Graduate takes unusual path to earning a law degree

Graduate takes unusual path to earning a law degree

Kenny Schwalbert in his ubiquitous bow tie is shown in a Breit Courtroom class.

The path to becoming a lawyer isn’t always direct from high school diploma to J.D. degree but Kenny Schwalbert’s route leaves even him scratching his head and laughing.

Schwalbert will graduate from Brandeis School of Law on Sunday, May 12, joining approximately 125 candidates in the Class of 2024. The ceremony starts at 10 a.m. at the Louisville Palace Theatre, 625 S. Fourth St.

After graduating from Seckman High School in his hometown of Imperial, Missouri, Schwalbert started his undergraduate education as a petroleum engineering student at Missouri University of Science & Technology. After a year, however, he came to the conclusion that he disliked the major.

From there, he went on to earn associate and bachelor’s degrees in mortuary science in Indiana, eventually becoming a Certified Funeral Service Practitioner, licensed funeral director  and embalmer with Pearson’s Funeral Home in Louisville.

And then he discovered Brandeis Law School and a love for the law.

“I haven’t taken the usual track,” Schwalbert said.

It could be said he was waylaid off that “usual track” early on. Two years after he was born, his younger sister Brooke, who is disabled, was born. Their parents later developed opioid addictions, and his dad died when Schwalbert was a teen. After his death, Schwalbert’s mom “just took off and left,” he said.

Luckily, his grandparents lived next door, and they stepped in where his parents were unable to. “It was my grandparents who really raised me,” Schwalbert said. “Brooke and I are so lucky we had them.”

It was his grandfather who indirectly led him to working in the funeral service profession. “He had me take on most of the planning of my father’s funeral, and I found it was so much of a one-on-one interaction with people. It’s that chance you have to celebrate a life, to lift that person up for that moment.”

So when he realized that petroleum engineering wasn’t right for him, Schwalbert remembered the experience.

It’s what brought him to Kentuckiana’s Mid-America College of Funeral Service in Jeffersonville, Indiana, where he earned an associate’s degree in 2016 and then to Southern Illinois University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mortuary science in 2021.

While in school, he and a friend studied together, and that friend’s girlfriend was a Brandeis Law School student. They sometimes all studied in the Brandeis Law School Library together.

“That’s when I started seeing the law school, the Oval, learned the history of (Justice Louis D.) Brandeis, and I just fell in love with the place. I was accepted into other law schools, but it was UofL for me.”

He recently started working part-time again at Pearson’s during his last semester of law school. “I’m a jack-of-all-trades undertaker,” he said. “I both work with families to help them plan the funeral of a loved one and I work as an embalmer, too. And both sides are so different but both are so important.”

He still made time for achieving one of the top accolades a law student can attain: editor-in-chief of the law review.

“Never in my life did I think law school would be what it has turned out to be,” he said. “Even now, every time I think about being editor-in-chief of the University of Louisville Law Review, I’m like, ‘wow!’ The opportunities I’ve had have just been unbelievable. The faculty is super approachable, and arguably the biggest mentor in my life other than my grandparents was Professor Les Abramson” (now retired).

He also found time to teach in the Marshall Brennan Constitutional Law Program with the law school’s Signature Partnership Program at Central High School. The program provides high school junior and seniors exposure to careers in law with law school faculty and students as teachers.

With his background as a funeral service planner, estate law might be the logical choice for his career, but Schwalbert has other plans. “I’m going into tax law. Believe it or not, I love federal income tax (law), so of course I loved all of Professor (Tom) Blackburn’s classes. Grace Giesel, John Cross, Cassie Chambers Armstrong, Luke Milligan and Jamie Abrams (now with another university) were some of my other favorites, too.”

He’s secured a position with one of the nation’s “Big Law” firms – Frost Brown Todd – but his education isn’t quite over yet. He will pursue a masters of law (LL.M.) degree focusing on taxation law beginning in August at the University of Florida Levin College of Law where he received a full-ride scholarship and will be an editor on the Florida Tax Review.  He will join Frost Brown Todd in June 2025.

For now, his only regret is that his grandfather couldn’t live to see Schwalbert graduate. And his grandmother has health issues and is in a care facility in St. Louis. His aunt and sister will be coming to Louisville for Commencement, however, and they hope to bring his grandmother if she is able to make the trip.

But if she can’t? “Professor Abramson is so kind. He said, ‘Kenny, if your nana can’t make it to graduation, we’ll set a time and I’ll come to St. Louis and I’ll hood you for her.’ Isn’t that great?

“I do appreciate this law school. Everything I have experienced here is just nothing short of wonderful.”