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Welcome from the ECIWAA and Miranda Soucie

Photo by: Spiros Law

Everyone knows a good lawyer joke, but how many people really know a lawyer? Growing up, I didn't know a single lawyer and my one interaction with a lawyer as a teenager was less than pleasant. My decision to go to law school was primarily driven by a desire to help others. It may surprise you to know that this same desire is in the hearts of most lawyers in our community. I have the privilege of being the president of the East Central Illinois Women Attorneys Association, a board member of the Champaign County Bar Association and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois College of Law. This gives me the opportunity regularly interact with a wide array of our community of lawyers. Our local bar does exceptional work on behalf of our community, not only in the office, but outside.

Illinois private attorneys performed over 2 million hours of free legal services in 2015.

As the president of ECIWAA, I would be remiss if I did not mention the huge contributions local women attorneys are making to the practice of law and to our community. According to the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, in 2015, the profession of law saw males outnumber females by nearly a 2-to-1 ratio. This divide is even larger in Central Illinois, although it is not regularly tracked. However, the women in our legal community more readily serve in positions of public interest. Of ECIWAA's 97 members, 73 serve as active practicing attorneys or judges in the area. The remainder include professors and retirees. Of those actively practicing, 27 have dedicated their careers to serving in various areas of public interest (27 percent of our membership). This number may seem relatively small, until you take into consideration that in 2015, less than 1.9 percent of attorneys in Illinois serve in the various areas of public interest, according to the IARDC annual report.

As a part of our annual membership meeting, ECIWAA honors its membership with two awards, Service to the Organization and Exceptional Service to the Community. The Award for Exceptional Service to the Community honors those who give back in exceptional ways to the community at large. These honorees do not need to be ECIWAA members, but instead are picked from the greater population of lawyers in the area. Val McWilliams was our 2016 winner (and is featured on page 16). Past honorees include:

Stacy Tutt is the inaugural professor of the University of Illinois Community Preservation Clinic. The clinic teaches students the skills of lawyering while exploring a community-based, nontraditional approach to poverty law. The clinic works to develop and implement a comprehensive response to community blight brought on by the foreclosure crisis. Tutt has been instrumental in bringing in over a million dollars of grant money to the community in order to assist with setting up foreclosure mediation programs. She is also a regular volunteer with the Humane Society.

Julia Rietz is the state's attorney of Champaign County. Among a host of other community involvement, Rietz serves on the governing board of the Champaign County Children's Advocacy Center. She serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois College of Law. She regularly speaks at local high schools about the criminal justice systems. She is a member of the Champaign Unit 4 attendance improvement committee. She received the 2015 Gift of Hope Lifesaving Partners Award for encouraging organ donation.

Ramona Sullivan is a Champaign County public defender and formerly of Land of Lincoln Legal Services. During her time at Land of Lincoln, Sullivan was instrumental in coordinating pro bono services in the community. She was hugely successful in connecting attorneys with clients in need. She now works with the public defender's office where she continues to provide free legal services to those in need.

J. Steven Beckett is an attorney with Beckett & Webber and the University of Illinois College of Law. Beckett has been a lifelong advocate for constitutional freedoms. He has led the charge in monitoring the local courts and has issued many reports on diversity and fairness in the Champaign County Court system.

He is the attorney of record for the UI College of Law Innocence Project.

We are also blessed to have a number of women in our legal community who have celebrated firsts for women in the area. In Vermillion County Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita Garman has broken barriers left and right. She was the first woman to serve as an assistant state's attorney and an associate judge in Illinois. She then went on to become the 5th Circuit's first female circuit judge and presiding judge. She was the first woman on the 4th District Appellate Court. Over the course of the past 16 years, a number of local women became the first state's attorneys in their county, starting with Julia Rietz, Champaign County; Dana Rhoades, Piatt County; Jacqueline Lacy, Vermilion County; and Kate Watson, Douglas County.

With 545 attorneys practicing in Champaign County and 105 in Vermilion County, we have a wide array of local attorneys who are serving their profession, but more importantly their community. While you may know a good lawyer joke, I would encourage you to get to know one of the many fine lawyers in our community. You will be glad you did.

Miranda Soucie is an attorney, the president of the East Central Illinois Women Attorneys Association, a board member of the Champaign County Bar Association and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois College of Law. She may be reached at 217-443-4343.