By Dustin J. Seibert
The curricula vitae of the public defenderand state's attorney of Cook County are to be envied, if not something to aspire to.
Abishi C. Cunningham Jr. has a career spanning nearly four decades in Illinois that has seen him hold positions from the judge's bench to adjunct professor to his current position as Cook County public defender.
Anita M. Alvarez started her career as an assistant state's attorney for Cook County in 1986 and spent more than 20 years working high-profile cases and climbing up the ladder through various administrative positions before making history as Illinois' first female and Hispanic state's attorney.
Both attorneys started out as humble law students looking to make a mark in a city known worldwide for its attorneys. Just as Cunningham and Alvarez came up through the ranks, so are the many junior attorneys working for both of them.
For every seasoned attorney handling a capital case that hits the 10 o'clock news, there is a novice aspiring to do the same. No attorney starts out as first chair for a felony trial, but several have dedicated themselves to the years-long process of being able to do so. The experience may not yet be present, but the hunger is strong.
The opening tracks
After being hired, assistant state's attorneys get their start in one of three assignments: the 1st Municipal Division, the Child Support Court and the Appeals Division. While attorneys for the first two divisions see courtroom action immediately, the attorneys in the Appeals Division get relatively limited exposure to the courtroom. On rare occasions, appeals prosecutors get to present oral arguments in front of an appellate court, but their work is largely paper-based.
The Appeals Division is a fine place for Emma Nowacki, who started with the office last March. Like all other junior attorneys, the DePaul University College of Law graduate did not get to pick her first assignment, but she's pleased with where she landed.
"What's great about appeals is that we get a chance to really learn the legal issues so we're prepared for all types of challenges when we do get to court," she said. "You're given responsibility instantly and working on trials right away here. At [some of] the big firms, you aren't working on a case for the first 10 years."
Though the lack of courtroom appearances might turn off some attorneys, Jessica Bargmann, who worked for the Illinois office of the state's attorney appellate prosecutor for 14 months before starting with the Cook County state's attorney office last April, viewed it differently.
"Where in the other divisions you can only work misdemeanors and small crimes, we can work murder cases and violent rapes," she said. "We get a chance to explore much more complex cases that lots of attorneys don't get to try until they've been in the office for seven years."
Matthew Heinlen worked in appeals very briefly before being sent to the 1st Municipal Division. He said the 1st Municipal is the most exciting first assignment.
"To be able to get in the courtroom on Day One and have opposing counsel standing there in the room with you … you can't beat that," he said.
The public defender's office has a similar beginner's track: Its junior attorneys are assigned to the 1st Municipal Division, abuse or neglect cases in Cook County Juvenile Court and misdemeanor courts in suburban courthouses.
Debra Cruz works in the public defender's Maywood office, working misdemeanor trials with penalties punishable by up to 364 days of imprisonment and $2,500 in fines. Having started at the end of August, she's the office's newest attorney.
Cruz said she's driven to climb up the ranks and represent the longevity reflected in many of her colleagues; she said she hopes to be working felony trial cases after a year or so.
"I came here because I want to be here for a long time," she said. "I plan to advance and perfect my litigation skills to become a better advocate over time."
Attorneys for both offices demonstrate enthusiasm for their first assignments, but you would be hard-pressed to find one that doesn't have their eyes set on the Holy Grail: the Cook County Criminal Courthouse on 26th Street and California Avenue. It typically takes attorneys the better part of a decade to chair high-profile capital cases.
Heinlen, who will complete his first year with the state's attorney's office in April, puts it succinctly:
"When I get my second assignment, God willing, I don't even know if I'll be excited, because I truly do love doing this every day," he said. "That being said, you don't take a job as a Cook County state's attorney to do misdemeanors. You take the job to do cases at 26th Street. That is clearly my goal and something I aspire to."
The motivations of the few
Of the 13 assistant state's attorneys on first assignment with the 1st Municipal Division, it's a safe bet that most of them didn't come from as far away as Davor Mitrovic.
Born in the mid-1980s in the former Yugoslavia, Mitrovic spent his pre-adolescent years living through the Bosnian War, a civil conflict that took place in the country between 1992 and 1995. Mitrovic's life was peppered by air attacks where he was required to take shelter and that made it unsafe to simply walk the streets. He escaped unscathed, but some family members were not so lucky — including a cousin who lost a leg by stepping on a land mine.
"We just did our best to try to continue leading normal lives," he said. "The police and the justice system was there, but they just stopped working."
Mitrovic moved with his family to Chicago's South Side at the end of 1997. He attended Mount Carmel High School, after which he earned his dual history and criminology/law studies degree from Marquette University. He attended law school at Southern Illinois University at the behest of his mother, who insisted Mitrovic be next to his older brother, Bojan, as he completed his doctorate at the school.
It was the dissolution of Yugoslavia's court system and ethnically driven erosion of civil rights that drove Mitrovic to become a prosecutor.
"In a war-torn country, you still had an organized society behind the front lines, but all sense of law disappeared," he said. "I realized from an early age that what lawyers do is keep societies together. We keep people accountable for what they've done and that not only deters some people from doing crimes, but it also helps victims heal."
A strong ethnic identification is what motivated public defender Theodore Thomas to get involved in the law. The Peoria native said his parents — a public aid officer mother and a retired chemical engineer-turned-minister father — instilled in him a value system based on their black roots.
"They went through a lot and made sure that I knew my history and where they came from," he said. "They laid the groundwork for me and taught me from a very young age that it's not going to be enough to take from the world and not give anything back. Every day I get to come in to help these people and give back."
Thomas acknowledged that his ethnicity might give him a leg up when it comes to dealing with the clients in and around a large urban area.
"I encounter a lot of African-American clients and I think when I'm in the lockup surrounded by people that look like me, I can develop a rapport perhaps more quickly than other attorneys can," he said.
Bargmann said she was essentially on track from birth to wind up working for a place like the state's attorney office. Every member of her immediate family works for the federal government and several members of her extended family are employed with various law enforcement agencies.
"I've loved criminal law since I was a kid. When I went to undergrad, it was my goal," she said. "I was never tempted by the big law firms. I would have gone there if necessary with the market, but I always knew I wanted to be a prosecutor."
A rough economy
The insistence of new Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on closing a $487 million gap in the county's 2011 budget means that the public defender and state's attorney will likely be forced to make substantial work force cuts.
As a result, many of the young attorneys in the offices face layoffs that may have occurred by the time you read this article.
According to a Chicago Daily Law Bulletin story, Alvarez and Preckwinkle announced Feb. 11 an agreement that will mean about 25 assistant state's attorneys would be laid off. The agreement also calls for the state's attorney's office to take on additional duties, such as handling more work previously performed by private law firms and targeting abusers of the workers' compensation system.
Cunningham, from the public defender's office, said Feb. 15 that he's "very close'' to a budget compromise that would result in the layoff of about 90 employees, which may or may not include any lawyers. While Cunningham would like a 6.1 percent budget cut, Preckwinkle was standing firm at a 10 percent cut. The budget negotiations were set to continue leading up to the Feb. 28 deadline for the County Board to approve the budget.
The cuts are the product of a floundering national economy that many newer attorneys managed to one-up simply by getting hired into offices that are flooded with job-seeking applicants — the state's attorney receives about 800 applications annually; the public defender about 750.
Several attorneys spent close to a year on the wait list for a job to open up. Heinlen's wait was on the longer side: 17 months before he was hired. Fortunately, a job he secured with a private firm before getting the call from the state's attorney office prevented him from running too low on money.
"There's no sob story (for me) … I was lucky enough to have a nice job, but to be given this opportunity was very important to me," he said. "A lot of people from my law school class were left out in the cold. Folks had jobs lined up and then had them rescinded."
Both Bargmann and Asheena Cartman, Heinlen's co-worker at the state's attorney's 1st Municipal District, substitute-taught grade school for a while as they sat on the wait list.
"I enjoyed the opportunity to reach out to the children, but I definitely hoped to be hired here at some point," Cartman said.
Stacia Weber of the state's attorney's Appeals Division set herself up for an eventual hiring during her wait list experience by working with for the state's attorney's office for six months under a program grant administered by a dean of her University of Illinois College of Law. She essentially served as a state's attorney, but at no cost to the county.
"I was also definitely pursuing positions in other counties, but I knew I wanted to be a state's attorney for Cook County," she said. "I would have tried to clerk for free if I had to."
A different path
While many young lawyers for the state's attorney and public defender followed a direct path from undergraduate school to their current positions, several left disparate careers to do so.
Heinlen obtained an engineering degree from the University of Illinois and completed two engineering internships while in school. He had a well-paying consultant job lined up upon graduation but realized he would have had to pursue a master's degree to advance at that company.
And for someone who discovered that he didn't love technical engineering as much as he came to love law, such a scholastic move was not in the cards.
"I did well enough [with engineering], but I didn't feel like that's what I wanted to do in the future," he said.
"I took one undergraduate law class and loved every minute of it. I realized my skill set would translate better to the legal field than engineering field."
Cruz completed a marketing degree from Loyola University Chicago in 2002. She discovered that she wanted to attend law school during her undergraduate tenure, but still took a job with a small downtown marketing firm for a year before she went back to Loyola for law school.
"In [marketing] you need to put on a show or portray the product the way you're told to, and have a personality to match," she said. "My personality is strong and more aggressive — I had to suppress it and I can't adjust to something I am not. There was no thrill or challenge."
Transitioning to the public defender's office, she said, suited her personality much better.
"You're the voice of the client and you have to be very persistent in order to get your point across," she said. "There are a lot of people up against us … It's very important that you are aggressive but professional."
For Weber, the journey to the state's attorney office was somewhat serendipitous. The Nashville, Tenn., native finished at Tennessee Tech with a business management degree and worked for four years at Boeing in St. Louis as a programmer analyst with the company's IT department.
During her time at Boeing, Weber attended legal compliance seminars that motivated her to pursue a law degree.
"I was so intrigued by the law and ethics behind what we were doing and I thought maybe law school would be a better fit," she said. "I liked my job but I didn't love it. And I love this."
'They've seen it all'
Both offices exhibit a strong training and support network that helps the younger attorneys transition into their careers. The young attorneys speak with enthusiasm about their superiors.
"The big rule that should be plastered in every courtroom is, 'Call Jen and Maria if anything happens,'" Heinlen said. "They've seen it all. You'll be racking your brain for an hour talking to your partner and they'll just spit out an answer like it's the most obvious thing in the world."
The "Jen" he references is Deputy Supervisor Jennifer Coleman, who has been an administrator with the state's attorney office for four years. She said she and office supervisor Maria Burnett emphasize the importance of teamwork among their young attorneys, whom she still reflexively calls "the kids."
"There's a lot of value in what they learn in law school, but you never know what can happen out there in the trenches in practice," she said. "We try to focus a lot on helping them rely on each other, because every day things come up that no one was expecting."
Coleman entered a supervisory role after leaving first chair in the domestic violence unit. Though she doesn't personally work as many cases as she used to, Coleman manages to keep busy — on this day, she stepped into the role of her charges because the staff is short-handed.
"Sometimes it's hard to watch when they don't quite know what they're doing yet," she said. "But I love when they start to figure things out. You see a huge transformation from when they begin … It's exciting to see them transform into the type of litigator they want to be."
Thomas and Cruz have a similar affinity for the more experienced co-workers in their Maywood office.
"The camaraderie in this office is like nothing I've ever seen," Thomas said. "Obviously, being a junior attorney, there will be questions I have and I can go to anyone in this office, the felony attorneys, the misdemeanor attorneys, it doesn't matter … and they will drop everything."
Though Cruz is the most junior of the junior attorneys, her casual demeanor with fellow attorneys and superiors alike gives the appearance that she's been with the office for quite some time.
"The resources are fantastic. What better way to work than to have people that have been in the office 10, 15 years working alongside you and willing to give a hand?" she said. "But we're not puppets … We all have the freedom to approach each case the way we find it appropriate."
Their boss, Maywood chief Wendy Schilling, started her career as a prosecutor back when attorneys still used typewriters and had to rely on actual books for legal research — a much different world from the digital material currently accessible to her younger attorneys, she said.
Schilling moved to a supervisory position when she hit a point in her career that would have taken her into working capital cases — an untenable option for her.
" I don't know if I could do that for years," she said. "I take every loss hard … all attorneys do … but to take thatkind of loss …"
She rattles off the words of advice she offers the 18 junior public defenders like she's been asked to do so a million times.
"If you don't like this type of work, don't do it. Stay on top of your game. You gotta learn to let things roll off your back," she said. "You see the worst of the worst, you can't take every case home with you; you just gotta let it go and know in your heart you did your best. You have to know that we're not God."
Fun and games
A common thread among the junior attorneys for the state's attorney's office and the public defender's office is that many of them are still in their freewheeling 20s.
Mitrovic, Cartman and Heinlen — 25, 26 and 27, respectively — spend interview time cracking jokes and talking good-natured trash to one another … especially regarding sports team alliances and the superiority of alma maters.
"My favorite part of the job is the partnerships I have with these people and that's why we're able to joke around," Heinlen said. "There's two of us in a courtroom and you often lean on the other person."
Fun and games get shut down in proper order when it's time to handle the volume at the state's attorney 1st Municipal Division, which can get hit with as many as 150 cases a day, Cartman said.
"We'll be here until sometimes 8 at night, when people are all leaving for the day," Cartman said. "We are all partners and we take things very seriously in this division because of that high volume … things have to be kept moving with accuracy and speed."
They all said that work weeks that can extend well past 40 hours depending on the workload, but each of them have their methods of unwinding from the work — Nowacki is an avid runner and violinist, Weber likes getting used to all the culture her adoptive city has to offer and Mitrovic plays in water polo tournaments.
Cruz's after-work activity is almost singularly focused: mother to a 14-year-old high school freshman. She makes no bones about getting her daughter acclimated with her line of work, expressing the importance of what her mother does. Her daughter has accompanied her to work.
"With Facebook and everything that's going on now, she's gonna hear about it and I'd rather not shy away from it and explain it the right way," she said. "I don't go in vivid details every day, but I want her to know that any of us can be charged with a crime and there's no constitutional right to always prosecute."
Cruz spoke definitively and with the enthusiasm of someone a client would benefit from having in their corner. But she lets down a bit of that toughness when it comes to chatting about her daughter and her accomplishments.
"I'm a total soccer mom," she said. "She's my release."