Janelle Thompson at a law firm.

Elevating Justice

At one point, being a lawyer was the last thing Janelle Thompson imagined becoming. On the verge of graduating law school and joining a top law firm, it was the desire to make a difference for others that led her here.

If you were to ask her as a young girl, Janelle Thompson (J.D. ‘22), would likely have told you that serving others is just part of what families do. As the granddaughter of a pastor, she spent much of her childhood helping out at the church food drives, attending Bible studies, and lending a hand at funerals.

“It was a good upbringing,” she said. “It instilled the spirit of wanting to give and take care of people.”

Later on in life, the pursuit of higher education and eventually a law degree, crystallized this upbringing by setting the course for a service-based career.

She will admit that as a young adult, a lawyer was the last thing she could have imagined becoming. It took some prompting from an advisor at Penn State University, and her own family’s experience with environmental health disparities growing up in Pittsburgh, for her to make the connect between social, environmental, and economic justice that she was passionate about, and the law.

“With the air quality in Pittsburgh where I grew up, both my grandparents had asthma. My mom has it now, and my cousin, and these are all people that didn't have asthma before they moved to the city,” she said. “Looking at statistics, [poor air quality] disproportionately impacts people in predominantly Black neighborhoods. But when it actually happens to your family, it’s crazy. I had to do something.”

To truly do something for families like hers, who were experiencing disproportionate harm due to policies within communities and lack of legal access, Thompson realized it would have to mean going to law school.

“Honestly, I went to law school to kind of bend the rules and change the system,” she said. “And I realized that you have to know how it works if you want to change it.”

Her first challenge would be to find a place where she could be both challenged academically and supported in her drive to disrupt the status quo. She did not expect that place to be found in what she considered to be the conservative Midwest.

Janelle Thompson.

That perception transformed three years ago, while sitting beside her mom listening to the speakers at the UC College of Law during Admitted Students Day. When Dean Verna Williams spoke alongside two other Black women leaders in the College’s administration, Thompson said she and her mom knew this environment would be what she needed.

“I was blown away. I had never seen that before, except for at Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” she said. “It let me know that if I came here, I would have a voice too. It was really impactful.”

Of course, the challenges that come from the absence of representation in the legal field didn’t go away when she started her law degree. According to the American Bar Association, nearly all people of color are underrepresented in the legal profession. In particular, only 5% of all lawyers are African American, compared to 13.4% of the US population is African American. Even with the best intentions made by the College, Thompson soon felt she was not on equal footing along with others in her similar situation due to this disparity.

“When I first got here, I had a huge case of imposter syndrome. People seemed to already have everything figured out and I was so confused most of the time,” she said. “I felt like, ‘Oh my God, I am going to fail out of all my classes, I'm going to fail out of law school.’”

It was during those times that Thompson said she was grateful to be able to turn to her support system back home, especially her mom whom she talks to every day.

“My mom and my whole family would tell me how proud they are. And that helped,” she said, remembering how members of the church where she grew up even wrote her letters of encouragement. “I know that I'm very blessed to be getting this legal education and it's something that a lot of people, especially in my situation don't have. So if I can use it and be successful, that's my way of using my degree to make a difference.”

Janelle Thompson in downtown Cincinnati.

“I think my purpose is to lift people up, especially now that I'm in the legal field. To help as many people as I can while I’m here. This is where I’m supposed to be.”

- Janelle Thompson -

Janelle Thompson facetimeing with her mom.

Not knowing anyone when she first moved to the city, Thompson said it was a relief for her when women from the Black Law Student Association (BLSA) stopped her in the halls at UC Law to share contact information, invite her to study sessions and to just hang out. Today, she is the President of BLSA and has gone from knowing no one in the city, to fostering a list of nearly 50 local mentors whom she can call on as sounding boards and advocates any time.

“I think that UC Law, and Cincinnati in general, have the best support systems that I've seen,” she said. “There are so many cool organizations that you can hit the ground running with. It's pretty easy to find a community that you fit in.”

As she prepares to start her career as a lawyer at KMK Law Firm in downtown Cincinnati upon graduation, Thompson has only one fear: complacency.

“I don't want to just go into a career and get so caught up in it that I lose track of what's going on around me,” she said. “I think my purpose is to lift people up, especially now that I'm in the legal field. To help as many people as I can while I’m here. This is where I’m supposed to be.”

Janelle was an intern at KMK Law in the summer of ‘21 and worked as a law clerk for them throughout her third year. She is also a Fellow at the Jones Center for Race and Social Justice, President of the Black Law Student Association (BLSA), Secretary of the Student Bar Association, and a member of the Intellectual Property Club.

Want to learn more about our students and their journey to (and through) law school? Read their stories on the "Meet Our Students" page. See yourself at Cincinnati Law.

Author: Katie Bachmeyer

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