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2015 Outstanding New Lawyer, Zoey Merrill

2015 Outstanding New Lawyer, Zoey Merrill

If Zoey Merrill one day runs for elected office, she will have a difficult choice to make: what title should she use to describe herself? Enterpreneur? Law professor? Local celebrity? World-traveling adventurer? Former vegetarian?Perhaps she will choose the title recently bestowed upon her by the San Joaquin County Bar Association: SJCBA 2015 Outstanding New Lawyer.

Zayante "Zoey" Merrill was announced as the latest recipient of the SJCBA's Outstanding New Lawyer Award at the Annual Meeting last November, but the award itself was presented to Zoey by Tom Keeling at the 2016 New Lawyers Reception at the Bank of Stockton. The award recognizes new attorneys who have provided "outstanding service to both the community and legal profession." Zoey is the third winner of the award, joining inaugural winner Erin Guy Castillo and one other person.

"Nominating Zoey was an opportunity and a privilege for me—and I am delighted that the Bar accorded her this special recognition," Mr. Keeling wrote." She demonstrates the strengths and leadership traits that give me confidence in the future of this legal community."

"New" lawyer though she may be (in practice since December 2009), Zoey boasts an assortment of life experiences and accomplishments that could fill a book.

A biology-psychology dual major at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Zoey originally sought to become a forensic examiner. She became smitten with forensics after participating in California State University, Sacramento's "Academic Talent Search" program in the seventh grade, where she was introduced to forensics by a professor who would later go on to testify in the O.J. Simpson trial. She volunteered at a crime lab, but—alleging that she "looks terrible in polyester"—she chose not to pursue a career in law enforcement. Zoey instead obtained a Master's degree in forensics from George Washington University, but returned home after the tragedy of September 11, 2001 led to years-long delays in processing applications for federal government forensics positions.

"Zoey met hundreds of interesting folks on her backpacking trip through Australia, Fiji, and New Zealand. She 'SNUBA'-ed along the Great Barrier Reef and even petted a koala!"

Back in California, after flirting with the idea of purchasing a swimming school, she cultivated an interest in the law working as an investigator on childhood sexual abuse cases. Zoey went on to graduate as valedictorian from the Lawrence Drivon School of Law at Humphreys College. Her ties to the Drivon School run deep: her mother, Robyn Truitt Drivon, now Sacramento County Counsel, was a student at the school, and eight-year-old Zoey frequently tagged along to class. Zoey went on to teach at the school, first in the undergraduate program and now as an advanced legal writing instructor alongside San Joaquin County Counsel Mark Myles. Many will recognize Zoey as the face of Humphreys College from its advertisements on television.

"Zoey was a top student. Just amazingly consistent in everything she does," explained Patrick Piggott, dean of the Drivon School of Law." Zoey was so dedicated. During her first year of law school, she got married. During the rehearsal dinner, she was in class. They had a cardboard cutout of her in the chair [at the dinner]."

Before embarking on her career, however, Zoey embarked on an adventure: she sold her car, bought herself a plane ticket and took off on a months-long solo backpacking excursion through Australia, Fiji, and New Zealand. She met hundreds of interesting folks along the trip, "SNUBA"-ed along the Great Barrier Reef, and even pet a koala.

Zoey has since owned her own practice and has represented public agencies as an associate with the former law firm of Suntag & Feuerstein.She is now a Deputy County Counsel for San Joaquin County, representing the County's Planning/Development Services Division, Environmental Health Department, and Emergency Medical Services Agency.

When she is not solving the County's problems, Zoey is often lost in the woods—literally. An avid outdoorswoman, Zoey has climbed Half Dome and hiked much of the Pacific Crest Trail, stretching from the U.S.-Mexico border to British Columbia. Dean Piggott recalls Zoey telling him that she had run into a law school classmate of his—on the summit of Mount Rainier. She describes her desire to hike the John Muir Trail (a 210-mile, weeks-long journey on foot from Yosemite National Park to the summit of Mount Whitney) with such infectious energy that it sounds almost like something a sane person would want to do.

When—not if—Zoey does conquer that challenge, she will not be alone. Her husband, Jeff, an engineer with Lawrence Livermore Lab, is a fitness enthusiast as well. They met in karate class where Zoey, already a black belt, was working on her second degree. A green belt at the time, Jeff caught her eye." He looked good in karate pants," she observed.

Today, Jeff is a black belt too. Their five-year-old daughter, Tenley, grudgingly accompanies them on their nature walks, though Zoey admits that the hiking bug has not yet bitten her "Little Human." (That, and a litany of other "Zoey-isms," could form the basis of an article all by themselves.)

Although Zoey is perhaps famous for her sense of humor, if there is one thing that she would want others to know about her, it is that she values her relationships immensely." I take my work, my teaching and my relationships very seriously," she says." I just also like a good joke."

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