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Sonni Choi Williams

Early experiences with attorneys convinced Sonni Choi Williams of the need for diversity in the legal profession. She is committed to both excellence and to promoting diversity and inclusion as deputy corporation counsel for the City of Peoria, IL. She also serves the Illinois legal community by taking an active role in the Illinois State Bar Association’s Board of Governors, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, the Illinois Bar Foundation, the Illinois Local Attorneys Association and the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.

What have you been up to since your time here at Northern Law? Immediately after graduating, I used my 711 law license to work as an assistant prosecutor in traffic court while I was studying for the bar exam, and, after passing the exam, I went into private practice as an associate in my father-in-law’s office. I then worked briefly as an assistant public defender doing juvenile delinquency cases before I was hired by the City of Peoria as the assistant corporation counsel. I’ve been with the City of Peoria since January 2000 and currently, I am the deputy corporation counsel for the City of Peoria.

What is your current project? For work, I have cases in both state and federal courts representing the City of Peoria and its employees and public officials from various matters including injunctions, administrative appeals, municipal liability cases involving tort-related claims and civil rights violation cases. There are also various assignments that I handle from rendering legal advice on issues ranging from liquor regulations to enforcement of administrative orders.

As for professional activities, I serve as a governor on the Illinois State Bar Association’s Board of Governors; commissioner on the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism; board member on the Illinois Bar Foundation, board member on the Illinois Local Attorneys Association and a hearing chair on the Hearing Board for the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission.

I am proud to have played a role in increasing diversity and inclusion in the ISBA as well as pushing for diversity-related continuing legal education course through my service on the Commission on Professionalism. Although my term on the Commission on Professionalism ends at the end of December 2016, I will continue to assist the commission in bringing forth the recommendation that there be a carve-out separate one-hour credit requirement in the area of diversity and inclusion as part of the professionalism CLE requirement.

Why did you become an attorney? I realized that there was an unmet need of having more attorneys who look like me. When my parents owned a convenience store in Lexington, KY, they used an attorney that my uncle used for his business and my impression was that their attorney was not really looking out for their best interest.

When I was in college, I was run over by a commercial bus while walking back to my dorm. I came very close to not making it through. After my recovery, and at the urging of my uncle, I went to look for an attorney to file a lawsuit against the commercial bus company and I remember the stark lack of minority and female attorneys. As the case progressed, I remember being in the courtroom for a settlement conference and feeling that I couldn’t relate to anyone in that courtroom.

To this day, I strongly believe that the public’s perception of justice and the judicial system is improved when the players in the judicial system whether they be prosecutors, defense attorneys, civil attorneys, and judiciary, reflect the community at large.

What are your professional goals (other than what you’ve already accomplished)? My career goal is to not only try to be the best in my profession, but also be a better citizen in my community by volunteering and helping others who are in need and hopefully inspiring other under-represented student groups to go into the legal profession. Other than that, my ultimate career goal is to be a judge.

How did Northern Law prepare you for your work? Northern Law, especially through the externship program, helped me gain the practical experience of practicing law before I was officially admitted to the practice. The Moot Court competition helped me gain confidence in oral arguments and drafting an appellate brief. Northern Law truly prepares its students to be practice-ready upon graduation.

What is your favorite memory of your time in law school? I loved getting to know everyone in my study group, but my favorite memory was from the graduation ceremony, I carried my son who was about 2 years old at the time on my hip as I walked up to get my law degree.

What is your advice to current law students? I know that it is a very competitive field in obtaining a good paying job, but if you cannot find one, volunteer to work for a legal aid clinic or a reputable attorney who needs the free help. The gain in practical legal experience will be very valuable since you will be competing with associates who were laid off due to the downturn in the economy. Don’t shut the door on a particular area of the practice because it wasn’t your favorite subject in law school. When we covered land use and zoning cases in constitutional law, I never envisioned that I would actually be practicing in that area because I found the cases very boring and not as exciting as a criminal case. Now that I practice in municipal law, I know realize how emotionally-charged a zoning matter can be at the trial level.

What is your advice to individuals thinking about starting law school? Be realistic about how much you will be making and form a professional relationship circle with your classmates. You may be sitting in the same class as a future judge, employer, or a political leader who can help your career, so start networking early and keep in touch with your classmates.

What has been the greatest challenge in your career so far? I’ve had disappointments in being one of the finalists, but ultimately not getting the jobs or appointments that I went after with a passion. But my greatest challenge has been that, as a female minority attorney, I have had to work harder and prove myself over and beyond than my male or non-minority counterparts.

What has been most rewarding about your career so far? Because of the nature of my practice, I have had the opportunity to argue before the state appellate court, federal appellate court and the State Supreme Court on cases that I handled directly by myself without co-counsel from the trial level to the appellate courts. Although doing so has been very stressful, the level of anticipation and adrenaline for me can only be compared to training for and running a marathon—which I have done three times so far. The highlight of my legal career was in 2014 when I was part of the group of Northern Law alums who went to Washington, D.C. to be admitted to the practice before the U.S. Supreme Court. I got to meet Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who stopped in our private reception room and chatted with us. It was an experience of a lifetime!

This interview was conducted in Winter 2016. 

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Class Year: 1999

Current title and position: Deputy Corporation Counsel, City of Peoria, IL

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