Cecil Thomas ’06 was 15 years old when he decided he wanted to be a lawyer. The son of immigrants, Thomas had come to realize that the legal system in the United States consisted of a complicated framework of laws and norms to which he was not privy.
“We’re a country defined by laws,” he said. “After a family experience I had around 15, one where we lacked access and resources, I started to realize there was an entire system that you needed a lawyer to navigate.”
His family supported him, Thomas said, but wanted him to be a physician. At his law school commencement, he recalled, he walked over to his parents, newly acquired diploma in hand, only for his mother to smile and say, “Great, now you can finally go to medical school.”
The law, however, was his calling. In high school, Thomas joined extracurricular activities that honed his ability to debate and argue. After graduating from Brandeis University, he arrived at UConn School of Law as a first-generation law student with one goal: to do good in the world.
In law school, Thomas found himself slightly out of place. Again, he sensed an unspoken set of rules and norms he couldn’t access. Despite the discomfort, Thomas found his place, working with the Connecticut Urban Legal Initiative and as a research assistant for then-Professor Phillip Blumberg. Clinical opportunities and summer internships helped him discover practical pathways to help people within the law.
Immediately after graduating in 2006, Thomas was hired by Greater Hartford Legal Aid, an organization that provides legal services to underserved communities in the Hartford area. He has worked for the organization ever since, primarily representing clients in housing matters.
At Greater Hartford Legal Aid, Thomas said, he has been surrounded by supportive, passionate colleagues. He recalled trying his first case in court, just days after passing the bar exam, with his colleagues and mentors in the courtroom to support him.
When Thomas was asked if he would serve as president of the Law School Alumni Association, he quickly agreed. “Saying yes has really worked for me,” Thomas said. “I believe deeply in the ability to do good through collective action.”
Thomas became president of the Law School Alumni Association in 2019. He helped navigate the school through the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced a move to virtual learning for part of the Spring 2020 semester and the entire Fall 2020 semester.
Alison Swain, director of alumni relations at UConn Law, said Thomas has been an innovative leader who has met the difficulty of the moment.
“Cecil’s determination to increase diversity initiatives, scholarship fundraising, collaboration and recognition of alumni enhanced the Law School Alumni Association’s programs,” Swain said. “He is a leader with vision, integrity and compassion, who encourages us all to do our best work.”
“The pandemic, obviously, changed everything,” Thomas said. “I really shifted my focus to raising money for the Law Students First fund, which helps students secure funds for their basic needs.”
Karen DeMeola, assistant dean for finance, administration, and enrollment, said Thomas has been an inspiration.
“Cecil's passion for access to justice and his commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, was clear even as a student,” DeMeola said. “His leadership has been a testament to his commitment to improving our profession, our communities, and our law school.”