Alumni Spotlight: Melissa Howard

by Tracy Kalytiak  |   

B.A. Criminal Justice and Political Science '01 Hometown: Wasilla Fun Fact: Howard ice-skated competitively when she was a teenager.

Melissa Howard with her family of pugs

Melissa Howard with her family of pugs

Years ago, when Melissa Howard was 16, her mother sued a doctor for medical malpractice and the case went to trial. The lawsuit turned out to be a catalyst in her life.

"I felt the lawyer was not prepared and did not argue the case effectively to the jury," she said. "I liked the book part of it, the studying part of it, as odd as that sounds. I liked having to really study and prepare for something and do well at it. I liked the idea of working a case to the best of my ability for someone else."

Howard decided she wanted to attend law school, but first needed to earn a baccalaureate degree. She enrolled at UAA as a theater major, then changed her major to geology, primarily because her father worked with geologists on the North Slope.

"Getting into law school is not 100 percent," Howard said. "If law school didn't work out, I could fall back on geology. I was always planning and wanted to know what my fallback was. Then I started taking the geology classes, but just wasn't interested in knowing what rocks are called."

Finding a career niche

Howard finally settled on criminal justice, with a minor in political science.

"I felt I would have other choices with that degree," she said. "If I didn't get into law school, I could go into probation."

Howard enjoyed her years at UAA because it was close to her family's home in Wasilla and offered a variety of ways for her to immerse herself in Alaska's legal community.

"I got to know all the professors really well, got more opportunities because it was smaller," she said. "One of my professors, Dr. [John] Riley, was at our wedding. I got to do an internship with Judge [Stephanie] Rhoades and her mental health court. I also got to work with the Alaska Judicial Council, collecting data for a part-time research project."

Howard lived in UAA's dorms and served as a resident adviser for a semester.

"I went to UAA to get my degree and the GPA I wanted so I could go to law school," Howard said. "Most of my time I spent studying, doing things to beef up my résumé. I didn't do the party scene. I've never actually had a drink of alcohol in my life. People always ask me, is it because of religion? My parents didn't drink and my husband, Seth, doesn't drink, so it was just never something I was interested in."

Howard still recalls days she spent at UAA with her future husband.

"I'm a homebody and was able to go home to Wasilla whenever I wanted," she said. "When I had a paper or exam coming up, I'd come back to campus on Saturday instead of Sunday and study at the library. Seth would bring his laptop and do whatever he does. It was something we'd do together. I'd make note cards; we'd go out to dinner and Seth would quiz me on the note cards."

Navigating around obstacles

After graduating from UAA, cum laude, in 2001, Howard took the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and experienced what she calls a "U-turn."

"I did really bad the first time I took it," she said. "Dr. Riley said maybe I should try a Ph.D. program first and then try again."

Howard won a full scholarship to Arizona State's criminal justice doctoral program, married, and then moved to Arizona. She returned to Alaska after one semester.

"I was so far away from everybody," she explained. "I didn't want to be in the Ph.D. program; I would do my Ph.D. work there in the law library because I liked being around the law students."

Back home, Howard found a job as a clerk at the Anchorage courthouse and once again worked as a researcher for the Alaska Judicial Council. Then she applied for and received a transfer to a clerk's job in Palmer.

"I sat in the court hearings every day watching the attorneys," she said. "I decided to retake the LSAT because I really wanted to go to law school."

This time, Howard took a prep course and earned a much better score. She applied to law schools and decided to attend Seattle University School of Law. Howard won a small partial scholarship designated for an Alaska student.

"They have a connection to Alaska," she said. "I got to do an externship with [now-retired Palmer Superior Court] Judge Beverly Cutler and got credit because it was through Seattle University."

Howard, while a UAA undergraduate, had taken a constitutional law course with associate professor Deborah Periman.

"The way she taught the class resembled the way it was taught at Seattle University," Howard said. "The cases we studied were some of the same cases I studied at Seattle University. That helped prepare me for what was coming. I think it helped."

Launching a career near home

Howard graduated from law school in 2008, then passed Alaska's bar exam. She decided to practice criminal law.

"I always had an idea it was going to be criminal because when I was an in-court clerk, I got to do child-custody hearings, divorce trials," she said. "I didn't really picture myself doing the civil stuff. There was a particular divorce trial when they were fighting over a toaster and I just remember thinking it was so ridiculous. I liked clerking the criminal hearings better, especially the trials."

She found a job at the Anchorage district attorney's office, but mentioned she wanted to transfer to Palmer when an opening became available. That happened three years ago.

"Judge Cutler swore me in and defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges came to my swearing-in ceremony," Howard said. "This is where I'm supposed to be."

Howard now prosecutes serious felony cases, including sexual assaults of children and adults, robberies, burglaries, assaults, felony drunken-driving incidents and thefts.

"Prosecution is hard work and stressful at times," Howard said. "I often take work home with me, and work weekends. However, when I obtain a good verdict or resolution for a victim, and the victim or the victim's family thanks me, that makes all the work and student loan payments worth it. I've been fortunate to never know what being a victim of a serious crime feels like, and just strive to do whatever I can to help a person get through the overwhelming and sometimes scary legal process."

In her off hours, Howard collects pugs. She and her husband acquired their first in 2003. He gave her another pug for Valentine's Day the following year. "And then they just kind of multiplied from there." Howard now has five pugs, which she likes to dress in costumes for just about every occasion.

The pugs have offered a way for Howard to reach out to children she is trying to help.

"I have a photo album in my office of the pugs dressed up in their costumes," Howard said. "I started [dressing the dogs] for fun, but now I find the pictures help when I have my initial meetings with young children who have been victims of sexual abuse. They can-understandably-be very withdrawn, nervous, and I sometimes have difficulty getting them to talk about what happened to them. I find the pictures help them become comfortable talking to me, and get a laugh and sometimes a smile."

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