Honorable Jessica Arong O’Brien Sworn-in as the First Asian President of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois

by Mark A. Javier, Special Contributing Writer

On Thursday, June 4, 2015, history was made at the Radisson Blu Aqu Hotel as the first Asian American president of the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois (WBAI) was installed by Chief Judge Diane P. Wood of the United States Court of Appeals of the Seventh Circuit.   At Judge O’Brien’s request, she took her oath of the president with her family by her side in front of an audience close to eight hundred lawyers, judges, politicians, business and community leaders.  Subsequent to her swearing-in, Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans, Judge O’Brien’s long-time mentor, friend and now boss, gave a rousing introduction of WBAI’s new president and ended his introduction with a standing ovation to welcome Judge O’Brien.   Over a thousand people attended, dinner, general and VIP receptions combined, including many high-powered professionals in the legal field and CEOs from ComEd and Health Care Service Corporation gathered to celebrate the WBAI’s 101st installation. Many minority and main stream bar organizations were represented to especially celebrate Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien becoming the WBAI’s first Asian American president.  Judge O’Brien is no stranger to making history. She is also the first Filipino to be elected judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County and the State of Illinois.

The guest list was impressive and included the likes of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas L. Kilbride, Chief Judge of the Northern District of Illinois Ruben Castillo, Presiding Justice of the First District of the Illinois Appellate Court Shelvin Louise Marie Hall, Commissioners of the White House Initiative on Asian American Pacific Islanders Billy Dec and George Mui, Illinois Lt. Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, Circuit Court Presiding Judges: Timothy C. Evans, E. Kenneth Wright, Jr., James P. Flannery, Grace Dickler, Moshe Jacobius, Patricia Banks and Sebastian Patti, Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce President Darryl Tom, Senators Dan Katowski (now retired) and Don Harmon, Philippine Consulate General Generoso D.G. Calonge, State of Illinois Treasurer Michael W. Frerichs, Alderman Robert Fioretti, Former Chief Judge James P. Holderman, President Richard Felice and all the other ISBA officers and Executive Director Robert Craghead, CBA President Daniel Cotter and Executive Director Terrence Murphy, President of the Filipino American Lawyers Association of Chicago Jasmine Hernandez, The John Marshall Law School Dean John E. Corkery and Board of Trustee President Leonard Amari and many of its board of trustees, presidents of many bar organizations, and federal and state judges.  ABC 7’s morning anchor Judy Hsu served as the Mistress of Ceremonies with Miss Illinois Marisa Buchheit singing the national anthem with her operatic soprano performance.

Judge O’Brien is an inspiration to so many Filipinos in, and out, of the legal profession. During her installation address, she intimately shared her personal journey with everyone in the ballroom.  The audience was pensively listening that you could hear a pin drop. As a child in the Philippines, her parents separated to follow personal dreams and left her in the care of her grandmother without an emphasis on education. Judge O’Brien was a shy and fearful child, and her absence from school increased her feeling of anxiety and depression. After learning about Judge O’Brien’s situation, several families in her small village took it upon themselves to change the fortunes of young Judge O’Brien. Each of the families accepted responsibility for a different aspect of Judge O’Brien’s life. One family took care of getting Judge O’Brien to school, and another getting her home. Another family brought her to sports practices and games, her favorite sport was volleyball, and becoming captain of her volleyball team had a long lasting positive effect on Judge O’Brien’s life. One family entered Judge O’Brien into a local beauty pageant, which helped build her confidence. The love and generosity of these families taught Judge O’Brien the value of supporting the success of others.

Judge O’Brien did not rely solely on the generosity of others to achieve success; she worked extremely hard to reach her educational, professional and personal goals. While in law school, she even brought her first child to school with her and some of the school staff would help watch her child as she attended class. Judge O’Brien did not merely rest on her laurels as an attorney; she volunteered her time to contribute to the success of others, especially in the Asian legal community. Along with becoming the first Asian president of the WBAI, Judge O’Brien is a former president of both the Asian American Bar Association of Great Chicago (AABA) and the Filipino American Bar Association of Chicago (FABA, currently FALA Chicago).

For all she has done in her professional life, she has surpassed that success in her personal life. In the midst of all her work in the legal community, Judge O’Brien has managed to balance her role as wife and mother. She has raised three wonderful daughters who share her value for helping others and she is indeed proud to see her oldest daughter – the one who went to law school with her – attend her first year of college at the University of San Diego. Just as she does with her career, Judge O’Brien works hard at keeping her family moving in the right direction, including supporting her husband as he campaigns to be the second judge in their family.

On a personal note, Judge O’Brien has been a mentor to me and continues to encourage my professional development and success. Her theme, “Leave No Woman Behind: Empowering through Leadership” is a genuine reflection of her life work on diversifying the legal community. In its 101st year, the WBAI installed its third woman of color, two African American presidents in 1973 and in 2009. Judge O’Brien’s installation is a symbol of hope and progress for many women in the legal community, especially to those immigrants like Judge O’Brien, who came here at a later age—an age when assimilating in the American way of life requires more perseverance, “thick skin” and determination. She is certainly worthy of her new role as President of WBAI and will no doubt increase the value of the association to its members and the legal profession.

This article originally appeared in the WBAI Fall 2015 Newsletter.

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