Dean’s Fellow aims for a career in appellate work

Cooley Law student Thomas Gildner shares a passion for the law with his father, Michael, a partner at Simon, Figuera, and Parker in Flint.

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Cooley Law student Thomas Gildner recalls a childhood visit to a courthouse to watch his attorney father defend a man in an orange jumpsuit and shackles.

“Of course, at that age, your perception is narrow and I remember struggling with the idea that even a guilty person accused of a crime gets an attorney,” Gildner says. “I couldn’t understand it, so I would challenge my dad with my questions. My dad would give me a different perspective and instead of giving me a solid answer, he would let me answer my questions on my own with a new perspective.

“I don’t think he realized how much that shaped how I look at the world and how I go about my legal studies.”

Gildner’s father Michael, a partner at Simon, Figuera, and Parker in Flint, has a primary practice in municipal law, but also handles a variety of general practice issues.

“He’s undoubtedly my most influential role model in my legal pursuit,” Gildner says.

However, Gildner didn’t originally want to follow in his father’s legal footsteps. After earning a B.Sc., he worked in a genetics lab until the summer after Covid hit in early 2020.

“At that time, if the job paid well, it was good enough for me,” he says. “I should have known that wouldn’t work, since I’ve always been a passionate individual who needs a career that helps people in a meaningful way. I was also interested in the medical field, but the influence insurance has on that profession was unappealing to me.

“I felt like ‘just another brick in the wall’ at my previous jobs, and I need a job that works with people and that makes me feel like I’m helping society.”

He was still hesitant about replicating his father’s career path and pursuing a law degree.

“I wanted to be my own person, especially because my dad and I have so many qualities we share. And I wasn’t sure if I was up for a career that has so much uncertainty and stress associated with it—a hurdle I wrestled with even at the beginning of law school,” he says. “Although I thrive off passion, that’s made it difficult at times to maintain a balance between passionately advocating for clients and understanding I still have to water the other aspects of my life. But with the great role models I’ve had at school, I’ve learned how to handle the pressure and appreciate the gravity of what I’m signing on to do, without letting it consume me. If you ask me, that’s an invaluable tool I’ve gained from law school.

“The law was attractive to me because I think the law is one of, if not the only area of work, that can truly balance the scales of life,” he adds. “Although it’s not perfect, when it’s done correctly, the law can help people who have been neglected, looked over, and outright abused regain their liberties and rights. You shouldn’t be able to neglect people because you have enough money, power, or prestige to do so, yet far too often in our world that is what occurs, and it makes me angry. So I really look forward to helping people during difficult times in their lives.”

Now approaching the end of his 2L year at Cooley Law, Gildner is vice president of the Environmental Law Society, Law Review editor, a Student Bar Association senator, and Master of Ceremony/graduation marshal. He has helped with expungement fairs, participated as a volunteer judge for Teen Court, and aspires to work with the Innocence Project in the fall.

“The professors are easy to access and they do whatever they can to help you succeed,” he says. “You also don’t go unnoticed at Cooley if you work hard. It’s nice knowing there’s a place that will allow you to chase your dream, if you have the grit and
persistence to do it.”

He is also appreciative of being a Dean’s Fellow, providing the opportunity to be a student mentor and teaching assistant.

“Although I’ve never considered myself the smartest in the room, I usually understand where most people get confused or lost, and I love finding ways to bridge that gap,” he says. “Any opportunity I can to instill confidence in a classmate and help them achieve what they came to law school to achieve, I’m all for it.”

A TA for criminal law, he enjoyed assisting students because it helped him understand the material even more than when he took the class.

“I also had to describe things in different ways for different people to understand and that skill has been very useful for me ever since,” he says.  

While Gildner finds some sector of law to get passionate about in almost every class, he particularly enjoys legal research and writing.

“School is less fun when I don’t have classes that require me to write briefs,” he says. “In addition to legal writing, I enjoy criminal law, criminal procedure, and skill courses that offer opportunities for oral advocacy.”    

He is currently working to obtain a judicial clerkship that will allow him to transition out of law school and will provide broad exposure to different areas of the law.

 “After that I want to transition into prosecutor or appellate work. I love appellate advocacy, which I found out when I competed on the National Moot court team,” he says. “Eventually, I want to end my career as a judge and a part-time law professor.”

Originally from the village of Metamora in Lapeer County, he spends his weekends there and lives in Lansing during the week.

“I love the legal opportunity Lansing provides—you have so many state agencies that need lawyers,” he says. “It needs more restaurants though.”

To relax, Gildner loves walking, hiking, and yoga, and enjoys live music. He is also passionate about sports, specifically tennis, pickleball, and golf—“But there’s almost no sporting event I won’t go watch.”

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