The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Government Lawyers
Someone you should know: Debbie Simpson, Assistant Attorney General
Debbie Simpson currently serves as the supervising attorney of the Labor Unit in the General Law Bureau of Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s Chicago office. Her arrival at the Attorney General’s office resulted from a long and interesting route with many stops along the way.
Deb graduated from DePaul University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in speech and drama. She received her law degree from The John Marshall Law School in 1984. While in law school, she served as a 711 law clerk in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. Deb credits much of her early development to the mentoring and role models provided by the Assistant State’s Attorneys she worked for in Markham. At first, Deb was shy and not really interested in the courtroom experience, but she got the “trial bug” from working with Assistant State’s Attorneys Terry Burns, Ed Cozzi, John Groark and Pat Quinn. By the time she was officially an Assistant State’s Attorney, Deb had tried ten felony bench trials and drafted numerous motions and various discovery pleadings. 300-plus jury trials later, Deb appreciates that her time with this group of dedicated prosecutors shaped her career.
Deb left the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office for the smaller venue of Vermillion County. After only a couple years, Deb earned the position of First Assistant State’s Attorney in Vermillion County and, along with that, assumed responsibility for all major felony trials, as well as oversight of the charging and appeals functions of the office. Deb’s first 50 trials were before future-Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman in the court’s misdemeanor division.
During her time in Vermillion County, Deb’s attention was focused on two separate areas of the law. First, Deb became involved with the investigation and prosecution of arson cases. She found an interest in the science and law enforcement aspects of such cases. Her efforts in this area resulted in a string of arson convictions, for which she was honored by the International Association of Arson Investigators and the Danville Fire and Police Departments, as well as being named an honorary firefighter by the city of Danville.
Her second focus was the advocacy of abused, neglected and exploited children. While taking the lead in prosecuting cases on behalf of these victims in Vermillion County, Deb’s commitment led her to an interest in developing a child advocacy center to more effectively represent children and the needs of the justice system.
Deb’s next move found her at the Kane County State’s Attorney’s Office in 1993. The seven years she spent in Kane County were some of her most fulfilling as a public servant and prosecutor. State’s Attorney Dave Ackeman was instrumental in establishing Kane County’s child advocacy center. Deb was tasked with making it an effective model for advocacy. She handled the vertical prosecution of abuse and neglect cases, as well as delinquency, misdemeanor and felony cases. Additionally, she assisted in the establishment of a unit designed to investigate and prosecute crimes against the elderly and to help them through the court system, all this while maintaining responsibility for trial prosecution of other felonies and serving on the Kane County fire and arson task force.
In 2000, Debbie she joined the Illinois Attorney General’s staff. She has worked in the General Law Bureau’s Administrative Review/Civil Prosecutions Unit for the past ten years. In that unit, she served as assistant supervisor to the group of lawyers who respond to emergency motions, injunctions and TROs directed at various State entities and branches of government throughout the northern part of the State. Deb also civilly prosecuted matters involving State agencies, such as the Department of Public Health’s and the Department of Professional Regulation’s enforcement of their statutes. Her trial skills have served her well in bringing actions against medical professionals accused of wrongdoing, seeking orders for the protection of citizens, as well as litigating nursing home actions for the protection of the elderly and challenged residents.
When asked for her most meaningful contributions and accomplishments to date, she replied: “working with abused and neglected children, helping them through the court system and getting them out of the abusive situations without letting the system cause them further abuse.” In addition, she also mentioned “being able to treat them all with compassion, listening to them tell me what they need to see happen to make life easier for them and giving them a voice and some control of the situation, which in all abuse cases is the one thing victims never have, control.”
Deb is gratified to know that through the years she has had a hand in shaping the perspective of young Assistant State’s Attorneys in their handling of juvenile matters. A suggestion from Deb on strategy, courtroom presentation, or “how to do the right thing for the people of the State of Illinois” is invaluable for new, as well as, seasoned lawyers. In addition to her informal mentoring over the past 25 years, Deb has presented dozens of training seminars on juvenile and criminal justice issues, missing and exploited children, arson investigations and prosecutions, DNA and other forensic sciences for the courtroom, as well as traditional trial advocacy litigation skills.
In her spare time, Deb has been a community college instructor and has been active in her church and community, teaching confirmation classes, as well as career coaching for high school students interested in careers in the law. Her other hobbies and interests are usually anything that involves interacting with one of her 18 nieces and nephews and cooking and baking. It is a lucky Assistant Attorney General who receives a birthday cake made by Deb. (Carrot and Red Velvet cakes seem to be office favorites.)
On the topic of what it means to be a good supervisor, Deb offers the following: A good supervisor must have an open door and an open mind. In a trial situation, a good supervisor must have patience, be a good listener, and show restraint as attorneys make arguments and present evidence in their own way, all the while keeping track to ensure nothing is overlooked. Further, a supervisor should help lawyers bring out their strengths and strengthen their weaknesses. Most important, a supervisor must be able to admit not knowing the answer to a question and be willing to search for that answer along with the attorney.
Given the opportunity to have a “do over,” Deb says she’s loved being a lawyer all her 25-plus years of government service. Maybe she would have explored other career options, but in reality, she knew from the age of nine that she wanted to be a lawyer and a teacher and make a difference. In this job, Deb says she’s been able to do it all. When crossing over from criminal prosecution to civil law at the AG’s office, she promised herself she would give it at least three years before going back to criminal law, just to make sure she gave it a chance. “Ten years later, I’m still here,” she says.
In the end, the countless kids of Vermillion and Kane Counties, along with her 18 nieces and nephews, her colleagues and all those she’s represented, are lucky to have had Deb in their lives. Deb Simpson, a person of the utmost competence and skills as a trial lawyer, blessed with compassion of heart, is a person you should know. ■