The Impossible Dream of Judge Williams

judge williams

I remember the first time I met United States 7th Circuit Judge Ann Claire Williams. I was a third year law student interviewing for post-graduation clerkships. I traveled to Chicago from Ann Arbor to interview with her. I walked into Judge Williams’ chambers and greeted a woman in black-rimmed glasses standing among an immense array of pictures, awards and accolades. She reached out her hand and introduced herself quite simply as, “Ann Williams.”

I didn’t get the clerkship with Judge Williams that year, but I have been into her chambers many times since. A Detroit Public Schools music teacher who became a lawyer, a federal prosecutor, a U.S. district court judge, and sat on the Court of Appeals, Judge Williams transcends the American success story. She was nominated by both a Republican (Ronald Reagan) and a Democrat (Bill Clinton). She was the first African-American female and woman of color to serve on the Northern District of Illinois and in the three-state Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. She was the first African-American judge on the Seventh Circuit and remains the only person of color to have ever served on the Seventh Circuit. She teaches trial advocacy across the country. She has traveled throughout Africa and Asia to teach about the rule of law, trial advocacy and the justice system.

This summer, Judge Williams announced her retirement from the Seventh Circuit. As she did, I reflected on the many conversations I have had with her in her chambers over the years and how her career has served as a North Star for my career, and those of many of my friends and colleagues.

Building Chicago’s Pipeline Into The Profession

I’ve been at Judge Williams’ chambers to discuss Jumpstart for First Year Law Students, a law school prep program for diverse first year law students that she co-founded twenty years ago which has now been re-started in collaboration with the Chicago Consortium of Diversity Professionals. I’ve talked with her about the Minority Legal Education Resources (MLER), the bar examination prep program for law students, more than 4,500 to date, that she co-founded forty years ago. I’ve spoken with her about Just the Beginning – A Pipeline Organization, an expansive pipeline program that she co-founded twenty-five years ago that provides programming and mentoring for students of color and other underrepresented students from high school through law school to develop and nurture interest in the legal profession. Judge Williams is a tireless advocate of pipeline programming, ensuring that everyone, at every level, is given both the opportunities and the skills to succeed.

Empowering Women Of Color Lawyers

And I’ve been at Judge Williams’ chambers to discuss the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago (BWLA), an organization she co-founded thirty years ago. She is singularly focused on BWLA serving as an institutional resource for black women lawyers everywhere. “For years, Judge Williams has garnered the national support of legal trailblazers to speak at BWLA conferences and luncheons,” says Erica Kirkwood, current President of BWLA.

Her grace, intelligence and heart for philanthropy are second to none.

I can attest to that. I’ve sat with her while she pored over speaker lists and programming ideas, determined to find the most current, most on-trend, most important matters for black women lawyers to discuss. If she could think of a speaker, she could get that speaker to show. She would simply look in her Rolodex (or ask her long-time assistant Debra Perdue) and contact the person immediately and ask if they could attend. And they usually would. As a judge once said to me, “When Judge Williams asks, you say yes.”

Judge Williams Offers A Seat At Her Table

Judge Williams’ dedication to BWLA cannot be overstated. To be a black woman in a majority white and majority male profession is challenging. The unspoken, and spoken, assumptions made about temperament, competence, skill set, and pedigree are known to all of us. Judge Williams has countered that by creating spaces where black women can shine. She has served as mentor to hundreds of black women lawyers and judges. She remembers their names, she knows their careers, she has even officiated their weddings. Most of all, she offers her full-throated, whole-hearted support for their success. As Erica says, “Her BWLA vision has resulted in countless black women lawyers banding together and supporting one another in their professional careers and their personal lives.” Judge Williams has created a sisterhood of black women lawyers and judges. Because of her work, she has ensured that the space she will leave will be continuously filled by the many black women she has mentored and helped succeed.

Judge Williams often jokes about her limited cooking skills. But in my mind, Judge Williams has spent her life creating a feast. She invites you to sit at her banquet table and eat your fill, and as you leave, she tells you to make sure you invite someone else, either to her table or to yours. Lift up others as you go through this extraordinary journey of life. Her career is a living testament to that. She has consistently shown the importance of not just giving back but, as Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman put it at Judge Williams’ recent retirement luncheon, reaching down the ladder of success and helping others climb.

At the end of her speech at that luncheon, Judge Williams took a deep breath, and in front of an audience of hundreds, broke out into song.

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go.

Thank you Ann Williams. Thank you for running, and daring, and fighting. Thank you for living your impossible dream.

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

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