Michelle Ellis’ family lived off of a gravel road in Kennesaw, Ga. most of her life. The area was rural and teeming with wildlife back then, but these days the bustling suburb is anything but quiet. Over the years, she saw her neighbors get taken over by developers, which planted the seed for her desire to help communities remain resilient in times of change.
This was underscored by her experience interning at the Department of Energy as an undergraduate biology and math double major at Southern Wesleyan University in South Carolina. Seeing the scientists and engineers interact with lawyers made her want to go to law school in order to help people. After taking four years away from school to delve into her interests, she decided it was time to earn her law degree. She says that Georgia State Law provided the right combination of value and opportunity.
Now, in her first year of working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), she’s worked on hurricane relief and COVID-19 in order to give states the resources they need to thrive.
What made you choose Georgia State Law?
It was the best value. I ended up going to law school with no student loans. I got a graduate assistantship, partial academic scholarship and I worked part-time. My graduate assistantship was with Professor Jessica Cino. It was during that time that I was exposed to the Devonia Inman case—Inman was sentenced to life for armed robbery and murder, despite having an alibi and DNA evidence linking the crime to another man. I also had the opportunity to work on a grant project with her for the Department of Homeland Security. I have no doubt that my experience working on that grant helped me get my foot in the door with FEMA.
What class do you use the most in your practice?
At FEMA, there are two components to my job. I am an appeals analyst and then I have emergency response duties. For COVID-19, Public Health Law, which I took with Professor Todres has been invaluable. You got through a class and you’re like ‘I’m glad I know this, but when will I apply it?’ Now, you’re working for the fed and going ‘what did I learn?’ I would also say Administrative Law, which I took online.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your first year of law practice?
It’s not over if you don’t do Moot Court or Law Review. Your 1L year feels like it determines your trajectory, which it can, but it doesn’t have to. I had an average GPA. I worked a lot, so I didn’t do your typical law school things. Use GSU’s other ways of getting experience, such as externships. You can build your resume the non-traditional way.
What advice would you give to recent law school graduates?
Some seasons last longer for others and that’s okay. I got an email from FEMA saying that I wasn’t qualified for the job, and two months later I got an email requesting an interview. If you have to take a job that’s not a law job to make ends meet, take the job. I got my FEMA job a couple of weeks after I found out I passed the bar, so I didn’t graduate with a job. Don’t give up.
Interview by Kelundra Smith