In a concerted effort to increase minority and women representation in ISBA governance, on November 2, 2007, the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Minority and Women Participation and the Task Force on Diversity presented a program on “Changing the Face of the ISBA: Tips on Running for Office in the ISBA.” In the joint effort to change the face of the ISBA, the program’s goal was to demystify the road to ISBA leadership for minority and women attorneys.
Cheryl Niro, the past President of the ISBA and the current Executive Director of the Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism; Michele Jochner, a member of the ISBA Board of Governors; and Sonni Choi Williams, secretary of the MWP Committee and an ISBA Assembly member, spoke about their experiences in the ISBA leadership, the leadership positions available, and how to run for those positions.
The speakers emphasized that this year, there is a great opportunity available for anyone who may be interested in assuming a leadership role. The ISBA has a number of open seats in the ISBA Board of Governors and the Assembly. Vacancies on the Board of Governors include 4 for Cook County, 1 for Under 37 Downstate, 1 for Downstate, Area 7. In addition, there are 26 vacancies for Assembly members for Cook County.
Cheryl Niro, spoke to the group of 18 participants about her experience in becoming the second woman elected to serve as president of the ISBA in the 125 year history of the organization. Ms. Niro told the group that during her ascent in the ISBA leadership, she always kept her integrity intact and shunned the “favor for favor” promises that were so prevalent along the road to the top positions at that time. But she indicated that the climate has changed, and the current campaign spending limitation levels the playing field to allow more underrepresented groups to get into to the 3rd vice-president race.
Ms. Niro advised that anyone who wants to get involve in the ISBA leadership should join a committee or section council that addresses a topic or area of practice in which he or she is interested and build a good reputation as a committee or section council member, and then run for an open position in either the Assembly and the ISBA Board. Ms. Niro stated that, for young attorneys, the best starting committee would be the ISBA Young Lawyers Division, which includes a wide range of attorneys from all different backgrounds and areas of practice. Ms. Niro reiterated that the ISBA as an organization is committed to inclusion of more minorities and women in its leadership.
The second speaker, Michele Jochner, announced that she would begin her efforts to trek the road to the top ISBA leadership position by running for the 3rd vice-president position. The 3rd vice-president election is a crucial step since it determines the ISBA presidency through automatic successions from 3rd vice-president to 2nd vice-president to president-elect and then to president.
Ms. Jochner talked about how she first got involved in the ISBA through her participation in the Lincoln Award Writing Contest her first year out of law school. When she won the contest the first year and then subsequent years, she met a lot of people in ISBA leadership through the awards receptions and other events. While active on ISBA’s committees, other female attorneys approached her to run for a position on the ISBA Board of Governors. Ms. Jochner told the group that her first meeting of the ISBA Board was intimating and daunting since she was one of only two women on the Board. Nevertheless, she enjoyed her time on the Board and now is facing the challenge of running for the position of the 3rd vice-president. She advised the group to be dedicated participants in committees and section councils so that others who recognize that hard work and dedication will lend support for running for an open position on the Assembly or the Board.
Ms. Jochner lauded the hard work that the MWP Committee and the Women and the Law Committee have done to promote more active participation from attorneys with diverse backgrounds. She echoed the speakers’ sentiments that the ISBA only becomes stronger and better with diversity.
The third speaker, Sonni Choi Williams, Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of Peoria and Assembly member for the 10th Judicial Circuit, spoke about why she decided to be an active participant in the ISBA organization. Ms. Williams told the group that in 2001, as a member of the Illinois Supreme Court’s Special Committee on Professionalism, she participated in a town hall meeting in Champaign on professionalism issues, including diversity sensitivity.
After the town hall meeting, a small group of attorneys, including Ms. Williams and Ms. Niro, discussed the courage of one lone female minority attorney who raised her hand to dispute her colleagues’ assertion that the Champaign bar was a welcoming bar to minorities. Ms. Niro recounted to the group her law school experience of being one of just a handful of female law students and being told by a professor that it was hard to believe that a pretty female student could be prepared and intelligently answer his questions in class. Ms. Niro reported this comment to school administrators, and for these comments and other misconduct, the professor was asked to leave the school. Ms. Williams stated that this story and the fact that Ms. Niro became the second female ISBA president, inspired her to run for the open vacancy in the Assembly for the 10th Judicial Circuit.
In conclusion, Ms. Williams reminded the participants that they too could be a voice to make changes and to inspire others.