Member Groups

The Challenge
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the Law

February 2011, vol. 21, no. 1

Interview of Sonni C. Williams, 2010 ISBA award recipient

The ISBA presented its Board of Governors Awards for 2010 to the Honorable Thomas R. Fitzgerald, the Honorable Alexander P. White, and Sonni C. Williams. The Board of Governors Award recognizes lawyers for exemplary service to the profession or the ISBA. The ISBA gives the award only when it finds worthy recipients.

When he presented the award to Sonni, ISBA President John G. O’Brien noted that Sonni formerly chaired the ISBA Standing Committee on Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the Law, served as a member of the Commission on Professionalism and as a member of the ISBA Assembly, and she acted as a leading organizer for the Peoria County Bar Association scholarship luncheon.

After attending the ISBA award ceremony, I interviewed Sonni to discover her professional motivation that led to such a prestigious award, and her thoughts about the importance of diversity in the legal profession.

Sonni, who is of Korean descent, felt that her gender and ethnicity excluded her from the male legal network early in her legal career. Sonni decided the profession had to change to include attorneys of all backgrounds to better reflect the community as a whole. Sonni points out that minorities often come from lower economic circumstances, and minority inclusion betters the legal profession.

As a first-year attorney, Sonni wanted to start an all-female committee to address issues women face when they break into the male dominated legal profession. At the time, a female judge advised Sonni that she could better change the profession by working from the inside rather than from the outside, and Sonni has followed that advice. Always active on any committee for which she serves, Sonni showcases hard work and dedication to stand out professionally. Sonni finds that the legal profession is still not a level playing field, and perhaps it never will be, but she believes that if others recognize her for her professional qualities and hard work, they will not pigeonhole her as a “minority attorney.” Sonni views her ISBA activities as an opportunity to make change within the profession, and notes that with these activities she is following in the footsteps of the changes initiated by Alice Noble-Allgire within the ISBA.

Sonni also fosters change from within the profession in her position as a judicial evaluator outside of Cook County. She enjoys her role as investigator because the review process creates a role reversal with the judges in that she asks the questions and the judges must respond to her. She thinks the judicial evaluations significantly help the voters evaluate the judicial candidates. An upcoming change in the judicial evaluations is that rather than using the current judicial rating system, the evaluations will include brief narratives on the candidates’ qualifications. When she interviews judicial candidates, as a way to highlight the impact of diversity on the bench, Sonni always asks the candidate’s position on diversity on the bench.

Sonni takes great satisfaction in being recognized in her field of work, which is municipal and local government law. Sonni, along with other municipal prosecutors, was involved with drafting supreme court rules governing procedures for prosecuting ordinance violations. The rules of civil procedure govern municipal ordinance prosecutions, even though the cases have quasi-criminal characteristics. In 2008, the Illinois Institute of Local Government Law recognized Sonni along with the other municipal prosecutors for proposing and drafting the new supreme court rules for local ordinance violations with its Annual Achievement Award. The Supreme Court Rules Committee recommended the proposed rules, which await the Illinois Supreme Court’s final approval.

Sonni has been a leading organizer for the Peoria County Bar Association’s Diversity Luncheon. Sonni notes that non-minority advocacy for diversity issues can make the arguments for diversity more credible to the non-minority legal population. Robert Jennetten, a non-minority attorney, started the PCBA’s Diversity Committee. The PCBA initiated the Diversity Luncheon to motivate high school students to become attorneys by hearing successful minority attorneys speak of their careers. The first speaker at the Diversity Luncheon was Robert Gray, who at the time was the incoming ABA President and the second African-American ABA President.

The Illinois Supreme Court appointed Sonni to the Standing Committee on Civility, which the Court later renamed as the Committee on Professionalism. The Court created the Committee to promote an awareness of professionalism by all members of the Illinois bar and bench. At the time, Sonni was one of two youngest members on the Commission. Members of the Committee on Professionalism traveled and attended townhall meetings of attorneys across the state to discuss civility. Minority attorneys at the meetings reported disparaging racial and cultural comments made to them by other attorneys. The reports highlighted the need for an awareness of the importance of diversity in the legal profession. The increased focus on diversity helps the profession understand and respect minority attorneys, thus increasing professionalism. The Committee feels the profession needs to change its public image, in that the public should recognize that a “good” attorney means a fair attorney, and not necessarily an aggressive attorney. With civility comes professionalism.

The final report by Committee on Professionalism to the Illinois Supreme Court recommended a mandatory Continuing Legal Education (CLE) requirement, that mandatory CLE’s include a CLE on professionalism, and that the CLE on professionalism include a diversity component. Sonni feels that this recommendation was instrumental in forwarding the importance of diversity to Illinois attorneys. In its studies of CLE courses on professionalism, the Commission found that less than 8% of CLE’s professionalism courses address diversity even though the rules clearly make diversity a professionalism topic. In Sonni’s view, the CLE’s on professionalism should focus less on ethics, which concerns the “floor” of professional behavior, and more on diversity, which requires attorneys to aspire to a higher level of professional behavior.

The Board of Governor’s Award to Sonni highlights the high professional standard to which Sonni holds herself, and makes Sonni a professional example for other attorneys to follow. ■