Prior to enrolling in South Dakota’s premier law school, Thomas earned her bachelor’s in interdisciplinary social science with focuses in public administration and sociology from Florida State University. Thomas took the leap to move from Florida to South Dakota and attend the Knudson School of Law “because of its values.”

“The law school values excellence, service and leadership, which are aligned with my personal and professional aspirations,” said Thomas. “I also felt that pursuing my legal studies away from Florida could broaden my perspectives and strengthen my adaptability.”

A first-generation student from Crystal River, Florida, Thomas has given back to the community in several capacities during her time in law school, particularly through her involvement with the Veterans Legal Education Group (VLEG), which provides free legal clinics twice a year to veterans and active-duty military and their families.

“This experience has allowed me to apply my legal knowledge in a practical setting and instilled in me a sense of responsibility to serve those who have served our country,” said Thomas. “Being a part of VLEG has been a gratifying way to bridge legal education with community service, fostering a deeper understanding of lawyers’ roles in supporting and advocating for specific communities.”

Thomas has also accrued 83 hours of pro bono work, which are not required for graduation but represent a genuine commitment to servicing others, Thomas said.

“This commitment to providing legal services to those in need reflects my belief in the importance of using my skills and knowledge to contribute positively to the community,” she said.

We asked Thomas about her time at the Knudson School of Law, and this is what she had to say.

What are you looking forward to after law school?

I am looking forward to embarking on the career I’ve diligently pursued. I have dreamed of being an attorney since I was young, and that dream is within reach. While I appreciate the academic environment and the learning experience, I am excited to re-enter the workforce and contribute to my community.

Before entering law school, I was set on practicing criminal law. While that still sounds rewarding, I am also open to exploring opportunities in health care, environmental law, and governmental affairs and law.

What have you enjoyed most during your time in law school?

The intellectual challenge it provides. I have expanded my understanding of the law and honed my critical thinking and analytical skills. I have also really enjoyed meeting people and developing friendships. I am not from South Dakota, so I was nervous that I would be alone and not find people I could connect with; however, I found my group, and I know that I will be friends with them for a lifetime.

Can you talk about your experience as a first-generation law student?

As a first-generation student and law student, I have faced and overcome challenges that have further shaped my commitment to these ideals. Being one of the first to pursue higher education, besides my sister, has instilled in me a profound appreciation for the value of education and the opportunities it can create. I am determined to break new ground and pave the way for future generations within my family.

Moving away from my family to pursue law underscores my dedication to my academic and professional goals. This decision required significant independence, resilience and willingness to step out of my comfort zone. I have a strong commitment to education, and I want to inspire others who may be navigating similar paths and who feel like they can’t make it out of their situation.

What has been your experience been like in the concurrent degree program?

I’ve had a fantastic experience in the concurrent degree program. Initially, I felt pretty nervous, given the substantial workload of law school alone. However, after navigating what courses were required and what courses counted as dual credits, I was confident and ready to finish both degrees. I also have found it easier to have someone I know who is also pursuing concurrent degrees because we have been able to exchange questions and support each other in staying organized. While other students are pursuing concurrent degrees, I am one of only two students pursuing an MPA degree. Having a fellow J.D./MPA student for support has been crucial.

What value have you found in studying both subjects at the same time?

There are many benefits to getting both degrees at the same time. The first obvious answer is that it costs less than to do it separately. This stems from the fact that the law school and the graduate school integrate credit hours or courses, allowing credits from one program to fulfill requirements in the other, which cuts costs and expenses for the student. For instance, taking a class like Criminal Law can fulfill a required first-year law school course and serve as an elective for the MPA degree. Essentially, this means obtaining dual credit for a single class. 

Secondly, some might argue that getting a J.D. degree should be enough to obtain employment, which is true; however, a significant number of graduates hold the same degree. Combining a J.D. with another master’s degree sets me apart on paper and may increase my likelihood of securing an interview. I also think obtaining a second degree is beneficial if you plan to practice in a specific area of law and explore that area more in-depth from a different perspective.

What makes a good lawyer?

A good lawyer should have a solid understanding of the law and strong analytical skills that enable them to assess complex legal issues, identify relevant precedents and provide well-reasoned arguments. A good lawyer also practices effective communication, ethical judgments and professionalism. I hope to be an ethical, personable, fair and trustworthy lawyer.

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