Career Q&A: Jennifer Mercer ’12, INDS, Intern with Free State Legal Project

Every so often, we’ll chat with an alum about what they do and how they got there. Today we’re talking with student attorney Jennifer Mercer ’12, interdisciplinary studies, about how her time at UMBC helped prepare her for her work with the FreeState Legal Project and how both experiences are shaping her future career.

Jennifer Mercer at GraduationName: Jennifer Mercer
Job Title: Student Attorney
Employer: FreeState Legal Project

Q:  Tell us a little about how you wound up at UMBC. What’s your background?

A: I am originally from Lutherville, Maryland. When I was in high school, I got a postcard in the mail for the Just for Juniors visit day. To be honest, I didn’t want to go because I thought I wanted to go to college out of state. My mother made me go, however. Once I went, I had a very positive experience. It’s hard to describe, but I felt a certain energy in the air on campus. The students seemed to be excited to be there. The professors I spoke to seemed to be genuinely interested in me. Needless to say, I am sure I was not the first prospective student to be powerfully impressed upon by Dr. Hrabowski’s words. And to think that if I’d had my way, I would have blown it off! I learned a lesson no teenager particularly relishes: my Mom was right.

I liked UMBC so much, I just couldn’t wait until I graduated high school to enroll. I spent my senior year of high school taking classes part time, then taking six credits per semester at UMBC as part of the concurrent enrollment/Young Scholars Program. I got a head start on college, and knew I was where I needed to be.

Q:  You’re in the middle of an internship right now, so a few questions: What have learned so far? What are you most excited about working on this summer? How do you feel this internship will help you in your career?

A: Interning for FreeState Legal Project has been a wonderful experience so far. My clients are low-income members of the LGBT community. I help them get access to critical legal services which they need but cannot afford. Since FreeState is very small, no two days are the same, as there is so much to be done! We are a fairly new organization, but we have grown tremendously in the past few years. This is due in no small part to founder and Executive Director Aaron Merki ’05, political science, who is also a UMBC graduate (and UMBC’s Rising Star Alumnus of the Year in 2010).

I have learned a great deal already about the substantive law issues affecting low-income LGBT clients, such as family law issues, legal name and gender changes, discrimination cases, immigration, and more. Due to the rapid and relatively recent advance of society’s acceptance of LGBT people, there is a striking lack of legal precedent in these areas. Therefore, a large part of my job is researching issues and constructing the best possible work product out of limited information. I do this with my clients in mind, as important parts of their lives depend on it. After my work is reviewed by my supervisors, it gets sent to clients or to the court. I’m proud to do work that makes a direct impact.

It is hard to pick a thing that I am most excited about, but the first thing that came to mind was my work on juvenile justice. FreeState sponsors a LGBT Youth Roundtable which consists of leaders from many agencies which impact the lives of LGBT youth. I work on the Juvenile Justice Subcommittee along with several juvenile public defenders and prosecutors. Right now, I am surveying existing research on the state of incarcerated LGBT youth in order to develop strategies for further research. We are looking at best practices for caring for these youth, and will draft a model policy to show to policymakers. The assignment is perfect for me, considering my senior capstone project (and URCAD presentation) was about incarcerated adolescent girls more generally. I have the opportunity to build on my existing knowledge, which is wonderful.

I think the most vital skills I am learning come from the actual interactions I have with my clients. Learning how to talk to clients, who are often distressed at their situation, and to meet their problems with legal solutions, is critical. That being said, I think it is equally important to be able to take out the legalese when speaking to clients. I do my best to make sure they understand what is going on with their cases, and answer their questions as needed. My internship is teaching me how to be a compassionate, client-focused attorney. That is something I will use for my whole career, as are the connections I have made with others in the legal community who are similarly minded.

Q:  Tell us about your career plans for the future. What would you like to do after law school? Were there any lessons you learned, in particular, at UMBC that have stuck with you?

A: I came into law school with the experience I had as an undergraduate intern at the Office of the State’s Attorney for Baltimore City, Juvenile Division (thanks Shriver Center!). Between that internship and my coursework at UMBC, I knew I wanted to become a public interest attorney. While it is absolutely true that public interest attorneys do not make as much money as their colleagues in the firm world, I know that this path is for me. My experience at UMBC helped to give me that confidence.

I plan to spend my entire career doing public interest work on behalf of people who would otherwise not have access to the justice system. I hope that when I retire someday, I can look back at my career and know that it has changed lives. I am aware that these might be seen as lofty goals by some, but my time at UMBC taught me that I can achieve more than I may believe. If you would have told me when I was in high school that my college career would have gone so well, that I would apply to and be accepted to five different law schools, that I would choose a top tier law school and secure an internship I love helping clients who need it, I would not have believed you. And yet here I am!

Q:  Is there a particular class or professor who really inspired you?

A: It would be impossible to fully describe my UMBC experience without acknowledging the Interdisciplinary Studies department. The great thing about INDS is that truly does not limit students, but encourages them to pursue their intellectual interests at the highest level. My departmental adviser was INDS Assistant Director Steven McAlpine, who nurtured my curiosity and allowed it to grow and blossom. Former INDS (now POLI) faculty member Dr. Lisa Vetter also helped me along, giving me advice when I needed it. The course that stuck with me the most was Civil Rights, taught by Dr. George LaNoue. The lessons I learned in that course have proven practical in this line of work. Additionally, that course introduced me to the power of law to uplift the downtrodden.

Q:  What advice would you give to students considering UMBC?

A: My advice to prospective UMBC students is to keep an open mind, and not to limit yourself based on what you think you want. Once you’re here, get to know the faculty. I still work with some of the adjunct professors I had at UMBC, including Profs. Carrie Evans and Terry Hickey. Just the other day, I had dinner with someone I originally met because she was a guest speaker in Prof. Hickey’s Problem Solving in the Urban Black Community class.  We talked about the work I have been doing, and she gave me some advice. I still see Prof. McAlpine at his monthly drum circle performances. The relationships you build with faculty can be very enriching, so stop by during office hours and get to know them.

Q: What is your favorite UMBC memory?

A: I have a lot of great memories of UMBC, but many of my favorite memories are related to my experience as a member of the UMBC Down and Dirty Dawg Band. I played clarinet for all four years. The time I spent playing at basketball games, traveling during the conference tournaments, and just spending time with my pep band friends was time very well spent. I have an incurable case of Retriever Fever!

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