Commission on Professionalism Releases Oral History Interview With Judge Edmond E. Chang, First Asian American Article III Federal Judge in Illinois

The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism is pleased to announce the newest edition in its Profiles in Professionalism series, featuring a conversation with Judge Edmond E. Chang of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

Our Profiles in Professionalism series provides in-depth conversations with Illinois lawyers and judges who are shaping the culture of the legal profession. Through these interviews, the Commission hopes to preserve the oral histories of prominent members of the Illinois bench and bar.

“Judge Chang’s journey from son of immigrants to the first Asian American Article III federal judge in Illinois is truly remarkable,” said John Kim, Chair of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. “His perseverance, integrity, and dedication to the rule of law have made him an important ally to the Commission and a role model for the next generation of attorneys. Judge Chang is a magnificent storyteller who captures the Asian American experience in the legal profession so profoundly.”

Developing a reputation as a ‘no-nonsense judge’

Judge Chang has served on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois since 2011. At the time of his appointment, he was the youngest serving federal judge, creating unique challenges related to experience and a perceived balance of power.

“I do believe that [my] relative youth at the time did cause some lawyers to treat me differently than other judges; that they would try to navigate around decisions or rulings,” Judge Chang said.

He credits advice from the “incomparable” Judge Ann Claire Williams with helping him navigate situations where lawyers tried to “take advantage” of his position as a new and youthful judge and also for helping him build his professional identity on the federal bench.

“You are relatively young, you’re a lawyer of color,” Judge Chang recalled Judge Williams saying. “There will be those lawyers who try to take advantage of that or see you in a different light, so develop your reputation now and make sure that you’re that no-nonsense judge from the start.”

Navigating the ‘foreign country’ of BigLaw

Before he was appointed to the federal bench, Judge Chang served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago, where he prosecuted an array of federal offenses. He was promoted to Deputy Chief of the General Crimes Section and then to Chief of Appeals of the criminal division. He also practiced employment law at Sidley Austin.

During the interview, he spoke about the challenges of being an Asian American attorney in BigLaw, which is largely led by white male attorneys.

“It is important, I think, to recognize that for Asian American lawyers and lawyers of color, many of the experiences that lawyers have, especially senior partners at firms, are quite alien,” Judge Chang said.

During a summer associateship at a BigLaw firm in law school, Judge Chang recalled attending the firm’s annual retreat at a golf club, a sport he had not played growing up in New York City.

“It was like, a foreign country to me,” he said.

Judge Chang also recounted experiencing shock and turmoil when a firm leader made a racist joke during a retreat reception, using an Asian speaker as the punchline.

“On the one hand, I thought, this is terrible. I’m going to just get up, I’ll throw the napkin down on the chair, and storm out of here,” he said. “But then I thought, when we’re done, I want to try to get an offer from the firm. So that crept in there, too. So, I just sat there; I did just sit there.”

Judge Chang went on to become the first Asian American Article III federal judge in Illinois and in the Seventh Circuit.

Rising above politics to ‘get the right answer’

Before private practice, Judge Chang clerked for Judge James L. Ryan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and then-Chief Judge Marvin E. Aspen of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. He credits these “marvelous” experiences with helping him develop his judicial philosophy and passion for public service.

“They said it’s very important to think of ourselves as public servants, not like public officials,” Judge Chang said.

He noted that both Judge Ryan, who had won a seat on the Michigan Supreme Court as a Republican, and Judge Aspen, who had been the Corporation Counsel of the City of Chicago under Democratic Mayor Richard J. Daley, advised him to “follow the law” and not to make assumptions based on their political backgrounds.

“I just want you to advise me on what the law and facts demand. That’s it,” Judge Chang recalled Judge Ryan saying.

The insistence on rising above political party to “get the right answer” is something Judge Chang said he admired about both judges.

In the federal courts, “we have no power of the purse, we have no power of the sword. All we have is our credibility to really persuade people to follow our decisions. So, in order to preserve that independence and credibility, we have to just apply the law, find the facts, give straight answers,” he said.

Giving back to the community

In the spirit of public service, Judge Chang speaks to 1L law students about building a reputation for credibility and professionalism from the start of their careers as part of annual Professionalism Orientations organized by his alma mater, Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, and the Commission on Professionalism.

The Commission collaborates with all nine Illinois law schools to present these orientations, which introduce 1L law students to the principles of legal professionalism.

During these orientations, Illinois Supreme Court and Appellate Court Justices and federal judges lead students in a Pledge of Professionalism, during which they pledge to uphold the principles of civility and professionalism during their careers.

edmond e. chang northwestern law orientation

As a federal judge, Judge Chang also has the opportunity to swear in new U.S. citizens, which he calls “one of the best parts of this job.”

As the son of parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan, Judge Chang stresses the importance of Americans not taking for granted the citizenship that so many fight for.

“You can’t really define what it means to be an American citizen by pointing to, as you can in other countries, one race, or religion, or national origin, or anything that divides us,” he said. “Instead, it’s ideas that unite us, like the idea of believing in freedom and believing that we are all equal. That’s how you define an American.”

Of administering the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America, he said, “It is so inspirational that we bring together this diversity of peoples and perspectives—that’s what makes our country amazing. To be able to introduce new citizens by administering the oath to them, it’s a privilege.”

To watch the complete interview with Judge Chang, visit our YouTube page.

About Profiles in Professionalism

Our Profiles in Professionalism series provides in-depth conversations with Illinois lawyers and judges who are shaping the culture of the legal profession. Through these interviews, the Commission preserves the oral histories of prominent members of the Illinois bench and bar.

To view more Profiles in Professionalism interviews, click here.

About the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism 

The Illinois Supreme Court established the Commission on Professionalism under Supreme Court Rule 799 to promote integrity, professionalism, and civility among the lawyers and judges of Illinois, to foster a commitment to the elimination of bias and divisiveness within the legal and judicial systems, and to ensure those systems provide equitable, effective, and efficient resolution of problems for the people of Illinois.

The Commission achieves this mission through professional responsibility CLE, lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring, legal professionalism programming, educational resources, and more. To learn more, visit and follow us on social media.

Press Contact 

Laura Bagby, Communications Director

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