Yolanda Melville, Esq.
Interviewed by: Kasi Gifford, Esq. and Camille McKnight, Esq.
Why did you want to become a lawyer? Or did you always want to become a lawyer?
During a 7th grade middle school social skills class, my teacher paired each student with a person who was in the student’s desired profession. I decided I wanted to shadow an attorney. I was paired with a family law practitioner for a half-day. We sat in his law office and talked about his path. Although I naively felt that I could actually do his job, the experience prepared me with the essentials tools for the path to becoming an attorney overall.
Can you talk a little bit about your career path after law school?
Throughout my young career, I am fortunate to have been afforded to promote justice and civil rights, which are two reasons why I decided to become an attorney.
I graduated from Howard University School of Law. Following graduation, I was fortunate to be hired by the Honorable Susan F. Maven, as her first Appellate Law Clerk, which was located in the Atlantic City Courthouse. Following my clerkship, I briefly relocated to New York City to work with the Brennan Center for Justice, where I assisted in the organization’s efforts following a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision addressing the constitutionality of two key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I examined state-by-state changes to voting laws, which were occurring almost immediately after this historic civil rights legislation was dismantled.
I returned to New Jersey to work for a real estate and land development law firm in Haddonfield, whose attorneys assisted residential developers throughout the process of building hundreds of 100% affordable and inclusionary housing projects in compliance with the Mount Laurel doctrine. In a March 2015 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, the judiciary provided a new direction for how New Jersey municipalities were to comply with the constitutional requirement to provide their fair share of affordable housing. I worked with clients and community partners as we strategized the initial implementation of the Supreme Court’s newest directive. The Mount Laurel doctrine, which derived from a 1983 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, is one of our state’s historic civil rights cases and spearheaded the passage of the New Jersey Fair Housing Act.
Currently, I serve as an Associate Attorney with Cooper Levenson in its Atlantic City office. In 1966, the firm’s named partner, James “Jim” Cooper, spent two weeks in Mississippi representing African-Americans as a member of President John F. Kennedy’s Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. Today, I serve our firm by representing various organizational clients in both state and federal courts, as well as serving as Board counsel for various Atlantic County housing communities.
Is clerking something you would recommend to young attorneys?
Yes, absolutely. During law school, I did not completely understand the value of “clerking” for a judge. It was not until I was actually working with Judge Maven that I was able to realize its impact and the insight you gain from the judiciary. As a law clerk, you are primarily responsible for reviewing the trial record, researching the applicable law, and drafting legal memoranda and/or opinions for one or more judges. However, you also gain a professional “family” of those who will help to shape the rest of your career. It is one of the best experiences you will ever have.
Generally speaking what advice would you give to young attorneys or recent law school graduates?
Network, network, network. There is an old adage that says, “it’s not what you know; it’s who you know.”Although being a knowledgeable practitioner is very important, how well you are received (and perceived) by your colleagues, clients, and community-at-large is valuable. Your classmate may receive your résumé for that dream job.
What do you like most about the practice of law?
As attorneys, we are lifelong learners. We are afforded many unique opportunities to stretch our cognitive abilities in both structured and entrepreneurial ways. I also cherish the opportunity to learn from colleagues, client and community members who trust my integrity and judgment as a legal practitioner. I’ve also learned the uncanny ability to “speed read” anything.
What do you like to do for fun? What trips do you like to go on?
I enjoy opportunities to work with the next generation through community service events, such as forums, table talks and other mentorship-based events.
Where do you see yourselves in 10, 20 years? What goals or aspirations do you have? Or bucket list items?
I look forward to continuing to push the limits in various aspects of my professional career. I hope to continue to use my personal platform to champion for civil rights and justice for all.