Aug. 17, 2010 – As the first woman State Public Defender in Wisconsin, and one of only a very few across the country, there are a lot of expectations for Kelli Thompson. But she’s unfazed.
“I can’t imagine a better place to work,” Thompson said. “I’m surrounded by people who have made a commitment to our state’s poorest people – these are the most dedicated people you can imagine.”
Earlier this year Thompson succeeded Nick Chiarkas, who had retired after serving 22 years as the chief public defender. Thompson is a 12-year veteran in the State Public Defender’s (SPD) office – starting as an intern while a student at Marquette Law School.
“I was lucky to have had some amazing mentors,” Thompson added. “I started in the Milwaukee Trial Office, and Kim Marotta and Paige Styler took me under their respective wings.”
“Kelli is a great communicator and really understands the mission of the public defender’s office,” said Paige Styler, attorney manager at the SPD Milwaukee Trial Office. “She’s never stopped practicing law – she still comes down and does client intake with us, or second chairs homicide cases. She’s really committed to the work and understands the poverty issues of our clients and their needs.”
Thompson said that at the time she started as an intern at SPD she had no intention of becoming a trial lawyer, but found the justice system compelling after her first meeting with a judge.
“It’s definitely an adversarial system, but there is a mutual respect and camaraderie – everyone plays an important role in the justice system and we all realize that,” she added.
Thompson spent five years in the Milwaukee public defender’s office before taking a leave of absence to spend time with her family and briefly entering the private sector. Struggling with how to balance her personal life with a very demanding job was something she thought a lot about.
“In this job people work around the clock, late into the night, on weekends,” Thompson said. “I was nervous about how I would balance all that with a family, even though I had great role models.”
When an opening in the SPD administration division came up, Nick Chiarkas called Thompson to ask her if she’d consider coming back. “It was a great opportunity to get back into the agency,” Thompson added, “and I was able to work with the staff in a statewide role.”
Thompson then moved on to the deputy public defender position, which she held for seven years, and then as interim public defender when Chiarkas retired in January 2011. She was named state public defender in April.
Several months into her new role as the state’s top public defender, Thompson is quickly adjusting to the pace while keeping her finger on the pulse of trial work.
After a lengthy hiring freeze, new legislation passed last year allowing the SPD to hire more lawyers to serve as public defenders, Thompson said. “So there has been a lot of activity around adding and training new staff. Getting all those people trained and working is a big challenge for our agency.”
The hiring of additional SPD lawyers will have a positive impact on the budgets of counties statewide. Without enough public defenders, the counties have hired outside counsel to represent defendants eligible for public defense. “This will close a big gap and reduce some of the financial burden on counties,” Thompson added.
More attorneys in the SPD office also means more people in the state will have representation. “The eligibility guidelines were changed to 115 percent of poverty guidelines, so this will allow us to represent more of the working poor,” Thompson added.
Thompson sees immigration issues playing a complicating role for many SPD clients, along with the resulting language barriers.
“We’re also taking a more holistic, or ‘wraparound’ approach, to our clients, who are dealing with employment issues, educational barriers, and issues with their children,” Thompson said. “We are trying to find a way to work with them so we don’t see them again and again.”
Thompson noted that many involved in the judicial system are working together through collaborative projects to address the root causes of crime. “When you see the district attorney’s office, state public defender’s office, judges, the department of corrections, and health and family services coming together to try to ensure we don’t see these defendants again, it’s really amazing,” Thompson added.
In addition to her role as state public defender, Thompson is a busy mother of three.
“I’m most proud of my three beautiful girls,” Thompson said. “They know way too much about my work, but when I leave my children every day, I feel like I’m making a difference, and they know that. They’re proud of their mom.”
“I think she is an amazing young woman,” Nick Chiarkas said. “She believes in representing our clients, the state’s poorest citizens. This job takes courage every single day, and I think she is the right leader at the right time.”
About the author
Deborah Spanic is a freelance writer and corporate counsel for Johnson Controls Inc., Milwaukee.