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Lesbian lawyer lives her passion
by Stephen Sonneveld
2013-04-24

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Fifty miles south of Cleveland is Massillon, Ohio, where the once-thriving steel mills have now closed, and Friday nights are still reserved for football. An eclectic host of personalities have called "Tigertown" home, including straight white seismologist Jack Oliver, who discovered plate tectonics; straight white NCAA basketball coach Bobby Knight; straight white film legend Lillian Gish; and African-American lesbian lawyer Lori Lightfoot.

On April 3, Lightfoot returned to Massillon to receive the Distinguished Citizen Award, which the Canton Repository reported is awarded to Washington High School Alumni "who have made an impact on society by changing it for the better."

In an address to the students that morning, Lightfoot proclaimed, "I stand before you as a very, very proud product of this community," [and] "I trace every success and achievement I had ... to this wonderful place."

Lightfoot explained to Windy City Times that her small town "placed a great deal of emphasis on community, on loyalty to your neighbors, looking out for each other, so that was something that was really ingrained in me in an early stage of my life."

When Lightfoot was growing up, her mother served on the local school board, and examples such as that helped instill public service to being, as she puts it, "part of my DNA."

She continued, "I also believe that its important for those who've had good fortune in our lives to reach out to those folks who have been less fortunate, or who maybe need a hand up, and in public service, you can do tremendous amounts of good for people."

Although Massillon shaped Lightfoot's ethics, and no doubt its football fever helped the University of Chicago Law School student/quarterback lead her intramural team to an undefeated and even unscored upon season, there were some things small-town life did not prepare her for. "Let's just say I fully embraced who I am when I was in college," she said.

"My parents have always been very supportive, and my siblings have, as well," Lightfoot said, regarding her sexuality. "But by that time, I felt like I was [an] adult. [Still,] this was in the '80's, so it was still a scary time, there weren't many public role models—certainly none that I grew up with in my town in Ohio—so I think like every kid who is embracing who they are, you worry about how you'll be perceived, whether you'll be accepted, both from your family and also from people that are close to you, but I've been very fortunate in that regard."

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1984 with a B.A. in Political Science, Lightfoot worked on Capitol Hill, and ultimately decided to forgo pursuing a PhD in history or poly sci in favor law because, she told WCT, "I thought about it as an opportunity not only to do some good, but to have something that I could stand on my own two feet and have a decent belief in myself."

By 1989, Lightfoot had a law degree in hand, and her summer internship work had so impressed the partners at the Chicago office of Mayer Brown—one of the 10 largest law firms in the world—they made her an offer of employment. For the next five years, Lightfoot earned her reputation as, to quote Chicago's Law Department spokesman Roderick Drew, "a first-rate trial lawyer."

The official Mayer Brown biography cites Lightfoot as "a trial attorney, investigator and risk manager," and recognizes that "[both] as a civil litigator and as Assistant US Attorney in the Criminal Division of the US Attorney's Office, Northern District of Illinois (1996—2002), Lori has tried over 20 federal and state jury and bench trials." The cases Lightfoot were tasked with ran the gamut from prosecuting a serial arsonist, a murderer, and even an alderman, one Virgil Jones, implicated in the Silver Shovel bribery and corruption scandal.

Lightfoot told WCT, "After I left the U.S. attorney's office for working at [the city's Office of Professional Standards (OPS), now known as the Independent Police Review Authority], I seemed to have a knack for solving difficult problems and I got called upon by people that recognized my work."

Where the clientele at Mayer Brown included most of the Fortune 500 companies, at OPS, as she had at the U.S. Attorney's Office, Lightfoot would be looking out for the interests of the 99 percent, leading her 100-person office into investigations of misconduct alleged against the Chicago Police. In a 2009 interview, Lightfoot stated the greatest challenge of that unenviable task was "walking a difficult line between maintaining the integrity of the department and handling complaints against it."

Lightfoot confided to WCT, "I worked for very good people, and it was a very interesting and challenging time, an exciting time to be in the city, and I've never shirked from a challenge."

Some of those challenges during Lightfoot's three-year tenure with Chicago included the Herculean "total redesign" of the Department of Procurement Services' minority and women owned enterprise (M/WBE) certification program in the wake of a federal investigation.

"You may recall," she said, "but we went in at a time when James Duff was being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for creating a sham women-owned business, so it was in that atmosphere that we went in to right the ship."

The Associated Press reported in 2005 that Duff "had pleaded guilty to racketeering, mail fraud, money laundering and other offenses that victimized programs designed to ensure that companies operated by women and minorities get a share of city contracts. He admitted landing $120 million in such contracts by claiming that his 76-year-old mother and a Black friend were running companies that he controlled." He was sentenced to 9-years and 10 months, and ordered to pay over $22 million.

The ideal behind M/WBE, according to Lightfoot, " is to help create business opportunities for disadvantaged businesses, by that, meaning that are owned by women, people of color, people who have disabilities, veterans, for the purpose of trying to give them the opportunity to be a part of the thriving economic culture of whatever community it is."

Lightfoot recalled that at the time "there were a lot of questions and challenges to the viability of the program, both on the certification, but also concerned that there were entities being certified that actually weren't women owned, or minority owned, or disadvantaged businesses, and then on the back end, making sure that if a contractor committed to participation by one of these businesses, that the businesses actually got the benefit of that bargain. So, I was responsible for a complete redesign of that program both on the certification end, and in putting in a process to safeguard the contracts that were met, to make sure there was compliance with the contractual responsibilities that the general contractors took on."

In less than a year's time, Lightfoot, as interim first deputy procurement officer, had accomplished her goals to "right the ship" of both the program and the department. When she rejoined Mayer Brown in September 2005, it would be as partner.

Where the city had once employed Lightfoot to investigate allegations of police misconduct, it would call upon her in the private sector to defend the department, notably in 2006 when four men alleged they had been beaten outside a bar by off-duty cops. The Chicago Tribune noted, "The department was cleared, but four of the six officers were found to be at fault."

More recently, Lightfoot was brought in last December by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel to head counsel for the long-delayed Christina Eilman case, in which a bipolar woman pleaded for help while in police custody (Wentworth District), as did her parents in California via repeated telephone calls to the precinct, was called a "white bitch" by black officers, was released from police custody near the Robert Taylor Homes, was subsequently raped by a gang member who reportedly boasted, "I'm gonna show this bitch who the real killa is," and was either pushed or fell out of seven-story window. Though she survived, she is permanently disabled, both mentally and physically. The case was set to go to trial Jan. 21, but was settled weeks before, with the city awarding Eilman's family $22.5 million which will go toward her lifelong care.

Lightfoot made no comment to the media while she was assigned to the case, and when asked by WCT if she was satisfied with the verdict, responded, "Well, that's not for me to say. My client is satisfied. That's what's important."

The involvement of Lightfoot in the high-profile case made headlines in part because she threw her hat into the ring to be considered for the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, a post held by Patrick Fitzgerald for nearly 11 years, before stepping down in June 2012.

"I was interested in the position," she recounted, "because of the challenges of the city of Chicago in our area faces, whether its gangs, guns, homicide, or the area of white collar crime or other issues that fell into federal jurisdiction. The position had a tremendous opportunity to really, fundamentally impact the quality of life for the citizens of this district for years to come, so it was something that excited me to have an opportunity to be considered for that position."

In an unusual move, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) sent four nominees, all employees at high-profile law firms, for review and ultimate nomination by the White House, telling the Chicago Tribune, "These are all four quality people." Lightfoot joined Jonathan Bunge, Zach Fardon, and Gil Soffer on Durbin's short list.

Though she was no stranger to the Beltway, Lightfoot admitted, "Coming from where I came from, which is a pretty humble background, being interviewed by U.S. Senators, being interviewed by folks at the White House, is a pretty humbling and honorable experience."

Unfortunately, word came from Washington in March that Lightfoot was no longer in the running, though she says she was "honored to have been considered."

Looking forward, Lightfoot said, "I'll continue to do what I've done the rest of my career, which is serve my clients and serve my community. I'm on a number of different boards, there's a lot of things that interest me, and I'll continue to pursue them."

In almost every news report about Lightfoot's nomination, it was mentioned she would have been the first female, and the first African-American to be Chicago's chief federal prosecutor. It should be noted she would also have been the first lesbian. Lightfoot is currently "in a long-term relationship with a lovely woman, and we have a 5-year-old daughter."

When asked how she viewed herself in this label-obsessed age, she simply stated, "I view myself as me. Obviously, I'm an amalgam of all the things I am and I'm mindful of the fact that I hit many demographic buttons. But I think of myself, and also as I think most people do, as a holistic person."

When talking about the satisfaction of mentoring young lawyers and law students, Lightfoot returned to this point, saying, "I recognize that I serve as a role model for a wide variety of people. That's very satisfying. And obviously that status comes with a lot of responsibility, as well, and I fully embrace it."

The passion in Lightfoot's voice noticeably alights when discussing the very young, from showing "no tolerance" for bullies, to ensuring that adults dealing with youth are mindful of warning signs, and are creating safe places where kids can express themselves.

"I think the challenge for us is to reach out to kids, in particular, who are different in whatever way, and make sure that they feel valued," she said. "I'm sure you're a aware of the fact that there is still a huge homeless population among gay kids. There's still a significant suicide rate among our youth, and its important they can see their future beyond whatever their immediate circumstances are."

Lori Lightfoot grew up in a small town during a time when there were no lesbian role models, yet a generation later has been invited back to be honored as a distinguished citizen.

"I'm happy that we live in a time where there are so many opportunities opening up for people like me," she told WCT. "We can never forget the struggles, particularly as a woman of color, as a lesbian, I never forget that. I know there are going to be people out there who only see that, and only see it in a negative way. I'm heartened by the fact that we are living in a time in this country where we're seeing that people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, have more of an opportunity to live their lives without restriction, without being judged negatively, and that's inspiring."


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