Kimberly Merchant has taken over as the board attorney for Indianola’s aldermenBy BY RECARDO THOMAS STAFF REPORTER,
One question that we’ve all likely heard as a child is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And no doubt we had a ready-made answer to either be a doctor, a nurse, a firefighter, policeman or even a lawyer, but for Attorney Kimberly Merchant that was not the case. "A lot of people have these great ‘I grew up wanting to be a lawyer’ kind of stories, and honestly I just don’t have that kind of story," Merchant said.
The new Indianola city attorney, who now calls Greenville and the Mississippi Delta home, didn’t set out to become an attorney or even work in the field of law. Initially her interest was in becoming a computer engineer with a desire to learn computer and software programming.
However, the mathematical intensity of the courses derailed her plans. "I could not pass that calculus class, honestly. I took it about two times and had to drop it because I couldn't do it,” she said.
Merchant, who grew up in Pascagoula on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, is a 1990 graduate of Pascagoula High School who upon graduation enrolled in the University of Southern Mississippi. "At that time I was just eager to go to college and mainly to get a different experience."
Merchant said until that point she had been pretty much "sheltered and isolated," within her own community and to her, college was a way to get some much-needed exposure as it related to the world outside of where she grew up.
In her endeavor to plot her course, Merchant said she changed majors about five times, from computer science to political science to paralegal studies, then criminal justice and English, which she admittedly excelled in. "I really enjoyed reading and writing and I was really good at it," she said.
So, what propelled her down the legal highway? "I was getting to the end of my fourth year and my advisor was like, ‘Kim what are you going to do?’ And I was like, ‘I really don't know," she said.
That’s when one of her former paralegal studies’ professor stopped her during a walk across campus, asked about her plans and then asked if she had considered going to law school, which Merchant confessed that she had not.
At the time, Merchant was preparing to take the Graduate Record Examination General Test and begin coursework towards earning her master's degree in English with the intent of teaching some college courses. "And she just sort of planted this seed just in that quick five-minute conversation," said Merchant.
With that notion firmly planted, Merchant said, "Why not? I should maybe try it!" It was then a race against the clock. "I applied to law school. I applied last minute, took the LSATS last minute and just applied to several colleges," she said.
As a result, she started getting acceptance letters from many of the places she had applied including Louisiana State University, Vanderbilt, Mississippi College and the University of Mississippi. “I decided I was going to go to Vanderbilt." Her decision was based on the quality of education she expected, plus the school was located outside of Mississippi.
However, plans changed when she received her acceptance letter from Ole Miss. It referenced the school’s difficulty in getting minorities to matriculate through the university and offered to waive her tuition if she would come. “That sort of dictated my decision,” she said
She graduated from law school in 1997; however, Merchant said she was still in sort of a state of flux. "Again, I was just in a space where I didn't know any judges or attorneys, I never knew any growing up," she said.
She mentioned this because a lot of the graduates had the advantage of fathers who were attorneys or judges and many had jobs waiting for them when they graduated. “(They were) driving BMWs, living in condos and I'm barely making it, broke, very, very much broke,” she said.
Nonetheless, she was able to level the playing field based on how well she had done on her law school admission test and her great GPA. She conducted a mass mail-out of her resume and made sure one was sent to Attorney Charles Victor McTeer of Greenville. McTeer was one of a handful of attorneys she met while in law school at Ole Miss.
Merchant said she wasn’t sure if McTeer was serious at the time, but two years prior, he had expressed a desire to have a conversation with her once she graduated. She said he told her, “I would love to have a chat and talk about your future.”
He did call her in for an interview, which was her first trip to Greenville, much like attending the University of Mississippi was her first trip to Oxford. "I drove over there to Greenville in my one little interview suit that I had that I wore to all of my interviews,” she said.
Merchant said even though she thought she had made a good impression during her interview, the wait to hear back from McTeer was lengthy. While she waited, Merchant went on other interviews and even had other job offers, but was hesitant to take them. "Honestly, I knew what Victor McTeer meant to the state of Mississippi, what he meant to civil rights and what he meant to the Mississippi Delta and so I really was hoping because I felt like he was someone I could learn from.”
Merchant’s mindset was that McTeer’s firm would provide a more one-on-one interaction. “The big-firm sort of environment - it's like a sink or swim. They throw you out there and give you something to do and you have to figure it out, and I just felt like he would be more of a teacher,” Merchant said.
She really wanted to work for the Greenville attorney and specifically in his Jackson office. However, when he finally called, he said he needed her in Greenville.
She reluctantly began work in Greenville not knowing anyone in the Delta, only the staff at the law firm. Her term with McTeer lasted nine years until he decided to retire. She extolled him as a great teacher. “So a lot of my work ethic and the way in which I work, the meticulousness that I put into my approach to the practice comes from him.”
She remarked how he would work 24 hours straight just to complete a brief. During her time at his office, Merchant said she handled all sorts of cases from car accidents to medical malpractice and insurance fraud on the state and local levels.
She served as the managing attorney for McTeer’s two locations and when he retired, Merchant said she was ready and fully prepared to handle other areas of law. “I had a really sort of diverse background experience doing both civil and federal court law.”
One area that Merchant had not tried at that point was criminal cases. Upon leaving McTeer’s firm she began working for the District Attorney's office under Attorney Joyce Chiles who was the DA at the time.
Merchant said she was impressed by the fact that there was a black female district attorney and really wanted to work for Chiles. "She was dynamic, she was a heavy hitter and she didn't mince words. I really like people who come from a space of transparency and honesty and who are direct because I am as well and so I felt a sense of kinship with her from my interview,” Merchant said.
Admittedly, she was doing well financially at the time, but the salary Chiles was offering caused some trepidation, and even though she understood that it was mandated by state statute, Merchant wanted more. However, she said Chiles was quick to point out that she lacked experience with criminal cases.
So, by way of a compromise, Merchant proposed that she work for six months at that salary and if after that time Chiles felt Merchant had pulled her weight and was deserving that she would elevate her pay to the maximum allowed by the state, which Chiles did.
Merchant served as senior assistant district attorney as well as trainer for the new attorneys. And when Chiles retired, Attorney Dewayne Richardson became the district attorney. During her time in the district attorney’s office, Merchant said she tried the full gambit of criminal cases from carjackings to capital murder. “I have basically handled every kind of criminal case there is, lots of cases, lots of trials,” she said.
After about six years in the DA's office she started recognizing the need to make a change. "I started really recognizing some of the issues with the criminal justice system and was coming to terms with my role in that system as an assistant district attorney.”
She said the role comes with a great deal of power. “ You have a lot of authority and a lot of power, you can make stuff go away and you can make stuff drag on and at times I was not on the same page with the district attorney about how we should handle certain cases and just felt like I wanted to have the space to pursue some of these issues I was seeing in the system and that was really not the job to do it," she said.
Merchant made an unsuccessful attempt to run for justice court judge in a special election and was preparing to make her second attempt in the regular election when she heard about a job opening at the new Mississippi Center for Justice branch that was opening in Indianola.
The MCJ did not have an office at the time, so the first few months of her employment she worked from home.
Even after a building was purchased, she spent the next several months operating out of attorney Isaac Byrd’s law office, which was next door, while the MCJ office space was being renovated.
In addition to being the managing attorney for the MCJ Delta office, she was also the director for educational opportunities, which meant that she was charged with setting the agenda for what the Center for Justice would focus on as it related to disparities and the issues they saw around education.
Her position fueled her development in education law and privileged her to travel across the state visiting multiple school districts and school board hearings and meetings challenging the policies that impacted students in a negative way.
“And also just really sort of fighting to give school districts what they need to have an equitable footing with other districts," Merchant said.
She stresses that the quality of education that a child receives should not be based on where they live. She said all children in the state should have the exact same opportunities.
During her six-year term at the Center for Justice, Merchant was invited to participate in the Racial Justice Institute, which is a training institute for social justice. She participated in various activities related to the Institute and after funding became available, she was called to be the director.
In addition to her new position as the Indianola city attorney, Merchant also serves as the attorney for the Hollandale School District, something she did while working for the McTeer law firm, but had to give up when she took the district attorney's position.
She said, "Indianola is a new challenge for me. Honestly, this is my first experience working with a municipality."
However, she acknowledges that dealing with laws concerning governmental agencies is very similar. “What I enjoy about representing governmental agencies is it is a way to make an impact in the communities while using my legal expertise. What I try to bring to the table in representing these entities is some sort of clear and concise process and procedure, but also providing my expertise in terms of how that process and procedure impacts community people."
Merchant openly acknowledges her love for Indianola, the people and the food and credits her time with the Center for Justice for introducing her to the community during her attempts to make the MCJ a hub for community members and their various needs.
She said, “As a consequence, I got to know a lot of people in the community of Indianola, I worked with a lot of the people in the community of Indianola to discuss issues, but also develop solutions to various issues that were in the community.”
She said coming back to Indianola was like coming home; and being able to serve the people - an added bonus.
As for how she’s adjusting to her new position, Merchant said that she is still in the observing mode. She added that different attorneys have different methods and hers is likely to be a little more hands-on than previous attorneys. However, she offered no specifics at this time.
Merchant acknowledged that she is making a list and studying some ideas. "They (the mayor and aldermen) have all different perspectives for sure and none of them are shy about sharing their opinion, which is great,” she said.
After purchasing her first home in 2000, her mother, who holds both a master's and specialist degree in education and was working at the Mississippi Department of Education moved to Greenville and accepted a job with the local school district, but has since retired and the two are now roommates.
“We like the Delta, this is home for us,” Merchant said.