Thirty-one students from Cass Technical High School visited Wayne State University Law School on Friday, March 7, to learn about becoming lawyers, despite any obstacles that might stand in their way.
The students, mostly ninth-graders, began Discover Law Day hearing 2008 Wayne Law alumnus Terrence Thompson talk about his life – how he dropped out of high school, became a thief and sold drugs, and then turned it around to go to college and law school and become the co-founder and CEO of Networkingout LLC of Detroit.
Discover Law Day is about encouraging African-Americans and other minorities to go to law school and become part of the justice system and the legal profession, which today doesn’t reflect the growing diversity in society.
Felicia Thomas, director of recruitment and enrollment at Wayne Law, spoke first during the event, which was sponsored by Wayne Law’s Admissions Office, WSU GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) and Wayne Law’s Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.
“My job is recruiting law students,” she told the teens as she introduced Thompson. “The point of Discover Law is to increase the number of attorneys of color. We are nowhere near being represented in this profession, and you can do just about anything with a law degree.”
Being an attorney gave Thompson the experience and knowledge to become an entrepreneur, he said. He talked about growing up poor on the south side of Ypsilanti.
“Where I’m from, I didn’t know any lawyers, I didn’t know any doctors, I didn’t know any engineers,” he said.
His life changed dramatically when he was in eighth grade and his mother and her four children began living with a man who had four children of his own.
The man’s treatment of Thompson became a problem, and the boy was sent to live with an aunt and grandmother. Feeling betrayed and resentful, Thompson started doing poorly in school for the first time in his life and flunked the eighth grade.
Then, his aunt, who was supporting the household, lost her job.
“So, we were poor as dirt,” Thompson said. “Things really got bad for me.”
He moved in with a 20-year-old sister.
“I was harboring so much anger and bitterness,” Thompson said. “Every day in high school, I went to school angry. I would cuss you and fight you at the drop of a dime.”
He began to steal from stores and sell the stuff at school to have money. He began to sell drugs.
“I did a lot of foolish stuff,” Thompson said.
In 1996, with failing grades, he heard his friends talk excitedly about going to college soon. He knew that wasn’t going to happen for him, so he dropped out of school and worked odd jobs and sold drugs.
“I walked off the job and went to the closest community college I could find,” Thompson said.
He was advised to get his GED, so he studied and did well when he took the test. He began attending Washtenaw Community College and did well there.
“That got the juices flowing,” Thompson said.
He went to Eastern Michigan University and excelled there, graduating with a degree in political science in 2002 after three years.
Then, he went to work as an aide for U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and saw people making a difference in Washington, D.C. Many of them were attorneys.
Thompson didn’t get a great score, but Wayne Law officials considered his life experiences and admitted him.
He graduated in the top 20 percent of his class.
“It’s a lesson in hard work,” he told the teens. “There were days when I would study 10 to 12 hours a day.”
He was president at Wayne Law of the Black Law Students Association and involved in student government and many other aspects of law school.
“I refined my leadership ability,” Thompson said.
In 2008, he graduated and took the bar exam, scoring in the top 1 percent in the nation on the multi-state portion of the test.
“I made up my mind that no one — absolutely no one — was going to work harder than I did,” he said. “I wanted to be a corporate attorney. I did that for 5-1/2 years. For me, being a lawyer was a means to an end.”
One day, he and a friend, Wayne Law student Shawn Blanchard, were talking and realized that they were getting out of shape physically and that so were many of their friends. They were concerned, too, about the epidemic of obesity in Detroit. Using Facebook, they set up a running event that drew about 30 people.
Since then, the fitness movement they started has grown dramatically, and in 2012, they formed Networkingout LLC, a health and wellness startup company.
On Jan. 30, Thompson left his job as an attorney with Bodman PLC to devote himself full time to his new venture.
“Leaving a legacy is extremely important to me,” Thompson said. “What’s more important than giving someone a new lease on life?”
The Cass Tech students said they were inspired by his talk.
“It doesn’t matter what you want to be, if you work hard you’ll get where you want to be,” said 10th-grader Ayanna King after hearing Thompson speak.
Ninth-grader Beania Seupersad, who wants to be a lawyer, said, “I can do the same thing. He inspired me to work a little harder.”
The students then broke into groups. One group held a mock trial in Wayne Law’s Moot Courtroom, and the other formed a “jury” to sentence a fictional 17-year-old caught selling drugs for the first time. They talked about Thompson’s experiences and about second chances, they talked about the law and they talked about what it truly means to have a jury of one’s peers.
Thomas pointed out that the skills they were using to negotiate and reason as a “jury” were the same skills needed to go to law school and be an attorney.
“You have the ability,” she told the teens.
Wayne Law first-year student Cecil Roberson of Detroit chatted with the teens about his own life and advised them to make good use of opportunities, such as Discover Law Day.