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Best & Brightest: From Foster Care to Top U.S. Law Firm

Michelle McLeod grew up moving between foster families and group homes.

But she did not allow her often unstable living conditions as a foster child hold her back in what she wanted to accomplish in life. She is now a first-year student and a leadership scholar at the University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Law, and one of the 15 largest law firms in the world just awarded McLeod a prestigious fellowship.

The Reed Smith Fellowship recognizes students who have excelled in the face of economic and social barriers. The fellowship will provide McLeod with $10,000 for her second year of law school and give her the opportunity to work in Reed Smith’s Washington, D.C., offices over the summer.

McLeod, 27, does not recall a time in her childhood when she was not in Maryland’s foster care system. “I’m very unclear as to how I ended up in the foster care system. My mother lost custody of me and from the time I was 6 months old until I was 8 or 9 I lived with my first foster mother — who I consider my mother,” says McLeod.

“She’s a very important person in my life and set me on the path I am on now. So when I did leave her and go onto other foster and group homes what she taught me stuck with me” McLeod says.

McLeod’s ability to overcome the challenges she faced and her impressive academic achievements are why Reed Smith awarded her the fellowship, the firm’s Director of Diversity Tyree Jones, Jr. says.

“Michelle’s academic achievements are exemplary. She graduated magna cum laude from East Carolina University, that impressed us,” Jones adds. “Overcoming her personal circumstances and not only excelling academically but really giving back to the community by working with organizations like the Big Brothers, Big sisters Program and the Ronald McDonald House. Her academic excellence and commitment to community really made her stand out as an exceptional candidate.”

Though McLeod’s living situation continually changed after she turned 9 years old, she always adapted. “The biggest challenges I faced were educational because I did move around so much and from school to school,” McLeod says. “Kids rapidly adapt to any situation. I was able to adapt to what was going on around me, I was always surrounded by other kids going through the same thing.”

The woman McLeod calls “mom,” 79-year-old Gladys Thompkins, says the little girl she cared for is still very much part of her life. “I feel like she’s here everyday. She’s on the phone every 15 minutes saying ‘mom, mom?’ No we’re not apart, we’re still together,” Thompkins says.

“I was excited, I am very proud of her,” says Thompkins when she first heard McLeod had won Reed Smith’s fellowship.

Though she studied journalism and served as the first Black editor at her university’s newspaper, she did not pursue a news career when she graduated in 2004.

Instead, her first job after graduation was at a group home as a counselor to disadvantaged children. She also worked for Ronald McDonald House’s pediatric oncology center in New York, where she coordinated playroom activities for children with cancer.

Her experiences growing up as a foster child helped guide her career path, McLeod says.

“Just because of how I grew up, I wanted to see if providing direct childcare was the field I wanted to work in,” she adds. “It’s strenuous emotionally, you just want to take the kids home, take the pain away from them. For children you want everything to be roses and kittens, and when it’s not like that you want to make things all better. But it’s not possible.”

The emotionally draining nature of working with special needs and at-risk children made her reconsider a career in that field. “It’s not something I would want to do as my career, but something I will be continually involved with through volunteer work,” she says. Even now, in addition to attending law school full time, she volunteers as a mentor at one of the group homes where she once lived.

“After working in direct childcare I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I wanted to effect change on a higher level so I knew law school was where I wanted and needed to go,” she says.

McLeod says she was also led to the legal field because “the experiences I’ve had when I was younger in situations where I felt voiceless and helpless to effect change on my own as a child.”

She’s still figuring out what area of law she wants to work in but already knows what kind of work she wants to do on the side. “In terms of pro-bono, I want to work as a best interest attorney and work with children and families,” she says. “That kind of work is especially close to my heart.”

While she went through tough times growing up, McLeod does not regret anything. “I’m just thankful for all my experiences,” she says. “My childhood was for a reason. It made me the person I’ve become — a strong person, hard worker, someone who knows how to navigate the bad times and appreciates the good times.”


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