After her first day as an intern at the Office of the State Public Defender, Kelli Thompson knew she had found her career path.
“I was completely hooked,” said Thompson, who’s now the Wisconsin state public defender. “This is all I want to do.”
As a law student, Thompson didn’t think she would ever practice law in a courtroom. But on the suggestion of her father, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, she gave the public defender’s office a try.
“My dad said you really should not graduate from law school and not ever set foot in a courtroom,” Thompson said. “You can hate it, but try it first.”
Thompson said it was the connection with people and the opportunity to provide a voice for defendants that solidified her decision to make a career in the public defender’s office.
“That feeling of appreciation that clients have when you’re fighting for them, that’s what gets you up in the morning,” Thompson said.
Thompson worked in the SPD’s Milwaukee office from 1996 to 2001. After a brief time working in public relations and government, she returned to the organization in 2003 and was appointed as state public defender in 2011.
Since then, Thompson has led the office through hiring and retention decisions, funding questions and more. She spent the last two years fighting to restore pay parity for public defenders, who had received less compensation than their prosecutor counterparts in the state budget. Her endeavors literally paid off in March when Gov. Tony Evers signed a bill to provide merit-based pay raises in the state’s fiscal year 2021-22.
“Her impact as head of the SPD has been to raise the profile, stature and credibility of the agency,” said Adam Plotkin, legislative liaison for the public defender’s office. “Clients, staff and Wisconsin taxpayers have all seen the benefit of her leadership.”
Although Thompson still tries to take cases, her top priority is ensuring her staff has resources. She said criminal law is harder than it’s ever been, but she encourages young attorneys not to let fear keep them from doing a job that they love or reaching across the aisle to find the right solution.
“Wisconsin has a wonderful history of working very collaboratively,” Thompson said. “Being able to sit down and look at a problem differently … can make a difference not just for the individual that you’re representing, but it can make a difference in your community and court system.”