Suffolk Law School's Johanna Merlos to receive Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Scholarship

Thursday, April 4, 2024
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Johanna Merlos

The Massachusetts Bar Association is excited to announce that Suffolk University Law School student Johanna Merlos will receive the MBA’s 2024 Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Scholarship at the MBA Annual Dinner on May 2 at the Westin Boston Seaport District. The $10,000 scholarship is awarded to a third-year student at a Massachusetts law school who is committed to providing legal assistance to underrepresented individuals and communities in Massachusetts upon graduating.

Merlos enrolled at Suffolk after spending four years as a history teacher in Worcester, where she developed the first dual-language curriculum for middle school students and created a new course focused on U.S. colonization and the Latinx experience. With a direct view of the real-world issues facing her students, Merlos chose to pursue a law degree to improve her ability to advocate for members of marginalized communities. 

For Merlos, the path to becoming a public-interest lawyer took on added meaning given her own upbringing in the housing projects of Queensbridge, New York. Merlos said that growing up in an impoverished area with a regular police presence alerted her to the cycle of the criminal justice system and its intersection with race and socioeconomic status. When she began observing arraignments as a 3:03 student attorney with the Suffolk Defenders, she did so with an intimate knowledge of the defendant population and the crimes they were accused of committing. 

For the remainder of the third-year program, Merlos has represented clients charged with misdemeanors in the Central Division of Boston Municipal Court, gaining a sense of assurance in her desire to work as a public defender. To that end, she has already secured postgraduate employment in the Public Defender Division of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, where she hopes to help address the underlying causes of criminality and provide a voice for underserved individuals. 

“I love the opportunity to work with people and hear their stories. I have seen a lot of clients who have no one speaking on their behalf or listening to what they need,” Merlos said. 

To illustrate the need for a more holistic approach to criminal justice, Merlos cited the case of a defendant charged with trespassing for sleeping at a construction site. “If we look at the core issue, the crime was trespassing, but at the end of the day, the person is homeless. If we gave them a roof over their head and an opportunity to access resources like secure housing, employment and food, then the person wouldn’t have to sleep there and wouldn’t be criminalized,” she said. 

In addition to her participation in the Suffolk Defenders, Merlos previously defended prisoners in disciplinary hearings with Harvard’s Prison Legal Assistance Project, worked with unaccompanied refugee minors at Kids in Need of Defense, and assisted in post-conviction matters with the New England Innocence Project.

During first year of law school, Merlos received the Distinguished Oral Advocate Award in her Legal Practice Skills class for her oral advocacy skills. She has been a member of the Latin American Law Students Association, served as a student ambassador and a Progress to Success mentor, and served on the Jessup International Law Moot Court Team. Most recently, she and her partner won the Goodwin Trial Competition in a criminal case exploring manslaughter and criminal liability for harm done by pets.

After leaving a stable career in education to attend law school, Merlos said that the scholarship will help alleviate the cost of her legal studies and offer financial security while she concentrates on preparing for this summer’s bar exam. 

“I can study for the bar exam with peace of mind and have the comfort of knowing how I’m going to get by.”