This month, Jessica Merkel earns the distinction of being among the first students to graduate from Mitchell Hamline’s hybrid Juris Doctor program.
Merkel was part of the inaugural class that kicked off the program – the first half online, half on-campus Juris Doctor program at an ABA-approved law school – in January 2015. She’s part of a group of 11 students who studied on an accelerated path, allowing them to finish in three years instead of four.
“I thought it was a great challenge,” Merkel said. “And I have accomplished it.”
Here’s how Merkel, who lives near Marsh- field, Wisconsin, fit law school into her busy life: After long days as the full-time manager of the family health and communicable disease division at the Marathon County, Wisconsin, Public Health Department, she would spend a few hours with her husband, Ryan, and her 2-year-old daughter – who was born just after Merkel’s first semester in law school. After her family would head off to bed, she would stay up and work on her reading, writing and researching. With family members helping with her daughter, she devoted the majority of her weekends to studying. Merkel was even able to squeeze in three externships during her time in the hybrid program – as a legal intern at the law firms of Ruder Ware and Nash Law Group as well as at the Marathon County Corporation Counsel’s Office.
It was a tough schedule, and a challenge for her and her family, but Merkel says the hybrid program was the only way she could have attended law school while working full time and living in a rural area.
“Many people don’t have access to law schools because of their locations,” Merkel said. “I think that’s one of the greatest strengths of this program.”
Merkel says the opportunity the hybrid program provides to earn a law degree from anywhere in the country can help alleviate the shortage of attorneys in rural areas.
She’d like to be part of the solution. After graduation, she plans to put her Juris Doctor to use close to home in rural Wisconsin – perhaps in the areas of dispute resolution (she earned a certificate from Mitchell Hamline’s nationally ranked Dispute Resolution Institute), trusts, estate planning and elder law.
Merkel is confident she’ll make a good lawyer in part because of her past work as a therapist for people facing addiction and as a social worker in child protection. Those positions gave her sharp skills in client counseling and interviewing. Her career path also gave her the ability to connect with people and better understand their situations, something she thinks will help put future clients at ease.
“Many people have very traumatic experiences with the legal system,” she said. “If we can do something to help them through the process, we might be able to decrease the trauma that’s involved.”