master’s in education from the University of Georgia, and he returned to West Point to teach for several years.
Both men are attending law school on the GI Bill, which provides educational assistance to service members, veterans and their dependents.
“It’s a great deal you can use or throw away,” Schoen said. GI Bill benefits typically expire 10 years after leaving the military.
Schoen didn’t want to miss that opportunity.
Both are aware that their reality is different from that of their classmates. They don’t have certain kinds of stress, like worrying about finding their first job and paying back student loans.
“It’s apparent if I was 25 I’d be gearing up to jump in with both feet and attack this career and work 14 hours a day, six days a week. That is not where I am at,” Schoen said.
The reason Schoen retired from teaching was to have more time with his family.
“I am not looking at getting on the ground floor as an associate in a big law firm and bust my butt to become a millionaire,” Schoen said.
Instead, he plans to focus on estate planning, wills and trusts, things he might work at six months of the year.
McMillin too is not under the gun to get a high-paying job.
“God opened doors for me to come here,” McMillin said. He likes the idea of going into some sort of work with another lawyer in a rural community and maybe doing occasional pro bono cases.
One of the first days in law school someone told them it would be the hardest year of their life. Schoen insists nothing could be harder than his freshman year at West Point.
Schoen said the biggest academic challenge was his “old-guy memory.” Closed-book tests are a challenge.
McMillin agreed that their minds maybe aren’t as agile as they’ve aged, but there’s an upside too.
“A lot of law is bound up in history,” McMillin said. “What is history to our classmates is current events to John and me.”
The two men, who will graduate in 2020, are still discovering things about each other.
McMillin mentions his second time in Baghdad was in 2005.
“Where were you?” Schoen said excitedly. “We could have met there.”
“I was in the Green Zone,” McMillin said.
“I was at Camp Victory,” Schoen said.