I had an early interest in the law from my childhood. It was wholly inspired by reading. I remember reading Nancy Drew novels. Her father was a lawyer. Having read every one of those mystery novels cover-to-cover, I was exposed to what a lawyer’s life may look like day-to-day, but since I didn’t have any lawyers in my family, I didn’t know all that it would entail.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I witnessed it firsthand.
The summer of my freshman year at University of Illinois, I got a summer job in my hometown at the law firm Hartzell Tucker, where I was brought on as sort of a “gopher”. I ran a lot errands to file documents manually in various counties, worked in the law library updating pocket parts, and often filled in for some of the firm’s legal secretaries.
From there forward, most of my summer and winter breaks were spent working in law firm settings.
Having graduated with an accounting degree and a CPA under your belt, when did you decide to go to law school?
I had always toyed around with the idea of going to law school, but I always had a real knack for accounting, so I continued to pursue that career path. Even before I graduated, I was wined and dined by many of the accounting firms in Chicago. But being from a small farm town, I wasn’t quite ready to make that big of a move upon graduation. However, I did receive a great offer from McGladrey in Champaign. Therefore, I decided to practice as a public accountant for two years, before applying to my alma mater, the University of Illinois, for law school.
Tell me a little bit about your journey to becoming a judge.
As president of the Women’s Bar Association, I got to know Justice Mary Ann McMorrow, and discussed the idea of being a judge with her, including asking for an interim appointment. However, I never did receive one. So, I started to apply for associate judge, US magistrate judge, and bankruptcy court judge roles; nearly everything that was by appointment.
I eventually ran and was elected judge for the Circuit Court of Cook County in 2008. I spent three months in Traffic Court before making my way into the Domestic Relations Division.
So, I always tell people who ask me about becoming a judge to be persistent. If it really is your life’s goal, you have to keep trying and trying. You can’t give up.
Did you always want to work in Domestic Relations?
The only division in which I had ever practiced in the Circuit Court of Cook County was the Law Division, so I knew a lot about civil litigation. But, I was open to trying something new.
As I spent more time in the Domestic Relations Division, I grew to love it. You never stop learning, because it touches every area of the law. For example, you basically sit in both Law and Chancery when you work in Domestic Relations, because you can order specific performance and you frequently deal with money and property.
It also helps having such a wonderful Presiding Judge as Hon. Grace Dickler. That and a flexible assignment. Typically, I am assigned specially set, financially complex divorce trials, which has been great with my CPA background.
How do you handle civility in your courtroom?
Typically, since I handle such high net-worth cases, I deal with a lot of good lawyers – good in the sense of their ability and their level of professionalism. However, occasionally incidents arise. The first time, I see bad behavior in my courtroom, I may say something in a joking voice like, “You’re not going to do that in my courtroom – you do realize I am the Chair of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, right?”
I have my copy of the civility rules prominently displayed on the bench, so when they are looking up at me, the rules are right there as a constant reminder. It’s my way of showing them that civility truly matters to me.
Also, when I have law students or externs sit in to shadow me, I will always introduce the students and make a point to remind the lawyers to be on their best behavior.
Why does mentoring matter so much to you?
Back when I first started as a summer associate, there were no female partners at my firm. I was assigned a woman who was three or four years my senior to take me under her wing. However, other than the first day, I didn’t hear from her at all for the rest of that summer.
This is part of the reason why I have mentored so many women over the years, because I never had a female mentor when I first started out.
There was however, Mark Miller, the first partner I was assigned to work under as an attorney. He was a phenomenal trial lawyer. He taught me the art of good lawyering, and really helped me during my first five years of practice.
What kinds of things do you do to support your mentees?
I always encourage my externs to write, so they can get published and put it on their resumes. Being a good writer is crucial to being a lawyer.
Over winter breaks, I also host a group of law students for judge shadowing, where I have each of them bring in their own resumes for me to review. I give them tips on how to get interviews.
I also try to take them to various events in the legal community, whether they be at the Commission or with the WBAI, so they can network with other professionals in our field. In fact, I always take my externs to the WBAI Annual Dinner, because it serves as one of the best attended law events in the city.
In your opinion, what initiative or work of the Commission has had the most impact on our profession?
The Courthouse Professionalism Trainings are the best way for us to effect change throughout the state.
It’s not just lawyers and judges who are interacting with the public. It’s often the deputies, court reporters, security, and the clerks who act as the first line of people that the public encounters when entering a courthouse — all of whom help to create the public’s first impression of the administration of justice.
Therefore, being able to train across disciplines on the importance of communication is incredibly impactful.
What would you like to see the Commission accomplish in the coming years?
We all need to be educated on how to be better allies. Especially as we are seeing a lot of discussion right now surrounding the #MeToo movement. So, I am hopeful that our Education Committee will concentrate on how we can move the needle on issues surrounding sexual harassment in the future.
Outside of the Commission, how do you spend your time?
I have been on the Illinois Bar Foundation’s Board of Directors for 15 years, including a two-year stint as president, and remain active on their Grants Committee. I am also a Commissioner on the Access to Justice Commission and the current Treasurer of the Illinois Judges Foundation. There, we do a lot of work raising money for our classroom initiatives. One, for example, happens each year on Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday where we go out to elementary school classrooms in the state and read Abe Lincoln’s Hat to kids. I have also served a three-year term on the National Conference of Bar Foundations.
Outside of the profession, I spend a lot of time with my husband and two children. We love to travel. Every couple of years we try to make a big trip overseas, and we regularly make trips to our lake house in Wisconsin.
Judge Debra Walker has served on the Commission on Professionalism since its inception in 2005. She currently serves as Chair of the Commission.