Lisa Thelwell

True to the law and true to yourself

Since graduating from the University of Florida with degrees in business and law, federal prosecutor Lisa Thelwell (BSBA ’08, J.D. ’12) puts her whole heart into upholding the law.

“If I were to make my school safer I would try to encourage students at my school not to bring weapons to school,” Lisa Thelwell (BSBA ’08, J.D. ’12) wrote in her 5th grade essay on school security. “And if they get caught with any kind of weapon(s) they would get suspended for one week.”

Lisa Thelwell's 5th grade, 1998 paper on how she would make her school safer.

Even in the 5th grade, Lisa Thelwell was intent on a career in law. In a 1998 essay, she describes how she would make her school safer.

Even in the 5th grade, Thelwell was intent on a career in law. From president of the Crime Watch club at her elementary school to her current role as a federal prosecutor in the Violent Crimes & Racketeering Section for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., Thelwell has demonstrated her commitment to justice.

As a young adult, Thelwell remembers watching a news special on TV relating to cases in which defendants were wrongfully convicted. The difference between right and wrong has always been plain in Thelwell’s mind, and she was eager to gain a position where she could protect the rights of victims and defendants, dealing judgements in accordance with the law.

“I’ve always had this desire to ensure some sort of fairness and protection, and a very much law-and-order type of mindset,” she said. “There is a natural desire to serve and make sure that everyone is being treated fairly.”

However impassioned, Thelwell had also heard that many students change careers in or after college. As the first member of her family to take a traditional collegiate path, practicality was important to Thelwell, so she enrolled at the University of Florida Warrington College of Business to gain a foundation that would be universally applicable.

Graduation brought dark clouds for Thelwell. Completing her degree in the midst of a recession made finding a job difficult, and she ended up in a commission-based sales role that she did not enjoy. Attempting to sell products to strangers in Miami taught Thelwell a lot about communication, but when she received her acceptance letter for UF’s Juris Doctor program, she was glad for a reason to escape.

“I came home from work on the day I decided to quit and my dad said to me, ‘you are the happiest person who’s ever quit a job,’” she recalled.

Once in the law program, Thelwell took on jobs that were still challenging, but a much better fit. As a certified legal intern with Gainesville’s public defender’s office, she discovered that she loved being in the courtroom every day. She co-chaired a petty theft trial, got to stand up in front of the jury, and deliver opening statements on behalf of her client.

Her second legal position was at the Miami-Dade attorney’s office. Though she would have preferred to experience living out of state, Thelwell wanted to be a state prosecutor, so she moved back to Miami to take on her first post-graduate position.

“I tell people all the time, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” she described. “It was a really tough job; I was working six-to-seven days a week, I would leave home in the dark, come home in the dark. It was just tough times.

“But I gained some of the best friends from that experience. It was a bonding experience because we were all fresh out of law school, 25, eager, and we were all struggling together. It provided a really solid foundation for what I do now.”

Like all Miami lawyers, Thelwell will tell you she got thick skin from working in that area. Her current role often requires her to travel out of state to prosecute cases in unfamiliar courtrooms, but thanks to her time in Miami, Thelwell isn’t fazed by opposition or a difficult court scene. Working with major crimes and special victims for seven years at the United States Attorney’s Office in Tampa, Florida, too, has given her a strong foundation in her skills as a prosecutor and strengthened her purpose to do her job well.

“There’s a lot of pressure in this particular job to be excellent, to make sure that you are turning every stone and doing the best that you can to make sure that you’re actually getting justice by prosecuting the right person, holding them accountable for what they’ve done, and helping the victims get some sort of closure,” she explained.

Advocating for special victims, and especially victims who are children, fuels Thelwell’s passion for her job. At the same time, she appreciates the challenge to remain neutral, respecting the rights of all parties in the courtroom, and is interested in becoming a judge one day.

“If you want to excel, it’s an independent thing,” she said. “You have to dig deep on your own time, seek out mentorship and really commit yourself to the type of prosecutor or lawyer you want to be, because no one’s going to force you to be that person.”

The University of Florida Alumni Association honored Thelwell amongst this year’s 40 Gators Under 40 list. In the past 12 years, her drive to serve her community and uphold the law has led to her conducting over 40 jury trials and numerous bench trials in state and federal courts. She was named Gang Prosecutor of the Year by the Florida Gang Investigators Association in 2019 and Florida’s human trafficking Prosecutor of the Year by the Florida Attorney General in 2022.

“To get recognized among all of the alumni out there as someone who [the Association] thinks is doing something pretty great is truly humbling, and I think it is reaffirming that I am doing something that is impactful,” she said. “At the end of the day that is something I’ve always desired, to serve but also to make a difference, so I’m really thankful and grateful to be recognized.”

For students aspiring to a legal career, she recommends staying true to the kind of difference they want to make in the world, even if it leads to a path that isn’t typically promoted.

“Stay true to yourself,” she advised. “Once you’ve decided for yourself what it is that you want, pursue it wholeheartedly. Don’t focus on what other people are doing; everybody’s path is different.”