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Recent Wayne Law graduate already making an impact in community

March 31, 2014

DETROIT – Robert Thomas, a December graduate of Wayne State University Law School, says his business law studies prepared him to lead in the community – something he got a head start on while still a law student.

Thomas grew up in multiple foster homes in Detroit as a ward of the state. Today, he serves as leader of Foster Care Alumni of America, Michigan chapter, an advocacy group he founded during his second year at Wayne Law. He serves on the Foster Care Review Board administered by the State Court Administrative Office of the Michigan Supreme Court. He also became a member of the Detroit Board of Zoning Appeals while a law student.

Before he decided to go to law school, Thomas earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in industrial technology for manufacturing systems from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. He went to work as a mechanical engineer, as a patent examiner with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and then as a senior mechanical engineer and project manager with Alion Science and Technology.

He’s pursuing a 10-month weekend fellowship in Michigan Political Leadership Program’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University and studying to take the patent bar exam in May and the state bar exam in July.

“Wayne Law opened doors and gave me opportunities to lead,” said Thomas, who lives in Detroit. “I honed a lot of leadership skills while at Wayne Law, especially public speaking.”

He particularly enjoyed his experience with the Patent Procurement Law Clinic through Wayne Law’s Program for Entrepreneurship and Business Law.

“The patent clinic was a great opportunity to address patent law from the patent prosecution side,” Thomas said. “The services are all pro bono. The patent clients are only responsible for paying the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office fees associated with filing and prosecuting the patent applications, as well as formal patent drawings, if needed. Already having experience at the patent office gave me a little insight on what to expect while drafting a patent application, but the clinic experience was invaluable for me as I pursue a career in the intellectual property field. Wayne Law has a plethora of law courses surrounding intellectual property, including several courses strictly regarding patent laws.”

When he came back to Detroit to go to law school, he decided to get involved in the community. One of the first things he did was to become a member of the Detroit Board of Zoning Appeals, on which he serves as vice chairman.

“I consider it my civic duty to give back to the city I live in,” Thomas said. “I involved myself in municipal government as a volunteer when I worked as an engineer in Virginia, too. I bring that experience to the Board of Zoning Appeals, and I also bring in some legal teachings of (Wayne Law) Professor John Mogk, having taken extra interest in courses such as property and land use. It’s great to be a part of the rebuilding process of the city I love and that I was born and raised in.”

Thomas entered the foster care system at age 6.

“I experienced a multitude of placements in foster care homes and group homes,” he said. “At the age of 15, I was involved in a mentoring program under the Detroit Urban League. It was there I became part of a pilot independent living program where I was paired with a roommate in an apartment near my high school (Detroit Northwestern).”

He worked three different jobs to cover his rent and expenses while going to high school and playing football. When his roommate defaulted on the rent, Thomas ended up homeless.

“A local community activist stood up and took me in to finish my last year of high school,” Thomas said. “During my high school years, if I was not working, I kept myself busy by staying actively involved in sports and after-school programs. These programs exposed me to self-empowerment, responsibility, different cultures and ideas, and etiquette – things I needed to know to survive and move past my circumstances. They taught me I could do anything I wanted to. I embraced the idea and now I’m empowering others to do the same.”

One thing Thomas noticed about the foster care system was how few of its “alumni” like him were involved in creating its policies.

“To remedy this, during my second year of law studies, I assembled a great number of the foster care alumni in Michigan who were known as advocates of wards in care,” he said. “This was not an easy task, but I narrowed down a set of like-minded individuals into a group. We started the Foster Care Alumni of America, Michigan chapter, focusing our issues on what we noticed should change. Starting and leading this organization, coupled with already serving as president of the Black Law Students Association and chair of the Young and Powerful Group for Obama proved to be even more challenging.”

Today, Foster Care Alumni of America in Michigan has more than 50 members.

“This past summer, during my third year of law school, we held our first legislative hearing on foster care at Wayne Law,” Thomas said. “Over 60 directors and heads of agencies, including the director of the Department of Human Services, and state legislators lent an ear to hear the voices of young adults and alumni of the foster care system.”

Another such hearing took place recently under Thomas’ guidance. The ParkWest Foundation and Wayne State University School of Social Work were partners in the venture.

“Currently, we are drafting legislation to introduce a Foster Care Bill of Rights to the state legislators,” Thomas said.

He hopes he’ll soon be working as an intellectual property practitioner helping entrepreneurs and inventors get a good start. And he’s in the process of starting a mentor program for foster youth, particularly boys.

“I put an emphasis on mentorship, which I have recognized is one of the reasons I made it out of my situation,” Thomas said. “Others reached out to me, so, in turn, I’ve done the same. I currently mentor high school, college-age and middle school boys, including my 15-year-old nephew, who I care for full time. Mentorship and advocacy is a part of my life.”