Interviewed by Kenny Matuszewski
Now celebrating its 20th Anniversary, the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin’s 40 Under Forty recognizes rising stars in the legal community. Past winners come from all practice areas and settings, including the government, private practice, and in-house. The one thing they all share is their commitment to excellence and dedication to the legal profession.
Judge LaShonda A. Hunt, United States Bankruptcy Judge in the Northern District of Illinois, has spent most of her career riding up and down the elevators in the Dirksen Federal Building (“Dirksen”). Even during the pandemic, she has a typical schedule for a judge: handling a busy remote court call, researching and writing opinions, and studying to learn more about bankruptcy law.
But the world Judge Hunt grew up in never intersected with Dirksen, the building that she would spend more time in than any other over the course of her career. This was because Judge Hunt grew up poor and lived in public housing in Chicago. Judge Hunt’s childhood experiences gave Judge Hunt a keen understanding of the world, which allowed her to excel in her studies. Beginning her academic career at CPS schools, Judge Hunt then attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (“UIUC”) for college, and the University of Michigan for law school. Her work ethic and aptitude allowed her to attend both UIUC and the University of Michigan on scholarships. Notably, she received a full-ride scholarship to UIUC.
Judge Hunt wanted everyone to have access to justice. This pushed her to dedicate her career to public service, even during her time as a Litigation Associate at a major law firm, and as In-House Counsel at Exelon. At Exelon, Judge Hunt served as the legal department’s Pro Bono/Community Service Coordinator. While many would be intimidated by working in so many different environments and learning different cultures and unwritten rules over the years, Judge Hunt found a way to make it work for her. Each place she worked at she shifted her mindset in order to succeed. Judge Hunt did this because she applied her past knowledge and experience in order to understand a new workplace’s expectations.
She also realized early on that there is no traditional career path. This was based on her own experiences. Two years out of law school, Judge Hunt was pregnant with her first child. After she returned from maternity leave, Judge Hunt went on a reduced work schedule. Such a working arrangement was uncommon when Judge Hunt started her career, but she was lucky enough to have support from her colleagues. One year later, Judge Hunt left her firm to begin her clerkship at the Seventh Circuit, wanting a better work-life balance.
Judge Hunt would not regret her decision to clerk. She loved that she was able to focus more on legal research and writing and engage in more opportunities to analyze precedent. But clerking did not just allow Judge Hunt to engage in the type of work she loved more frequently. She also met the person who lifted her up and helped her climb far beyond her imagination: Judge Ann Claire Williams (ret.), her mentor. Judge Hunt met Judge Williams early on as a Staff Attorney at the Seventh Circuit. Upon first impression, Judge Hunt felt there was something special about Judge Williams.
Judge Hunt’s intuition was correct. Judge Williams broke several barriers in the legal profession throughout her career. Not only was Judge Williams the youngest judge to be appointed a district court judge in history in the Northern District of Illinois, but she was also the Seventh Circuit’s first African American judge. Judge Williams also saw promise in Judge Hunt, and immediately took Judge Hunt under her wing. Starting as a mentoring relationship, they have become close friends over the years. Notably, whenever Judge Hunt has a question or wants to discuss an opportunity, she will go to Judge Williams first for advice. She also credits Judge Patricia Brown Holmes’ (ret.) guidance for her success. Notably, all three women met through the Black Women Lawyer’s Association of Greater Chicago, Inc. (“BWLA”).
Affinity bar associations like BWLA helped Judge Hunt tremendously. Affinity bars are a place where people who are different are welcomed, understood and seen, according to Judge Hunt. They become even more important for people who are in a professional environment traditionally unwelcoming of diversity and difference.
According to Judge Hunt, BWLA and similar organizations celebrate their members and help them gain confidence, learn the unwritten rules of the legal profession, and understand how to navigate in these environments. Judge Hunt particularly learned how to lead fellow lawyers, how to resolve conflicts, how to make decisions on behalf of a group, and how to develop accountability from BWLA. She rose quickly through the organization’s ranks, cumulating with her term as President from 2015-2016.
Soon after her Presidency in BWLA ended, Judge Hunt reached back out to Terry Murphy, a dear friend and past Director of the Chicago Bar Association (“CBA”), to talk about opportunities to apply the skills she learned leading BWLA to help make the CBA even better. A couple years later, Judge Hunt was appointed to the CBA’s Board of Managers. She found that working her way up through a smaller bar association was an excellent launching pad to prepare her for what the CBA was doing on a larger scale.
According to Judge Hunt, it is crucial to think about trajectory early in a legal career. She advised that the easiest way to get on the right trajectory is by joining a bar association. Young attorneys can start out by by joining an organization’s Committee. Then, they can become a Chair of the Committee, and climb even higher in the organization. While a certain amount of time must be invested into these organizations, Judge Hunt finds that the benefits of being connected with a supportive network is well worth that time. Even after her Presidency, Judge Hunt is still involved in BWLA. Much like Judge Williams and Judge Holmes Brown, she supports BWLA’s new leadership, and their efforts to move on up to larger organizations.
All of Judge Hunt’s work paid off when she won the 40 Under Forty award in 2006. When Judge Hunt found out she won, she was shocked. At the time, she thought it was reserved only for people in big law, since they were the most frequent recipients. Once again, Judge Hunt stood out from her peers, because one of the reasons she won the award was because she developed a program to diversify the legal profession.
In 2006, Judge Hunt worked at Just the Beginning Foundation (“JTBF”), a non-profit that Judge Williams helped found in 1992 to honor the accomplishments of African American federal judges. Eleven years into her legal career, Judge Hunt was a wife and mother of three young children under the age of ten. Even though she loved doing civil litigation at the U.S. Attorneys’ Office, the need for better work/life balance arose yet again. JTBF was the opportunity she needed to reset. It ended up revitalizing Judge Hunt, who dove into her new role as a School Projects Director.
While Just the Beginning was originally founded to help diverse and underrepresented law students, studies soon showed that in order to develop a pipeline, organizations needed to start much earlier in a child’s life. Thanks to a grant from the Law School Admission Council, Judge Hunt developed the Summer Legal Institute, a program for high school students to learn about the legal profession. Judge Hunt would take her students to courtrooms and ask if they knew anyone impacted by the legal and criminal justice systems. Invariably, a few students would answer that they did. She also brought in guest speakers who shared her students’ backgrounds. Representation mattered to Judge Hunt, because she found that students were more likely to succeed if they saw a person who looked like them achieving success in their career.
In addition to these serious conversations, Judge Hunt made time to have fun with the students. Many of them had never been downtown, even though they grew up only a few miles away in the same city. The students were especially spellbound by the skyscrapers. These buildings offered a view of the whole city and a sensation they had never experienced before: being on top of the world, both physically and metaphorically.
The Summer Legal Institute had a modest start and hosted an inaugural class of 35 students. But the intent was always to see the program expand, both in Chicago and across the country. Today, the Summer Legal Institute has served more than 1,000 students across 7 states and works with both high school and middle school students. Many of the materials Judge Hunt developed fourteen years ago are still used today. Working with JFTB and the many supportive federal judges reminded Judge Hunt of her own dream of ascending to the federal bench.
The idea of being a judge was planted in Judge Hunt’s mind when she first spent three years as a Staff Attorney at the Seventh Circuit, and an additional two years in the district court clerking for the Hon. William J. Hibbler. After working with so many judges, she gained a unique insight into the qualities needed to succeed in the judiciary. Judge Hunt found that judges did what was right under the law and solved problems, which fit her personality. She also loved research and writing, and even taught it to law students. She was also intrigued by learning about different areas of the law.
Before she joined the bench, Judge Hunt was mostly a general civil and commercial litigator in federal court. The only time she even touched a bankruptcy matter occurred when she worked in-house at Exelon. This did not matter to Judge Hunt, because she always liked the subject area and even took a bankruptcy class in law school. She also figured that she could take her experience as a generalist and figure out a statute as complex and byzantine as the Bankruptcy Code. According to Judge Hunt, if she could interpret one statute, she could interpret them all.
Also, the Seventh Circuit was open to considering non-bankruptcy lawyers for bankruptcy judge openings and thanks to her previous jobs in federal court, she had a sterling reputation. As a result, as soon as there was a vacancy in the Bankruptcy Court, Judge Hunt applied but was not selected. Judge Hunt had tried to learn what it took to become a judge by serving on the CBA’s Judicial Evaluation Committee and chairing BWLA’s Judicial Evaluation Committee, but it was far more complicated than she thought. When another vacancy arose, Judge Hunt decided to try again. The stars aligned this time and led to her appointment to the Northern District of Illinois Bankruptcy Court.
Judge Hunt is one of the very few 40 Under Forty winners to later become a judge, since many winners choose to stay in private practice. But Judge Hunt has found that there are many interesting and complex problems to solve as a judge. Even though she loves being a judge, Judge Hunt found there were some challenges with the new job at first. Instead of being an advocate for a client, she now calls balls and strikes as a neutral party. Over time, she learned to take a step back and not ask the litigants too many questions. It was more important to let them tell the judge their arguments. Another challenge was the unique quirks of the Bankruptcy Court. Unlike the District Court, the Bankruptcy Court never stopped its court calls, even during the height of the pandemic. Judge Hunt said that this happened due to the staggering number of cases in Bankruptcy Court. If operations came to a halt, the system would fall apart. But Judge Hunt has adapted to both her docket and the challenges of handling a remote court call during a pandemic.
While Judge Hunt has many fond memories of her time in Dirksen, her favorite ones involved her time clerking for Judge Hibbler. Both a mentor and father figure to Judge Hunt, Judge Hibbler told her that he dreamed about his law clerks becoming judges. Judge Hunt also appreciated him taking the time to sit down with her and explain why he did certain things. Watching Judge Hibbler at settlement conferences or court calls was also a treat, and foreshadowed Judge Hunt’s own judicial style years later. Unfortunately, Judge Hibbler never got to see Judge Hunt become a judge. After he passed in 2012, his courtroom deputy gave Judge Hunt his last gavel. She treasures this gift, and hopes to be as gracious, kind, and patient as Judge Hibbler was in her own judicial career.
In honor of Judge Hibbler, Dirksen founded the Hibbler Memorial Pro Se Center (“Hibbler Desk”) on the twenty-fifth floor. Helping pro se litigants, the Hibbler Desk is staffed by volunteer attorneys who work on employment matters, civil rights, and even appeals to the Seventh Circuit. Just before she joined the bankruptcy court, Judge Hunt was able to volunteer for a few months at the Hibbler Desk. Working on behalf of Judge Hibbler’s legacy was a huge honor for Judge Hunt and taught her so much about dealing with pro se litigants.
Similar to how Judge Hunt, her career, and Dirksen changed over the years, so too have opportunities for black women lawyers. She tells the young black women lawyers she mentors that compared to when she started, there are more diversity and inclusion initiatives, and that firms, corporations, and the government are taking these issues more seriously. When Judge Hunt started, no one would seriously talk about these issues. The fact that people are even willing to listen is a good start, even if the numbers are still as low as they were when she began her legal career. Judge Hunt also noted that these issues are not unique to the legal profession. Professions all over the country face are facing these problems. While the glass ceiling still has not shattered, a greater number of people are beginning to bump up against the glass to confront issues of systemic inequality. Judge Hunt notes that this is due to young lawyers’ and young people’s efforts. She is confident that they will lead the charge to finally have the legal profession become the standard-bearer of justice.
Judge Hunt concluded with some advice to young lawyers: to stop worrying, and that life would turn out just fine. While the statement sounds simple, it is especially significant for Judge Hunt. Despite living in poverty during her childhood and being the first lawyer in the family, Judge Hunt has achieved success beyond most attorneys’ wildest dreams. The reason why is simple: she has tried to lead by example, lifting others throughout her career as she climbed and giving back to serve those in need.
About Judge Hunt:
LaShonda A. Hunt was sworn in as a United States Bankruptcy Judge for the Northern District of Illinois on January 6, 2017. Prior to her appointment to the bench, Judge Hunt had a distinguished career in government service as General Counsel of the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, Chief Legal Counsel of the Illinois Department of Corrections, and an Assistant United States Attorney in Chicago. Judge Hunt was also a law clerk to the Honorable William J. Hibbler, United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois and staff attorney at the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. She spent several years in private practice.
Judge Hunt has held numerous leadership positions in the legal community. She served on the boards of the Chicago Bar Association and Chicago Bar Foundation, and is a past president of the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago, Inc. She is also a Leadership Greater Chicago Fellow (Class of 2013). She received the PILI Distinguished Alumni Award (2007) and was recognized by the Law Bulletin in 2006 as one of “40 Illinois Attorneys Under Forty to Watch.”
Judge Hunt earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana and her law degree from the University of Michigan.