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Karen Donnelly

Karen Donnelly’s career has been characterized by her willingness to learn, grow, and take risks. After working for twenty-five years as a paralegal, Karen pursued her dream of becoming an attorney even though it meant balancing her family and her studies. Now, just over two years after graduating, she was elected the first female state's attorney in LaSalle County, Illinois.

What have you been up to since your time here at Northern Law? Immediately upon graduation and being licensed, I began working with the firm of Mueller Anderson & Associates. George Mueller, the principal of the firm, was one of the attorneys for whom I worked prior to entering law school. I worked with the firm of Hoffman Mueller & Creedon for 25 years. So coming to work for Mr. Mueller was like coming “home.” My practice since graduation has been primarily focused upon family law and criminal defense.

What is your current project? I have too many to count. I am in court on a daily basis in the civil division representing family law clients, and I was recently elected LaSalle County State’s Attorney.

Why did you become an attorney? Working as a paralegal for over twenty-five years gave me some insight into what I wanted to do. Then once the attorney that I personally worked for left the practice, I had a few options – pursue my dream of becoming an attorney or find a new job as a paralegal. I took the leap with the encouragement of my friends and family.

How did NIU College of Law prepare you for your work? The College of Law gave me a great education for which I will eternally be grateful. It was, however, Professor Marc Falkoff that inspired me to run for state’s attorney. The firm I had worked for prior to entering law school did not do much criminal work, so I wasn’t exposed to it. Once I took my first criminal law class with Professor Falkoff, I knew that was what I wanted to focus on upon entering private practice. While at Northern Law, I worked for two years for the state’s attorney's office, so I was very fortunate to learn what prosecuting cases is like. I recommend that students ask about various internships and take advantage of them. I know working first as an intern and then as a 711 helped solidify my decision to run for office.

What is your favorite memory of your time in law school? The friendships I made are by far my favorite. But I still remember one of the students dressing up as Professor Reynolds for Halloween.

What is your advice to current law students? Explore all the options that law school offers – from student organizations to classes. I signed up for many different organizations and activities and made some great friendships while learning about different causes. Take a class you don’t think will help in your career – it may surprise you and cause you to change your career path.

What is your advice to individuals thinking about starting law school? I was discouraged by many lawyers from going to law school. That is the WORST advice. Pursue your dreams and your passion. You’re going to be working for the rest of your life, so choose something that you love to do. Sometimes (and more often than you realize) being a lawyer isn’t about the money, it’s about passion. I had a wonderful experience at Northern Law – from the wonderful professors and their accessibility to the friendships I developed and that continue yet today. It’s hard work, but there is a great group there to help you if you ask.

What has been the greatest challenge thus far in your career? By far it was going to law school while raising my family. But anything you set out to do, do it well and just do it. I was fortunate to have my husband and other parents to help with getting my children to and from functions.

What has been most rewarding about your career so far? Making a difference in people’s lives. My mother gave me some great advice while I was working as a paralegal that I continue to apply now that I’m an attorney: “This may not be your first divorce, but it is that client’s first divorce. Never lose sight of that and have compassion.” One thing I have been told by clients and other attorneys alike is that I listen, a skill that sometimes can be difficult. But in the end you will find this career path so rewarding and honorable.

This interview was conducted in Fall 2016. 

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Class Year: 2014

Current title and position: LaSalle County (IL) State's Attorney

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