An Interview with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan

Lisa Madigan is the Illinois Attorney General. In 2002 Attorney General Madigan became the first female general elected to serve as Illinois Attorney General. She was elected to her third term in 2010. Before her election, Madigan served in the Illinois Senate and worked as a litigator based in Chicago. Prior to becoming an attorney, she was a teacher and community advocate. She also volunteered as a high school teacher in South Africa during apartheid. She has a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and her J.D. from Loyola University Chicago School of Law. 

Attorney General Madigan recently spoke with Ms. JD founding member and McGuire Woods attorney Jill K. Russell about her legal career. 

What made you decide to go to law school?

Okay, it’s a really long answer unfortunately.  I grew up around lawyers but truth be told it really wasn’t until I had spent a year teaching and living in South Africa after college and then coming back from that experience and working on the west side of Chicago, working with kids and law enforcement in particular to keep youth engaged in education and away from gangs that were involved in the drug trade that you know I looked up and having seen what people were going through in apartheid era of South Africa because all of my students and their families were Zulu. They couldn’t vote, couldn’t live where they wanted to live, repressed and censored, so seeing that is horrible immoral government.  You know seeing people, you know right here in my own city, still struggling without opportunities.  Not getting a good education, not having access to child care, quite frankly working with kids who have never even been downtown.  And you say, “hey, if I had a legal degree…a law degree…I’d be able to help more people pursue social justice issues…so, to me, that was the motivator.  I mean I had always kind of thought about going to law school but didn’t really get serious about going to law school until what I saw, what was for me, what a law degree would enable me to do.

Is that why you stayed in the profession, too?

Yeah, I mean I couldn’t have ended up with a better job and as attorney general, that’s what you’re doing, you know, 99% of the time, right?  You’re protecting people--some of the most vulnerable people among us…women, seniors and in this economy, the consumers…the home owners and you know it’s physical fraud, it’s financial fraud, it’s very satisfying work to be able to do.  So, yeah…it worked out.

What particular challenges do you think you face being a woman in the profession?

You know, it’s hard to say…I am one of a handful of elected female attorneys general in the country.  And, I am the senior most woman attorney general in the country probably by far at this point, but you know I’m not sure what challenges…I mean in some ways, in some ways you’re more accessible to people, so there’s a benefit to that.  But, I’m not sure what, I mean, I wouldn’t know what it would be like not to be a woman...what the challenges are…I certainly get taken seriously.  So, I’m not sure.

What would you say is your lowest point professionally and how did you recover from it?

Gosh, I don’t know.  My lowest point professionally? I don’t look at things that way.

I can’t…I can’t think of anything.  You know, I will say that there’s a period of time, and it hasn’t been in the last 8 years, but there was a period of time when I was in private practice and after a number of years where I loved the people I was with, but can’t say I loved the substance of the work I was doing necessarily.  I wouldn’t call it a low point, but I would say it is the challenging point and one that most people say, certainly most lawyers, “Well what are you going to do with your career?”  And so, I wanted to find a way where I was helping people who needed help, and so, for me deciding to leave private practice and pursue public service, you know, it takes a lot of thought to say, “Okay, this is what I’m going to do…so, it’s a very different lifestyle.  With the exception of the time involved between private practice and public service involves an immense amount of time.  But, in other ways it’s different.

What advice would you give to somebody who wants to have a similar career?

Well, here’s what I would say to everybody…number one, you have to follow your passion.  You have to find out what excites you and you have to pursue that.  So, that’s thing number one and to figure that out you can’t be afraid to take chances.  I think people particularly in this economy should take advantage of intern/extern opportunities.  Everyone’s willing to have you work for free, but it also you know allows you to figure out if that’s the right fit or if this is a good idea or if this is what you wanted to do.  Another thing I would say in terms of following your passion, find something that you’re interested in, then find somebody who is doing exceptional work in that area and if you have to, go be an intern, go volunteer to work with that person.  What else?  Oh, you know, one more thing…have a life.  Don’t forget about your life in the midst of your career.

Going along with that last point, what have you done to balance the demands of your personal and professional life?

Not enough.  But, you know you have to make time…and so, now that I have 2 young daughters I’m pretty stingy with my nights and weekends.  Now, I have a few dinners I sit all the way through, but often I will go a cocktail party and not necessarily have to sit through dinner but it also depends on where you are in your career.  If you’re younger in your career and networking is very, very important then you might have to sit through the dinner.  You know, if you have an election coming up, you sit through the dinner or you go to 5 cocktail parties as opposed to 1 cocktail party and dinner.  So, you know, it varies depending on what’s happening that year, that time of year, but I think you have to be organized, schedule your time and make sure that you schedule time for your family, your friends, exercise and sleep…the most important thing.

Who was your most influential mentor and why?

I would say, Paul Simon.  I heard him talk about work ambitions that were important to him and important to communities… he had the strength of conviction and wasn’t afraid to pursue an issue even if it wasn’t popular.  He was really the most influential person who said to me “you really need to think about a public service career.”  And truth be told it was not just him but it was his wife as well. And a very cute story about them, they both met when they served in the House of Representatives together.  But one of the things he did after he was no longer in elected office, he had a Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at SIU, and every year he would use college students at SIU and bring in high school students from all around the state to talk about public service, the satisfaction of it, the significance of it, the importance of it, how to be involved in it so, he was always somebody who was hoping to communicate to the next generation about civic opportunities.

What advice would you give to women who are interested in running for public office?

Whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, there are groups that are interested in developing the next generation of women leaders and so to the extent that you do want to get involved in politics I think there’s actually a lot of support there now that was nonexistent ten years ago, but it’s very solid at this point so people should look into those opportunities if they want to run for office.  Truth be told, I don’t think there are any real disadvantages to being a woman in public office.

What has been your highest moment, your best professional moment?

There has been so many great successes in this offices, it’s probably hard to say.  Certainly as a lawyer you know, it’s tough not to say that arguing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court isn’t the highlight of your career, and then winning the case, so that’s a highlight.  But there are some of the lawsuits, some of the laws.  We recently passed a law that requires all rape kits to be tested here in Illinois.  We’re the first state in the nation to do that, and it should reduce the number of sex offenders, and so I’m very proud of that. I’m very proud of the work that we have done to go after subprime mortgage giants who truth be told are at the heart of why our economy collapsed.  And you know some of it’s just being with people and having an opportunity to make a difference.  Just two days ago, I got to introduce Lily Ledbetter, who has an extraordinary story who worked for twenty years at Goodyear, and on her way out, one of her coworkers left her a note telling her that she had been unpaid by nearly $1,000 a month for the entire time she was there compared to all the other supervisors who were male.  She went to the EEOC, they told her she had a good case, she got a lawyer, she got a $4 million dollar verdict that was turned by to $300,000.  She went to the US Supreme Court, and in a 5-4 decision, they said “no you missed the statute of limitations.”  But she didn’t stop fighting.  She went to Congress and helped pass the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and now she’s working on another initiative so that people working in the private sector have not just access to information about what other people are earning but so people can’t be retaliated against for sharing that information.  So the opportunity to meet people who are trailblazers and are doing extraordinary work is very very satisfying.

So what is your typical day like in this job?

I wish there was such a thing.  There’s no such thing. You know I could wake up in the morning and end up in Springfield all day.  I can wake up in the morning, come to work and sit and edit briefs all day.  Usually there is a number of public appearances.  Just yesterday we did a domestic violence roudtable.  Often times I’m out actually training older people about financial scams that are prevalent right now.    Later in the week, I’m going out to Rockford where my Illinois Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force worked a case and arrested a child pornographer, so I went up and did a press conference on that.  Any given day it’s usually completely different, which is good, and it’s fun that way.

What advice would you give to law students?

If you went to law school you should learn to be a lawyer. You can go where you make the most money.  I didn’t. I went with a firm where I liked the people the most because you are going to be spending most of your waking hours with those people.  So if you have a choice, base it on where you like the people, where there are good people, and you are going to at least enjoy the company.  That is so important.  And then go there, work hard, and if you don’t like where you are, don’t be afraid to move.  In this economy, unlike 20 years ago, you can move laterally.  So that’s my advice. Go and learn how to be a lawyer, because you spent too much time, money, and effort to get your law degree.  So learn how to draft discovery, learn how to take a deposition, learn how to be a lawyer, so you always have that skill.  Then make sure you’re dealing with good people, continue to do it and if you don’t want to do that, go and do something else- it’s your life.

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