Cooley grad eager to use her skills to fight for justice

Atlanta native was among the first to enroll at the Ann Arbor campus

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Juanita Thurman says she's not the same person she was when she became one of the first students at Cooley Law School's new Ann Arbor campus in the fall of 2009.

"I don't look at things the same way anymore," said Thurman, who graduated from Cooley on Sunday. "Once you go to law school, you think more in depth, and look at all the angles."

In fact, her old friends don't like getting into discussions with Thurman anymore because she'll pick the issue apart, and sometimes change directions so she ends up the winner.

"They'll say, `You know what, Juanita? Never mind!'" said Thurman, 26, with a laugh. "`We don't want to argue with you. We don't want to debate.' I'll have to learn to balance.''

When she was growing up in one of Atlanta's toughest public housing projects, Juanita Thurman didn't know what she was missing.

She didn't know about leafy neighborhoods free of drug dealers and rampant crime, or what it was like to have plenty of money.

Her mother kept her children busy with music and dance, which Thurman says was her escape.

"And I didn't know anything else," she said.

When she went on to the University of Kentucky, Thurman taught underprivileged youth how to dance hip hop. That's when she met kids in the juvenile justice system, realized the tough situations some young people face, and decided to go into law.

Thurman's career plans were solidified after she was sexually assaulted while on spring break in the Bahamas. Though she reported the crime when she returned to Kentucky, she was told there was little that could be done to convict the rapist, and might as well give up.

She said that sense of unfairness instilled within her the dedication to do what's right, and help promote fairness.

Cooley was the first law school to accept her, and she was intrigued when she learned about the new campus.

"I didn't know much about Cooley or even Michigan, period. But I knew I would love to be part of a new campus in Ann Arbor, so that was it," she said.

It's been fun to help create some of the school's first clubs and organizations, said Thurman, who was president of the Black Law Students Association. Though she found law school just as hard as she heard it would be, she was able to take five classes most terms, and maintained at least a 3.0 grade point average.

The Michigan winters took some getting used to, but she came to love Cooley, and exploring Ann Arbor. Especially the food.

"I didn't have that in Lexington or even Atlanta where you can get whatever you want - Thai food one day, Indian the next," she said.

She taught hip hop dance classes at the Kenville Studio of Dance and Creativity in Ann Arbor for two years, and whenever her mother down in Atlanta needed something, she'd send some money home.

During an internship in Atlanta, she gained experience in criminal defense and decided she'd like to become a public defender.

"When we were growing up, if there was any kind of situation, we couldn't afford representation at all," she said. "Sometimes public defenders don't have the best reputation, but I want to be someone who people will say, `She's fair. She cares, and she's willing to fight for you the best that she can."

Thurman knows she's entering a dismal job market, but is optimistic nonetheless.

"I'm hoping the networking I've done will work in my favor; I'm hoping to make contact with them," she said. "I'm a little nervous about (the job market), but I'm a positive person and I'm pretty confident that something will happen. I don't feel like, `Oh my gosh! I have to get a job!' It's going to be all right. I just know it."

Published: Thu, May 24, 2012

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