Photo by Michelle Nolan.
“Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now” – the title of a Maya Angelou book derived from a Gospel song – is also a fitting summation of the career of powerhouse Chicago lawyer and former Judge Patricia Brown Holmes.
For if you want to know what it takes to be the first African-American female managing partner and founding partner of a major U.S. national law firm, Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila, let us take you for a walk in Holmes’ shoes.
Her work as the special prosecutor in the killing of Laquan McDonald and lawyer for Jussie Smollett is well known. As are her numerous corporate clients, including United Airlines, and civic appointments, heading a Governor’s task force on torture. Her depth of experience that led her to today is unrivaled – nine years as an associate judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County; Chief Assistant Corporation Counsel for Municipal Prosecutions for the City of Chicago; trying 26 complex felony cases as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois; and serving as an Assistant State’s Attorney for Cook County, arguing twice before the Illinois Supreme Court.
Born determined and in charge, she is the oldest of five kids. By the age of 12, she could help cook dinner, feed her siblings, and make sure homework was done while her mom and dad worked. She was a gymnast who sewed her own clothes and played the organ for her uncle’s storefront church while becoming the top student in her high school class.
But she had competition. A young man we’ll call “GH,” to be precise. And, as high school seniors, they were tied for top student. When a blizzard hit in the winter of 1978, she was resolute. She had to show up to school to keep her perfect attendance and the edge over GH.
“It felt like a million degrees below zero windchill outside. I had to walk four blocks to the bus stop. I stood outside until the bus came, freezing. When I got on, I was the only person on the bus and the bus driver's looking at me like, ‘You poor thing, where are you going?’ I didn’t care. I had to get to the school. Once there, I'm beating on the door and a janitor opens up the door and he looks at me. He says, ‘Go home. Nobody's here.’ And I said, ‘You're here!’ But he made me leave. So I then have to get back on a bus to go all the way back home because they won't let me in the school.
“I get home and I’m mad, because this is my perfect attendance,” she says. She planned her argument and went to school the next day insisting her attendance be counted. “I was here. This is messing with my attendance record...’ and they're like, ‘Child, it will be okay? It was cold outside. NOBODY came to school except you.'"
Not quite true. Her first witness? The janitor. Verdict: Ms. Patricia Brown edged GH for top student because of her four-year perfect attendance record. “My siblings still tease me about it to this day,” she said.
With an aptitude for science, she was recruited for the University of Illinois Minority Introduction to Engineering Program. Today and more so in 1979, there is a world of difference between the South Side of Chicago and Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where she attended undergraduate and law school. For the first time in her life she experienced feelings of being alone. She was the only African American and the only woman in the program.
“People would not sit next to me,” she says. “I have a distinct memory of an engineering class where there was an empty chair in front of me, the seats all around me were empty and people were standing along the wall. I'm sitting there thinking, ‘I wonder why they won't sit down. Maybe there was something wrong with the seats?’ I didn't even have the experience or good sense to realize why they didn't want to sit next to me.” After a couple of years of loneliness in the program, she switched to liberal arts.
Lawdragon: You are not a person who gives up.
Patricia Brown Holmes: It was just too hard to do. I was doing fine in my classes; I love math and science. But I was watching my friends going to classes together, hanging out, having fun and I felt left out. There were already very few minority students on campus, and we were spread all over the place so it was hard to see each other as it was.
And we were dealing with the concept that most folks had - if there was a group of black kids in one spot, they were concerned. "‘Oh my God! They're all sitting at one table.’ But did you stop to look over and see that there are all white kids at that table, and all white kids at another table? You’re sitting with your friends. So why can't I sit with my friends?”
I think that myopic view is what gets in the way of diversity and inclusion in our society; people don't see themselves, they only see you. So, when they see two black people together, “Oh my God, that's a problem.” And they're not thinking about the fact that they're standing next to another white guy. It's like, “OK, why is it not a problem for you, but it's a problem for us?”
LD: It's the perspective, right? If the whole discussion about diversity and inclusion is from the perspective of white people, or white men, or whatever the majority is - and those are normally what it is, certainly in the law - then it's like they never flipped the lens to recognize, “Oh wait, but we already have our cohort.”
PBH: Yes. I’m reading a book right now, "White Fragility," by Robin DiAngelo, and that’s what it says: That if you're only going to look at race through one lens, you're never going to figure it out. You’ve got to look at it through a whole lot of lenses, without bitterness or judgment, just a desire to be fair and just, to get it right.
LD: The experience of Miss Perfect Attendance feeling like something was too much had to be an alien feeling for you. And an awakening of the challenges you would face. You are not a woman who says something is too much.
PBH: That's exactly right. Years later, I had cancer. My stepson was 16, my daughter was four and my baby was 6-months old. I felt awful. I kept thinking, I am too old for a brand new baby. I couldn't get out of the bed. My husband was doing all the two, four and six o'clock feedings. I was going to the doctor weekly trying to find out what was wrong. I was in a lot of pain, and everybody's saying, "Look, nothing's wrong with you.” But my friend’s husband was a doctor; she sent me to see him. He ordered a gallium scan, and as I’m on my way out of the appointment the technician said in a solemn voice, “Good luck.” I thought it was strange.
Later, I’m in court, on the bench, and the doctor calls my chambers and tells my clerk to get me off the bench. He tells me I have Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. “It appears to be in the last stage. I need you to stop whatever you're doing and come straight to the hospital right now." I'm like, "What? Now?" He said, “yes, the prognosis right now is probably less than 6 months for you to live.” Imagine that.
I fought it with a very aggressive regime of chemotherapy and radiation and new drugs. It was a hellified two years.
LD: And you stayed on the bench throughout this?
PBH: I stayed on the bench until the day that my law clerk came into chambers and found me passed out on the floor. She called another judge for help. When I become conscious, they were calling an ambulance. I said, “No. I’m fine.” But she called my doctor anyway and he said, “Bring her in right away.”
I wanted to finish my court call, but they forced me to go to the hospital. I then had to stay out for a few months because I was literally that depleted. My mind and body just were not “there,” so I had to admit I shouldn’t have been there. I was in so much pain. But, I'm like perfect attendance. I got to go. My courtroom needs me.”
LD: And this is what the woman who becomes the first African-American female managing and name partner in a major law firm has done to get there.
PBH: My mom, who is my idol, was very hard working. She worked as a buyer for Sears in the Sears Tower. We grew up on the very far southside of Chicago, but her job later moved out to the far suburbs. That meant a long day for her traveling to and from work. My stepdad at the time also worked in a far suburb. They were tired when they got home. I recall watching and feeling like I wanted to help.
I remember hearing my mom on the phone one day saying to her friend, "I got a raise. I'm at $9,000." I was sitting on the porch and thought to myself, OK, we have a five-bedroom house, car and five kids. I mean, we were not rich. We weren't poor, but we were middle class. We had clothes, shoes, amenities, the whole bit. I remember thinking, if she makes $9,000, and can do this, then I want to make twice that much - I want to make $20,000! That sounded like a ton of money at the time. And what's funny is that I graduated law school and my first job at the States Attorney's Office paid $23,712. Funny how that worked out.
LD: Tell me about your experience as an Assistant U.S. Attorney?
PBH: I loved every second. Every second - ate it up. It's just the most spectacular experience that any lawyer could ever have. The perfection, the focus, the concentration. You're doing justice. You're doing good. It was the State’s Attorney on steroids. I loved that job, too. I really did. I got to argue briefs. I argued twice in the Illinois Supreme Court, on the same day. I argued on the defense side on one argument and the state's side on the other argument. For the state I argued the constitutionality of the state’s right to motion to substitute a judge, which is the law now.
I’ve argued in the state appellate court, the federal appellate court, Seventh Circuit. The only place I have not argued, but I have technically appeared, is the U.S. Supreme Court. We had the Conrad Black case, representing Mark Kipnis [the corporate counsel for Hollinger International, ensnared in fraud involving Black]. It went all the way to the Supreme Court. My name's on the brief and the official paperwork, and I got to sit there with the other team members while the main appellate lawyer argued. [The Supreme Court limited the reach of honest-services fraud, leading to Kipnis’ exoneration.]
LD: And today you’re known for handling the biggest headline cases, whether as a special prosecutor or otherwise.
PBH: That’s true, but who knew they were going to be big headline cases? The Burr Oak Cemetery case was a headline case.
My baby brother and my dad are in that cemetery. That's what got me. I was lying down listening to the news before going to bed. I remember hearing a report that there was trouble at “Burr Oak.” I sat up and listened. I called my sister because her husband’s entire family is there also. He's got maybe 30 people there, right? They visit every holiday. We are listening to the story like “What the heck?” I then call a few folks to ask what are the governor and our state representatives going to do about this fiasco? The next day to my surprise I get a phone call from the Governor. He says, “Got your message. You're right. I'm going to appoint a blue-ribbon panel. I want you to chair it.”
That was a great panel. We traveled across the state to hear from people about the issue of cemetery regulation. I even testified before the U.S. Congress in D.C. We helped reshape the laws in the state. The Governor signed a bill into law that now allows people to pay for cemetery services in different ways; it used to be a cash only business ripe for fraud.
LD: The changes you made put an end to what was at the heart of the scandal, that a group was reselling burial plots and removing remains of those who had been interred there, stacking them in other parts of the historic black cemetery. What else did your work include?
PBH: I was appointed the sole trustee by the bankruptcy court in the underlying case. I settled with thousands of people. I renovated the entire cemetery, starting with tearing down a dilapidated, dangerous building. I ran an RFP process for contractors and built a brand-new building; erected 10,000 linear feet of wrought iron fencing; rehabbed roads; and beautified the place with updated technology, electronics and landscaping. It was a tremendous amount of work managing a multi-million-dollar business while practicing law full time.
Part of the settlement also included a requirement to erect a monument in honor of those whose graves were desecrated. I commissioned two - one for the front and one for the location of the incident. The one in the front is just beautiful. At night it's lit up. There's this little non-descript girl with her brother or friend, or cousin, hugging her. They're holding a picture of a mother, father, grandmother, and the light shines on it. Beautiful. I tried to portray something for everyone - give people peace of mind.
LD: Can you talk about your work as special prosecutor in the prosecution of the death of Laquan McDonald, the 17-year old African American student killed by a Chicago police officer? You led the prosecution of three officers for covering up the details of his killing. [They were found not guilty.]
PBH: The community was asking for somebody to look into the matter. My team did the best we could. We are happy with the job we did and we let the justice system work. As a prosecutor, you put on your best case and what happens, happens.
I think the issue lies with our society embracing so much “reality” television with all the fast fixes. You watch Law and Order, everything happens in an hour. Half an hour on the investigation side, half an hour on the prosecution side. We've created the impression that when the police arrest someone, they’re guilty in half an hour. But that’s not justice and that’s not how things work. All people are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
We can't lose sight of that. The fact that someone is arrested means nothing. It's just the first part of bringing someone into the judicial system, potentially leading to a trial. That’s all.
As a society, we seem to have totally lost sight of the concept of innocent until proven guilty. So, you're not guilty until proven innocent. An accused actually doesn’t have to prove anything. It's the government’s burden of proof, not the accused. All you’ve got to do is just sit there; the government has to do all the work.
LD: We've made it very easy for people to presume that an arrest means the police have caught the right person, and that violence toward a suspect is acceptable. That belief system takes a very long time to rewire.
PBH: We've got to train people to think different, more like they do in Canada. The Canadian judicial system is more in line with how ours really ought to be; they truly embrace the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty. They hold the government's feet to the fire and if the government can't prove their case, then you're free to go.
They treat non-violent crime as non-violent crime. Even the worst non-violent criminals are in a prison system that is befitting of someone who committed a non-violent crime. Then folks who commit a violent crime are in a whole different system, treated differently. Because if I only steal your wallet, I shouldn't be in a prison next door to - or in the same cell with - the guy who hit you upside the head and tried to stab you.
I took my responsibility as a prosecutor to heart. When I started in the U.S. Attorney's Office, Fred Foreman was the U.S. Attorney. He had a judge speak to us about the responsibilities of being a prosecutor. The judge said “the buck stops with the prosecutor. Prosecutorial discretion is a grave responsibility.” A prosecutor has discretion to do the right thing and to do justice. If you put an innocent person in prison, you have created a tragedy of justice. I always believed it is better to let that guilty person walk away, than to put an innocent person behind bars.
I actually had cases where I disagreed with my supervisors about pressing charges, so I went to Fred Foreman and said, “I don't think we ought to do this and here's why.” He said, “OK. If you're that passionate about it and you’ve made your case against it, we ought not prosecute.” I could sleep better at night knowing we did the right thing.
I can't tell you how many times I've had accused individuals reach out to me afterwards and say things like “Thank you. I was innocent. Here's what I did with my life later.” Once, I had an arson case I investigated for several months. Eventually, I decided that it was too close to call for an indictment - the evidence was just too straight down the road. I just couldn't bring myself to prosecute. Of course, the investigator felt otherwise. But I thought, “He's got an alibi witness who is a nun, he has a plausible explanation for a variety issues, he appears credible even against some fairly decent arson evidence.” Finally, I went to my then supervisor, BL, who's now general counsel at a medical technology company and said, “Look, I just don't think that we should prosecute this.” He reviewed the evidence and we went back and forth, sent it up the chain of review. Eventually, the office agreed and declined to prosecute. BL called me a while later because he heard on the radio that another county had attempted to prosecute the matter and a jury acquitted. That was undoubtedly the right result; there was too much uncertainty.
LD: What you did as a lawyer in that case is what we’re supposed to do, right? You don't just aim to be part of the powerful.
PBH: Right. Justice should always prevail.