I’m from the South side of Chicago in Bronzeville, and I take great pride in that. I’m a city girl, and I think that it shaped me into the person that I am today.
Where I grew up, everyone in my neighborhood knew one another. When someone was sick, the other families lent a hand. If you graduated from high school or college, everyone on the block gave you money and wished you well. It was a very nurturing environment.
That community made me a better person and a better professional.
When did you know you wanted to go into the legal profession?
My interest in law developed from my activity doing community organizing. It sounds a little cliché right now, but it’s true. I was involved in several civic and religious groups at a very young age, and law just seemed like a natural fit. I believed, through the legal process, a lot of change could be made, and I still believe that today. As I matured, I came to learn that change doesn’t have to happen on a grandiose scale. It can be small and just as impactful.
Tell me about your legal career.
I went into the law thinking I would end up in civil rights, and I did not. My legal career began with Florida Rural Legal Services working with Haitian immigrants as a part of the Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship Program – often referred to as the “Reggie” Fellowship Program. The Reggie Fellowship partnered with local legal aid services across the country, especially in the South. In the 70s and 80s, there were a lot of progressive people getting Reggie Fellowships working on civil rights issues, so that was consistent with my initial objective. But I only stayed there for a year or two before returning to Chicago.
When I moved back, I opened my own general practice, and that was when I began focusing on the civil side of the law. I started out taking a lot of divorce, domestic violence, and other cases within the domestic relations division.
After working in this space for quite some time, I decided I wanted to develop some sort of area of expertise. With an interest in environmental law at the time, I decided to take a position with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. There, I got a chance to do complex construction litigation, and ended up staying there longer than I thought I ever would. In fact, by the time I left, I was heading up the litigation division.
From here you went on to join the bench. Tell me a little bit more about that journey.
To me, being a judge was the gold standard for the legal profession. Having always been passionate about public service, I knew at some point in my career, I would like to get onto the bench, so I eventually ran and on the second try, was elected to serve in Cook County.
I started out working in Criminal Domestic Violence. Working in this setting taught me how to manage a high-volume haul, and ultimately, I believe it made me a better judge. From there, wanting to get back into a civil track, I was assigned to eviction court. My timing was terrific, because I moved over to this role in 2008 following the major market crash. I oversaw a lot of cases dealing with small businesses who were evicted as mortgages went underwater and rent rates started to climb.
From there, I went to the municipal courts, and started working on civil jury cases. I saw a lot of small personal injury cases like fender benders. It got me back into the rules of civil evidence and civil procedure. Then from there, I made my way to the jury trial section of the law division., where I handled even larger cases, until I was most recently tapped by my presiding judge to take over commercial litigation.
What has been the most enjoyable aspect of your work as a judge?
I love working with the jurors. One thing that really amazed me about the jurors is that they really take their job seriously. I know people stereotype jurors. But I’ve never had a case where after thinking about it, I did not understand why the jurors ruled the way they did.
One time, I had an 85-year-old juror, and it was her birthday, and she didn’t have any relatives in the city of Chicago, so the other jurors brought her a cake. Every night, they each took turns making sure she got home safely, too.
Seeing this really restored my faith in the population. People do care and really buy into the process.
So, I tell attorneys all the time to keep in my mind that the jurors are really paying attention to you, especially to their behavior toward opposing counsel. They are always analyzing you and are very observant.
Does civility have a place in your courtroom?
To operate effectively, there needs to be civility in our court system. Earlier in my career, I used to see a lot of ugly things. It wasn’t about trying to get to the merits of the case. Sometimes, people were trying to win through methods that undermined the integrity of the whole judicial system. I became very conscious of it, and I tried to make an effort to change my approach.
As a practitioner, it’s a waste of your client’s money to get involved in all the bickering. As a judge, it prohibits you from really doing justice. So, I have always tried to set a tone in my courtroom, even with my clerks and my sheriff, that we treat everyone with respect.
You can have a disagreement, but you don’t have to be disagreeable. Really good attorneys can appreciate that. They want to come in and just argue the law, rather than just argue.
How has mentoring played an impact in your legal career?
We each have an obligation to reach back. Even when I had my own practice, I would hire young people as runners. Young professionals who just wanted some exposure into the profession.
I mentor every day. I always have externs and law clerks. I am active in various bar associations where we have mentees. At least once a month, I have someone stop by having heard about my background, wanting to talk with me about how I got started, seeking guidance on what they should do in their legal careers.
I cannot identify one specific person, but I have worked with certain groups of people who have provided me with guidance over the years. The bar associations are wonderful about this. When you are a member of a bar association, they tend to act as village or as a family. They are there to give you pep talks and support throughout the course of your legal career.
Outside of your work as a Commissioner and on the bench every day, how do you spend your free time?
I’m very active in the legal community. Currently, I serve as the 3rd Vice President of the Illinois Judges Association, the association for the entire state of Illinois. In two years, I will be the president of that organization. In addition to this, I’m the former president of the Illinois Judicial Council, which is the African American judge’s association. Since the 1980’s, I have also been an active member of the Black Women Lawyers Association (BWLA).
Outside of my involvement in several professional organizations, I am very active in my church. Recently, we started up a legal aid program – the Micah Ministry – where we did outreach with lawyers in the church offering support to those in need.
Advice to young lawyers?
Have a full life. Don’t isolate yourself. Your career is not your life. You are a better lawyer when you develop each aspect of it.
For years, many lawyers thought if they just sleep in the law office and work around the clock, they will find success, when in actuality, that’s a road that leads to burnout.
I would encourage young lawyers to not neglect certain aspects of your life. Develop it all in order to become the best possible version of yourself.
Judge Diane Shelley joined the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism this year, and has made a point to get involved in the Education Committee.