Land-Use Lawyer Supports Students
As a partner in Robinson & Cole LLP, a law firm with 220 lawyers and offices in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Florida, Dwight Merriam ’68 (sociology) has a varied practice in land-use law. “I spend a lot of time representing large-scale developers, mostly in Connecticut,” he says, pointing to the Taubman Company that brought the first Nordstrom’s to New England, a 1,000 acre golf course community development in Old Saybrook, and huge distribution facilities in Windsor and Bloomfield. Merriam also represents governments, neighborhood groups, environmental organizations, and individuals in land use matters: planning, zoning, preservation, eminent domain, etc.
“I’ve been with the same law firm since graduating from Yale Law School in 1978,” Merriam notes. The founding member of and senior partner in Robinson & Cole’s Land Use Group, the largest and probably best known organization of planners and lawyers of its type in the country, Merriam is sought after to speak at conferences throughout the United Sates and abroad and has appeared on the Today Show, CNBC, public television and numerous radio shows. About 40 hours a week are devoted to client matters and another 20 to 40 are spent on research, writing, lecturing and participating in numerous professional organizations. Merriam is widely published, including a best-selling book, The Complete Guide to Zoning (McGraw-Hill). He teaches Land Use Law at Vermont Law School, is a past president of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a member of the executive committee of the American Bar Association’s State and Local Government Law Section, and much, much more.
“Fortunately, I love my work,” Merriam says. “It’s a people business and one where I can see the results on the ground, either in a large project successfully developed or an important piece of open space preserved for future generations.
“I’m not especially good at balancing work and family time, though I try to be home for dinner and take most weekends in the winter to ski and in the summer to sail. Often I combine work and family travel—and I do take vacations. My wife Susan was a practicing lawyer for 17 years before she decided to become a full-time mother. She understands better than most the pressures of the job and has relieved me of a large portion of responsibilities outside my work. I couldn’t do what I do without her help.”
That said, Merriam reflects on the pressure today’s lawyers face. “When I started practicing, we had no word processing, no computers, no overnight delivery service. The abbreviation ‘cc’ at the bottom of a letter actually meant a carbon copy on onionskin paper. Everything went much slower and the work standard then was, at most, 1600 chargeable hours a year. Today many firms are at 2000, 2100 or even more, leaving little time for professional activities, community service, pro bono, and last—but not least—family and recreation.”
“Recent surveys of young lawyers,” Merriam says, “indicate that they would be willing to take a greater than proportional reduction in salary for less hours. The general situation in terms of retention and quality of life has become so degraded that a shift to alternative opportunities will allow for a better balance.”
Merriam didn’t attend UMass Amherst with the intention of becoming a lawyer. “I mostly stumbled into my career,” he says. “I thought I’d be a high school math teacher, but having my calculus on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 8:00 a.m. and pledging a fraternity brought an end to my mathematics career. I changed majors a few times, and thought about becoming everything from a meteorologist to a prison warden—until I took a course in land-use planning sophomore year. It combined the quantitative methods I enjoyed with the social aspects of human activity patterns and social policy planning.”
Although he applied to graduate school in planning, Merriam’s career was interrupted by Vietnam. The Navy Officer’s Candidate School he attended led to a commission and then the nonlawyer Justice School and Communications School before joining his ship. Merriam was deployed three times. “It was highly disruptive of my life,” he says, “but I did enjoy being at sea and operating a large tanker. In fact, I converted my reserve commission to a regular commission and took a set of orders to the University of North Carolina where I earned my master’s in regional planning and was the senior advisor of the Navy ROTC Unit from 1972 until I decided to go to law school in 1975.”
Merriam is reflective when pondering his success. “I came from a family with not much higher education and little economic means, but a high value was placed on learning and education. I think, having come from modest means, a measure of insecurity drove me to establish a pattern of hard work. UMass Amherst encouraged a level of self-reliance. And, by exploring a variety of interests, I gained a multidisciplinary approach to the generalist profession of planning.”
Merriam says he was fortunate to have some scholarships, work study and jobs to pay the bills. Now he’s giving back to the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, in an effort to help students get their degrees without accumulating enormous amounts of debt. His Merriam Internship Scholarship, named for his late aunt Oreana Merriam, a former professor of home economics at UMass Amherst, given for the first time last spring, supports summer or semester-long internships in public policy, law, ecological conservation and/or real estate development. “I also think that students can be helped with networking and mentoring. No one in my family back then really could help me make decisions on careers and help me find jobs. A successful professional mentor would have been beneficial.
“I tell young people that developing a career is like saving for retirement: the sooner you start, the more leverage you will get through compounding. It is never too early to start networking and creating relationships. Seek out opportunities to work in professional organizations, write and publish. Name recognition will help open doors. An undergraduate interested in a certain area should identify the professional organizations and start meeting with the local chapters. Get to know the leadership, help organize an event, and write for their newsletters. In the American Bar Association, for example, we have scholarships for students and we have a student lawyers division.”
February 4, 2008