Mothers and daughters share a lot of things, but few can say they took on law school together. Beth Duncan and her daughter, Kathleen O’Neal, both of Macon, entered Mercer Law School at the same time and graduated in the Class of 1988.
While their paths before and after law school were quite different, they both said they wouldn’t trade their studies on Georgia Avenue for anything and that their law degrees have been invaluable in their careers and lives.
A new chapter
O’Neal’s decision to apply to Mercer Law goes back to when she was 15 years old and fell in love with whitewater sports. She took a beginning whitewater canoeing class from Richard Creswell, a Mercer Law professor. That led her to The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where she joined the canoe and kayak team, worked as a raft guide during the summers and graduated with a history degree.
O’Neal said she was unsure of her next step and spent the next two years after graduation working as a waitress and raft guide. She didn’t know if professional raft guide was the right direction for her, and she was advised against pursuing a Ph.D. in history. She started to think about law school and confided in Creswell, who urged her to apply to Mercer.
About the time O’Neal was accepted, Duncan was turning in her own application. Prior to this chapter, she had been busy raising her two daughters, Kathleen and Margaret, and was very involved in the Macon community. She was the first executive director of the Middle Georgia Historical Society, president of the Junior League of Macon, co-founder of Friends of the Library and chairwoman of the Bibb County Recreation Commission, in addition to sitting on many civic boards.
She held a master’s degree in English and was thinking about getting a Ph.D. However, she decided on a different route after her 25-year marriage came to a close.
“When my marriage ended, I decided to go to law school,” Duncan said. “I’ve never regretted it. I enjoyed practicing law.”
Duncan’s father had been a judge in Pensacola and once told her that women didn’t go to law school, but she didn’t let that hold her back.
Hitting the books
The Class of 1988 was the largest Mercer Law School had seen at the time, with 148 graduates and 50 of them women. The law students were divided into two sections, and since O’Neal and Duncan were in separate groups, the only course they ever had together was Constitutional Law with Creswell. However, they lived together all three years and saw each other in the lunchroom and common areas. O’Neal admitted she bummed money from her mom for Diet Cokes from the soda machine from time to time.
“Not only were we mother and daughter going through school at the same time, we were compatriots in law school,” Duncan said.
O’Neal remembered just how hard she had to work, especially that first year. Professor Reynold J. Kozek Jr. made an analogy in his Introduction to Law class that became the students’ mantra. An avid car racing fan, he talked about how the Indy 500 drivers raced around the track but always avoided the brick wall and disaster. He left his students with this charge: “Don’t hit the wall!”
“It was dark in the morning when I went to the law school, and it was dark when I came home,” O’Neal said. “There may have been sun that first year, but I never saw it.”
But amid the rigor, she liked the size of the school and the emphasis on faculty-student interaction. The professors checked in with students to make sure they were doing OK and asked if they needed help with anything. Duncan and O’Neal recalled a number of professors who made an impact on them, and O’Neal got to know some of them as colleagues when she returned to Mercer Law School to work in admissions.
“What I appreciate about Mercer is it was a small school, and the faculty and administration were concerned about their students, not just them being a number,” O’Neal said.
Duncan and O’Neal got to know their peers well and formed lasting relationships. They still meet with some of their classmates regularly.
“I was everybody’s mom. In fact, some of the students called me ‘Mom,’” said Duncan, who served on the school’s Honor Court as a student and on the Board of Directors for the Mercer Law School Alumni Association in the 1990s. “They accepted me. I formed some very close friendships. I just loved being with those young people. I still have friends among them.”
Life after law school
After law school, Duncan lived in St. Simons and practiced law with an insurance defense firm in Brunswick that focused on medical malpractice and product liability. When that law firm disbanded, she formed Durham, McHugh and Duncan PC with two associates.
“When I started practicing law, women were just beginning to appear in law firms. Fortunately, the firm I worked with believed in giving us a chance,” Duncan said.
But it wasn’t work all the time, she said. She and her second husband, Don, enjoyed travels to Europe, South America and the United States.
After Duncan retired in 2004, the couple moved to Florida to be near family, and she taught English at a local college in Jacksonville. When she returned to Macon in 2007 following Don’s death, she taught English and paralegal studies at Middle Georgia Technical College and Central Georgia Technical College for a while, served as assistant city attorney, did research and writing work with Mercer Law School alumnus Larry Moore from 2015-2020, and taught business law at Wesleyan College for about eight years. She currently volunteers with Middle Georgia Justice once a week.
Duncan said one of the defining moments of her career was writing a brief in Brunswick that was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Georgia.
“I got a very good background from Mercer Law School,” she said. “I’m proud of my work ethic. I went to a lot of trials.”
After working for Mercer Law School admissions for seven years, O’Neal went to work for the Georgia licensing board at the Macon location for the Secretary of State’s Office. She was head of the legal department for 12 years before transferring to information technology, and then moved on to do online licensure renewal work for System Automation for more than three years.
Today, she focuses full time on two other ventures. Eight years ago, she started a local canoeing-kayaking business, Ocmulgee Outdoor Expeditions, and she took over her father’s real estate business more than four years ago.
O’Neal said she enjoys not being confined to an 8-to-5 schedule, being in the outdoors as much as she can, and spending time with her horse and four dogs.
“I never regret getting a law degree,” she said. “It has been the best preparation for being a business woman and for life itself. The study of law is the study of life.
“I am ever so grateful I went to Mercer. That J.D. (Juris Doctor degree) has benefited me over and over.”