When BYU Law student Melissa Jo “MJ” Townsend was growing up, her mother frequently reminded her that she — a member of “the People” — was the government.
“I never really got that,” Townsend recalled. “I thought, ‘No, I’m just a kid from San Clemente, my voice doesn’t really matter. I’m small.’”
As she prepares to graduate this month, Townsend says that her three years of study at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School have radically changed her perspective.
“Everything we do in law school has engendered in me a deep reverence for the Constitution,” she observed. “I think about it each day now — the protections it offers us, the difference it makes, the ideals it embodies—and it’s something I want to defend and support. Of course, I’ve always known in my head what the law is, but now it’s settled in my heart.”
Townsend’s is a story that nearly didn’t happen. She almost passed on attending BYU Law, booking her flight at midnight the night before Admitted Students Day and arriving three hours late. Still, she had a gut feeling she was home as soon as she walked into the law building.
She considers her BYU Law experience “a gold mine” of opportunity. During her time at BYU Townsend served as an extern on the Utah District Court and the Utah Supreme Court and served as a research assistant in Uganda with Professor Brigham Daniels, working to help women take a more prominent role in local governance. She served as an associate editor of the BYU Law Review and a lead editor of the BYU Journal of Public Law.
Among other honors, Townsend was also awarded the J. Reuben Clark Award by her peers in her first year for her academic excellence and integrity and later won “Best Brief” in BYU Law’s 2020 Moot Court Competition. And in her spare time, Townsend competes with the Law School’s intramural sports teams.
Bryan Hamblin, the Law School’s assistant dean of student affairs, summed it up simply:
"MJ is a powerhouse."
Reflecting on her growth as a law student, Townsend said she most came to appreciate the Constitution during her summer extern- and internships. While working for a judge in the Utah District Court, she would often reflect on a scripture, Micah 6:8, that hung on the judge’s office wall and served as his mantra: “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
Those words stayed in her mind when she later interned for the Appellate Group in Bountiful, where she unexpectedly found herself working in criminal law, writing appeals for those convicted of serious crimes.
“At first it can be really hard,” Townsend said. “You’re defending someone who has been accused — and then convicted — of a crime. Sometimes a serious one. But I thought about how the Lord wants us to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. In my mind, doing justly means we abide by the Constitution during trial and make sure the accused is not punished more harshly than someone else. That scripture represents how I want to live and how I want to practice law.”
Going forward, Townsend will start with the law firm Parr Brown Gee & Loveless in Salt Lake City, where she’ll focus her energy on environmental and immigration law. She’s drawn to these two areas from her own background: she was an environmental science major at BYU and was introduced to the world of immigration through her Spanish-speaking mission in New York City. For Townsend, the two areas intersect around critical issues of human decency and how resources are dispersed in society.
Prepared to launch into her career and having taken advantage of everything BYU Law has to offer her, Townsend’s advice for new law students is to seize every opportunity and enjoy the journey. “I just want people to hang in there when they’re discouraged,” she said. “Law school is hard, but it’s also as fun as you make it. For those that want it to be, it’ll be a springboard for the rest of your life.”