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The state bar, local bars, ethnic and other affinity bars - we all have a place, and we all need each other.
During the first half of my presidency, I've had wonderful opportunities to attend bar activities throughout the state. A number of these have been ISBA events, but as state bar president, I see the ISBA as the umbrella organization for all Illinois lawyers, so I've made a point of participating in dozens of programs with other bar associations.
When attending these events, I'm often struck by the contemporaneous nature of our differences and similarities. The differences can be geographic, racial, ethnic, gender, or practice-oriented. You name it and we now have a bar association for it. And for a "big" bar association, this multiplication of specialty bars could be considered a challenging erosion of its member base. Viewing it from a bigger perspective, however, the great similarities among us are uplifting and unifying.
The "Unity Dinner" is a perfect example. Over the last 11 years, it has become an annual event in Chicago to recognize the diversity of the legal profession as well as our similarities. In addition to honoring Advocates for Diversity, all bar presidents are invited to the stage to be sworn in together in a symbolic show of unity.
The first program had 17 bars including the ISBA. In 2013, there were more than 75 bar presidents packed on to the Hilton ballroom stage to take the oath! Hundreds of lawyers in the audience represented bar organizations of every flavor. Many good friends like CBA President Tim Eaton, past Asian American Bar and future WBAI President Judge Jessica Arong O'Brien, DuPage County Bar and Justinian Society Past President Rick Felice, Past President of the National Hispanic Bar Association Justice Jesse Reyes, and Hon. Leonard Murray of the National Bar Association board were all there.
A lot of name dropping to demonstrate leadership in an array of specialty bars and yet a common thread throughout: each person is an active and respected ISBA leader. We are fiercely proud of our individual differences, but we nonetheless come together in the ISBA as members of the bench and bar.
I thought about this recently when responding to a diversity questionnaire: "Do you believe that individual minority bar associations are more effective as single-minority groups or would they be more effective in collaboration as an alliance?" I considered it from my own experience.
I joined the Champaign County Bar Association when I was an assistant state's attorney in Urbana. I'm not sure how I would have met other lawyers and judges outside the office if not for my geographic county bar. And it gave me great leadership lessons as I "grew up," eventually becoming its first woman president. Granted, I was an ISBA member back then and loved going up to the big city for state bar meetings, but without my local bar, it would have been very difficult to learn the ropes in Champaign-Urbana.
When I moved to Chicago 10 years later I was glad I already had colleagues there from ISBA. I joined both the Chicago Bar Association and the Women's Bar Association. Having the common bond of being female made it instantly comfortable to network with other women in the WBAI. Serving on their board helped me develop professionally and I was excited when I went on the CBA Board of Managers a few years later. I needed all of these groups - county, gender, metropolitan, and state - to become the lawyer I am today.
It's a very long way of answering the earlier question: Both bar association styles are essential. Individual affinity bar associations are very effective but we also need to work in collaboration with the "big" bar. Certainly this is true for individual lawyers, but it's also true for broader issues.
Take the Alliance of Bars for Judicial Screening - where the ISBA and 10 specialty bars collaborate to evaluate candidates for judicial office in Cook County. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for some of the smaller associations like the Puerto Rican Bar or LAGBAC to separately run a thorough, full-scale screening process for every judicial candidate in Cook County. By collaborating with the "big" bar, however, each bar is able to have a voice in the process, making each more effective.
Part of what I enjoy about being ISBA President is sharing in those other specialty bars, learning their histories, and hearing their individual member stories. Last fall, I spoke at the 20th Anniversary Dinner for the Korean American Bar Association. KABA paid special tribute to their very first president, Mr. Kie-Young Shim.
Mr. Shim was born in North Korea in 1931. During his senior year of high school, the Korean War broke out and he volunteered for the South Korean Army. After only five days of training, he was shipped to the frontline and assigned to the newly arrived U.S. 65th Infantry Regimental Combat Team to push back the North Korean troops.
After the Armistice in 1953, Mr. Shim came to the U.S. to study at the University of Dubuque in Iowa. After graduation, he moved to Chicago to attend Northwestern University School of Law, where he was the sole Asian in a class of 150. He took and passed the Illinois bar exam but was not admitted because he was a South Korean citizen. He worked very hard and was eventually admitted to practice in 1963. The story of his perseverance to become an Illinois lawyer was inspiring.
As I travel throughout the state this year with my "ISBA umbrella," each new story I hear from a county bar outing, specialty group, law school audience, new lawyer, or distinguished counselor adds deeply to my understanding of the differences and similarities that bind us together as a larger society of lawyers.