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Nicole O'Connor

Nicole O'Connor

With the support of her professors and fellow students, Nicole O’Connor was able to balance her first-year courses with passionate activism. Despite facing difficult personal issues during her second semester, Nicole was instrumental in reviving NIU Law’s Student Animal Legal Defense Fund and in shutting down a puppy mill. Ms. O’Connor grew up in Wonder Lake, IL and obtained a bachelor’s degree in general studies from Drury University.

What was your experience as a first-year student like? It was a constant roller coaster. I had to learn to budget my time wisely, especially with the long commute. The upper classmates were always there for me to guide me and answer questions. NIU College of Law is like a little community. The professors wanted me to succeed, the school wanted me to succeed. Sometimes I felt like I couldn’t do it, but I did make it. It made me stronger, and now I feel like all the weight is off my shoulders.

Sum up your first year in one sentence. It was invigorating, as it showed me that I am strong and I can get through tough life events.

What was the most rewarding part of your first year? I was able to get the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund (SALDF) chapter at NIU Law revived and was voted president. I was able to assist the Attorney General’s office, the Illinois Department of Agriculture, and private attorneys to shut down a fake rescue. I am now currently working on shutting down a potential puppy mill in Winnebago County. Helping with the animal law made me more ambitious when I felt stressed. It pushed me to do better in school. My position in SALDF has allowed me to network with local attorneys, and I have been invited to attend events all over the country and meet influential people who are active in animal law.

What was the most challenging part of your first year? I am sure any student would say final exams. My second semester was the most challenging for me personally as family and health problems caused me to miss the last few weeks of school including the review sessions for the final exams. Dean Coles and most of my professors allowed me to Skype so I could participate in class when I felt well enough to do so. My fellow classmates helped as much as they could as well. My upper classmates would send me words of encouragement. Some of the professors even sent emails asking how I was doing.

Why are you thankful you chose NIU Law? I attended another law school for my first year, but I never felt like I fit in at that school. When I attended an open house at Northern Law and saw how much the staff and faculty care about the students, which was my biggest concern from my previous experience, I knew this was the place for me. I am glad I was able to have this opportunity. NIU Law’s small class sizes allow for students to interact with the professors and classmates more. My other school did not have that. In many cases we had over 75 students in one class—not here. I have had the best experiences of my life in the last year here at NIU. Just because a private school costs more, that does not mean you will get a better education. I brag about NIU Law all the time. My family and friends said that I was much happier attending Northern. I was not as stressed as I was attending the other school. I felt more at home with NIU Law and have made tons of friends.

What advice would you give to incoming first-year law students? Brief your cases. Start your outlines early, and start memorizing them. Take advantage of the ASP program. Supplements will also become your best friends. Do not wait until it is too late if you do not understand something. Ask questions and seek help early. People are willing to help, which also helps bring the first year stress levels down. Make sure you take some “me time” or you will get overloaded. Do not feel bad if you cannot attend a personal function because you have homework. This is your year and your time. Your family and true friends will understand.

What activities are you involved in? I am the president of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund. I am also part of the Delta Theta Phi Fraternity, Women’s Law Caucus, and Public Interest Law Society.

What did you do this summer (externships, clerkships, internships, study abroad, etc.)? I worked with my boss, who I have worked with on and off for the last 16 years, as his law clerk. He specializes in worker’s compensation and personal injury. I also continued working for animal rights, fighting to stop Winnebago County from approving a large breeder from obtaining permits.

What was your summer experience like? I assisted my boss in writing motions and correspondence to settle cases, performed legal research, and provided the staff with my knowledge to help them to advance in their positions.

How did NIU Law prepare you to succeed in your summer position? NIU Law helped by teaching me how to research cases and other materials, especially cases I am not familiar with. Instead of picking one side quickly I learned to argue both sides and apply this knowledge to the files at work.

What is your goal after law school? My boss would like to eventually retire and to have me take over his law firm. I also want to continue to practice Animal Law and work with the state to write better legislation for animals. I want to help people who truly need help. For example, just like animals do not have a voice to speak for themselves, senior citizens are always taken advantage of. I want to make sure that does not happen. If they truly get hurt and need help to feed their families, I will fight for them to make sure they can get the assistance they need. We were taught throughout our first year to practice in an area of the law that makes us happy, an area of law that we can feel good about. I will practice personal injury and worker’s compensation to pay the bills, but helping animals and seniors will make me happy and feel good about myself.

This interview was conducted in Summer 2016. 

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Undergraduate Institution:
Drury University

Undergraduate Major: General Studies

Hometown: Wonder Lake, Illinois

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