Kate ThayerContact ReporterChicago Tribune
Thinking back on what inspired her legal career, Cook County Associate Judge LaGuina Clay-Herron said she can point to a moment in her childhood when her teacher introduced her class to an African-American, female attorney.
“She looked like me and sounded like I did,” said Clay-Herron, who grew up in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood and attended Chicago Public Schools. “That gave me a totally different perspective.”
Clay-Herron, who has been a judge for 12 years, said she keeps that in the back of her mind when talking to students who participate in Cook County’s Heritage Courthouse Tours — a program run by the Chief Judge’s Office.
For the past 18 years, the program has offered students the chance to see Circuit Court proceedings at the Richard J. Daley Center and then talk to judges from cultural backgrounds similar to their own, said Marta Almodovar, a supervisor in the Chief Judge’s Office who coordinates the tours. In 2018, more than 1,000 students participated in the office’s 10 tours for Women’s History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month and Arab-American Heritage Month, among others. While any student can participate, Almodovar said she tries to invite schools with students whose backgrounds correspond to the theme of the tour.
The students hear about judges’ career paths and have the chance to ask questions, Almodovar said.
“They learn about (the judges’) background. They will, surprisingly, learn that some went to night school; maybe they went to the same Polish Saturday school as them,” she said. The program also teaches the kids about the inner workings of the justice system but mainly is designed to “inspire youngsters and say, yes, you can follow in these people’s footsteps and become judges too.”
John F. Kennedy High School teacher Khetam Khairallah says it’s important to show students that they have endless career possibilities, no matter their background. For the past several years, Khairallah, who teaches law and sociology, has taken her students on various Heritage Courthouse Tours and plans to take a group to the next scheduled tour in February for Black History Month.
“The more (professional career choices) we expose them to, the more they can see that this is attainable,” Khairallah said, adding that many of her students at the Garfield Ridge school are preparing to be first-generation college students. “They need to see that connection — this is a person who grew up just like me.”
The students not only talk to judges and hear their paths to success, but also are exposed to other career possibilities in the judicial system, Khairallah said. “When they walk into that courtroom, they see five or six job opportunities, not just judge or lawyer.”
“I think it really helps young people if they see someone of their ethnic background in a professional role,” added Associate Judge Mark Joseph Lopez, who has talked to students during the county’s Heritage Tours. “Maybe that’s the first time they’ve seen a Latino judge or a black judge.
Lopez, whose father was an attorney, said he was the exception as a Latino child growing up in Chicago and the western suburbs because, through his father, he knew attorneys and judges. But for many other minority students, that isn’t the case, he said, and a legal career may not seem accessible.
For Judge Clay-Herron, talking to students is her way of giving back and passing along the message: “If I can do this, you
Clay-Herron first became a teacher and worked in Chicago Public Schools for 17 years — while she attended law school at night, studied for the bar exam and built up a client base over seven years of practicing law. Only then could she afford to quit her teaching job.
Making the leap from education to law was not easy, Clay-Herron said, recalling long nights of studying and grading papers. But the result was worth it.
“I tell that story to the students,” she said. “I let them see it’s doable, and anything worth having is worth fighting for.”