Recent WMU-Cooley graduate is all over the country in pursuit of her legal career


California native and recent Western Michigan University-Thomas M. Cooley Law School graduate Jerryel McWilliams will soon be jetting off for Washington, D.C., to take the bar exam there.

McWilliams, who went to Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Md., for both her undergraduate degree in English and her Masters in Public Administration, says, “I love the D.C. area. When I gradu-

ated from college I realized I needed to find a way to get back to D.C.

“I’m excited to start my career but I’m very nervous about taking the bar exam. I’ll sit for the California bar in July,” she adds.

Once she enrolled at WMU-Cooley and arrived at the Grand Rapids campus, she threw herself into the culture to such a degree that she was given the campus’s Leadership Achievement Award this year.

Just to read the sheer number of activities she engaged in at WMU-Cooley is tiring: she was both Vice President and President of the Moot Court Board (and participated in the Melissa Mitchell Moot Court Competition as well as competing in the first year mock trial), was on the Honor Council?and the executive committee of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), and served as a teacher’s assistant in Constitutional Law. In addition, she was a member of the Children’s Law Society at WMU-Cooley and a student member of the American Bar Association.

“As far as BLSA and the moot court board, I would say that when I do things I just commit to them. I make sure that people know I’m there to help the mission, whatever that mission is.

“Really when you all have the same mission and agree about it, things are a lot easier and you get a lot more done.” 

She also worked in WMU-Cooley’s Access to Justice Clinic, about which she says, “Tracey Brame is just phenomenal, and so are the others I worked with. Just to be around people like them was good for me, and helped me learn.”

While there, she worked primarily on expungements, but towards the end she was given an opportunity to stretch herself a bit by assisting a team representing a father who wanted to get his parental rights back.

“That was interesting because it challenged me to show what I was made of. This was someone’s real life  and it was scary; I kept wondering, am I going to say the right thing and are we using the right strategy. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out in our favor, but it was an awesome experience nonetheless,” she says.

Should McWilliams choose a career in the courtroom, she would be following in the footsteps of her own mother. Now a federal defense attorney, her mother served in the public defender’s office in San Diego for over 27 years.

At the same time, McWilliams has a heart for social work, for which she can probably thank her father. “When I was growing up, he was a drug rehabilitation specialist, and now he works with women in the prison as a work readiness professional,” she explains.

She has not settled on the practice she will pursue, preferring to see what is available once she passes the bar. McWilliams is very clear, however, about where her interests lie.

“I have so many things I’m passionate about,” McWilliams says, “but these are two at the top:  I’m really passionate about mental health and really passionate about human trafficking, especially domestically. I’m also very interested in constitutional law. Litigation would allow me to get involved with most of those, but I unfortunately don’t know a lot about it at this point. Most of my internships were community based.

“Where I am right now in my life – I don’t have children and I’m still single – I have the time and the energy to have a lot of experiences on the way to figuring out what I want do.”

During law school, she both volunteered and worked for the Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan, which she loved. “At the Dispute Resolution Center, I?worked with people where the judge has said, ‘You need to go try and resolve this before you come see me.’ They may have the funds to afford it, but the center also helps people who are indigent. I get excitement from working with those populations as well, which is one reason I enjoyed the Access to Justice Clinic.”

After finishing her masters, McWilliams worked briefly at two positions in Washington, as a research associate for the  Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products, and as a representative for America Works, having spent six months between graduate and undergraduate school as an intern at the White House. She then returned to San Diego and worked as a mental health rehab specialist. Her clients had a wide variety of  mental health challenges, everything from suicidal thoughts to people on the autismspectrum.

“I had kids who had anxiety, depression leading to suicidal thoughts, girls who had been prostituted, kids who were drug addicts at the age of 14... It was really difficult,” she says.

Even as she studied for her Masters in Public Administration, McWilliams had decided she wanted to go to law school, and WMU-Cooley offered her a great opportunity.

She says she is grateful to all of her professors, as well as to many of her classmates, for the full and well-

rounded education she received. “I’m going to miss being in law school,” she says, “being around like-minded people who are striving to put their best foot forward. I’m grateful to the deans and all the others for creating an environment where you’re constantly learning.”

Wherever McWilliams ends up, her thoughtful approach will be a credit to Cooley, her parents, and all the other factors that shaped her. “I hope to have enough courage to think outside of the box and be innovative, and to try and think about the greater good of those around me,” she says. “Because so many people come across attorneys one way or the other. Why not be one of the attorneys that really impacts them positively?

“It starts in your community. If I’m not going to be part of lifting up the people around me, then what was the point? What was the purpose that I served?”