Lawyer Limelight: Kalia Coleman

Kalia Coleman had spent almost her entire career in government service. After more than half a decade at the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, she joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2016, where she rose to the role of Deputy Chief of the General Crimes Division. Then, less than six months ago, Coleman forged a new path: She transitioned to private practice as partner at the Chicago office of Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila (“RSHC”). She is far from the only federal prosecutor to do so – Coleman is the seventh former Assistant U.S. Attorney to join the firm. Coleman joins a robust government enforcement, investigations and white-collar criminal defense practice within RSHC, which opened in 2016. Coleman’s background is uniquely suited to her new private practice; she has experience in wide-ranging criminal investigations relating to extortion, fraud, racketeering, RICO violations and more in 100-plus bench and jury trials. In addition to her extensive trial practice, Coleman has worked with the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago, Inc. (“BWLA”) for nearly a decade and served as president from 2019-2020. 

Far from an unprecedented change, Coleman’s shift to private practice has enabled her to expand her horizons in ways she always wanted. “The transition has affirmed my long standing belief that the legal profession is full of opportunities,” she says. “I never want to be complacent. Throughout my career, I always want to be pushing myself to do more.”

Lawdragon: Can you describe for our readers the mix of work you do within your new practice at RSHC?

Kalia Coleman: My practice has recently changed, and I am enjoying the excitement and challenges of coming into a new role. After 10 years as a prosecutor (five for the State of Illinois and five and a half for the federal government), I have transitioned to a private practice focused on white-collar criminal defense, government investigations and compliance work. In addition, I am a litigator at heart and work on all kinds of commercial litigation. Everything I have learned throughout my career has prepared me for this new role with RSHC.

LD: That’s such an exciting change. What do you find most rewarding about your new practice?

KC: Even though I was always focused on my responsibility as a prosecutor to deliver justice, I respected the important role the defense attorney plays in a criminal proceeding. The accused party deserves and depends on a zealous advocate who will protect his or her constitutional rights. Now that I am on the other side of cases, representing clients in white-collar criminal matters and commercial disputes, my understanding of and appreciation for the defense attorney’s role has deepened. I am in the position to advocate for an individual or entity, and to try to obtain the best possible resolution for the client to allow the client an opportunity to move past a challenging chapter. I feel a deep sense of responsibility to do the job well. 

Similarly, in my work on internal investigations, I have an opportunity to help companies create protocols and implement remedial measures to protect the company and its employees from potential civil and/or criminal liability. Temperamentally, I am passionate about laws and rules and order – that’s just innately who I am. I find it to be quite fulfilling to assist companies with achieving legal compliance because that is such an important factor in helping the company and its employees thrive.  

LD: How do you feel your transition to private practice has marked a new chapter in your career?

KC: I count my change to private practice as a professional development and an achievement because it has forced me to step outside of my comfort zone and learn a whole host of new skills, and I am succeeding in this new role. In addition to my legal practice itself, as a firm partner I’m learning how to develop my book of business and build my profile in the industry. All of these new challenges are very exciting. 

LD: Can you tell us about any recent cases you’ve been working on?

KC: Most of the cases I work on are highly sensitive, and I cannot discuss any of them specifically. 

But what I can say is that throughout my career, whether during my time as prosecutor or now in private practice, I have always emphasized to my teams the importance of humanizing every client. As a former prosecutor, I recognized that a person accused of a crime is not defined solely by this one act, whether guilty or not guilty. That person has a life, a family, a history and a future. Now that I focus some of my practice on representing defendants in criminal matters, I more fully understand the huge responsibility these clients have entrusted me with. It is my job not just to provide the best possible legal representation to get to the most favorable outcome, but also to find ways to calm my client, who is struggling through a very difficult ordeal, and to help him or her process the choices they must make, to consider their families and their future. This same type of thought process guides my presentation of clients in non-criminal matters.  

One reason I wanted to join RSHC is that the firm has so many former federal prosecutors who are passionate about protecting the Constitution, and who genuinely understand the value of having an adversarial system. And that infuses everything we do, from the white-collar criminal defense practice to some of the high-profile wrongful conviction cases my colleague Ron Safer is known for. It’s great to be in an environment with colleagues who share this sentiment and are committed to zealous advocacy, no matter the case. 

LD: That’s such an important philosophy. Were there any clients or matters from your time as a prosecutor that stick out to you as particularly memorable?

KC: As I think back on my time as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I often think of an individual who was incarcerated and acted as a cooperating witness in a narcotics conspiracy case we were prosecuting. Because of the information he provided in the investigation, I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with him. 

Through that time, I observed firsthand the power of change – that it really is possible for someone to change and transform. This man truly reflected on the things he had done and how his involvement with selling narcotics had negatively affected his community. He was taking responsibility for what he had done and then made an active decision to take advantage of resources available while he was incarcerated that could set him on a new path. By the end of that case, he looked different, he spoke differently. And seeing that change really made an impact on me. So often in criminal law we focus on the punitive aspect, but we don’t talk enough about rehabilitative and reformative aspects. That experience really taught me about the power people have to change. 

LD: Definitely. Looking back a bit, did any experience from your undergraduate work push you towards a career in the law?

KC: I’ve known that I wanted to be a lawyer since I was 11 years old, and the inspiration for that decision at such a young age was studying Justice Thurgood Marshall and the Brown v. Board of Education case in sixth grade. Reading about Justice Marshall and Brown was the first time I understood the power of persuasion that a lawyer possesses. Marshall used his intellect, legal prowess and oral/written skills to convince the United States Supreme Court to overturn the “separate but equal” doctrine. And I knew that his success in that case was the very reason that I, as a young Black woman, was able to attend an integrated school and have access to all the educational opportunities I’ve had. 

I would not have been able to articulate this at the time but, looking back, Justice Marshall made me realize that lawyers play a significant role in our society. I saw them as problem solvers and people who gave voices to the voiceless. And I wanted to do that work. In college at the University of Illinois, I majored in political science and took as many classes as I could that were related to government and law. I joined clubs and activities that allowed me to get access to the legal world. The more experience I had with those opportunities, the more it confirmed my interest in becoming a lawyer. 

LD: What about mentors – did you have anyone who really helped shape the course of your professional life?

KC: I have admired Judge Patricia Brown Holmes for a long time and am now very fortunate to be a partner at RSHC, where she serves as the only Black female managing partner of a large law firm. She is a founding member of the BWLA, and I am a past president and board member of BWLA, so that is how I first became aware of her career and her reputation. 

Judge Holmes is the epitome of what I would like to be as an attorney. In terms of legal prowess, she is at the top of her game. She is highly intelligent, hardworking and filled with integrity. Speak to anyone who has worked with her – from people in government to firm and industry colleagues – and what they talk about is how much they trust her. In terms of who she is as a human being, well, it doesn’t get any better. She is humble and kind. And she is tough – but with a soft heart underneath. She is the type of person I want to emulate, on both a personal and professional level. She was the motivating factor behind my recent shift to private practice. She has always encouraged me and offered her support throughout my career. 

LD: Can you talk a bit more about your work as president of the BWLA? 

KC: Yes, I was past president and served on the board for about seven years. I am still very involved in planning programming and events because I believe so strongly in its mission. BWLA’s mission is threefold: First, to identify and address issues unique to African American women lawyers, judges and those in academia, and to improve the administration of justice by increasing the participation of African American women and other minorities throughout the legal system. Second, to improve the administration of justice by increasing the participation of African American women and other minorities throughout the legal system. And third, to advance civil and human rights. I have continued to work with the BWLA Board of Directors to achieve its mission.

LD: Have you been involved in any other public interest activities? 

KC: I am also a member of the Chicago Bar Foundation’s Young Professionals Board. I also devote a significant amount of time to mentoring law students and am in the process of getting more involved in community organizations to mentor young people, particularly young people in minority communities. It is so important for them to be exposed to Black professionals, to understand the many paths available to them in life and see what is possible. I find that work very meaningful. 

LD: Do you have any advice you’d give to current law students, or young people like your mentees? 

KC: I would advise two things. First, while in law school, don’t pigeonhole yourself to focusing on certain areas of the law, even if you think you know going in what interests you. Keep an open mind. Use the opportunity to gain as much experience as you can across as many areas of the law as possible. Because there is more to each of these areas of practice than you think, and you never know what might interest you until you experience it. 

And second, build your network. In law school, your studies are so rigorous and the expectations so intense, it can be tempting to close yourself off from the world and focus solely on academic achievement. But there is so much more to learning this profession. It’s just as important to develop relationships with practicing lawyers who can help you access opportunities, and so many of them are eager to mentor you. They understand that investing that time and attention in mentoring ultimately serves the profession as a whole and creates better lawyers. So, don’t be shy about joining organizations and reaching out to people who have taken careen paths that interest you. These people may become future mentors and sponsors, and developing those relationships is crucial to building a sustainable career and realizing your potential. 

LD: That’s great advice. How do you think people would describe your style as a lawyer? 

KC: If you were to ask people who have worked with me over the years, I believe they would say I am a zealous advocate for my clients, whatever the circumstances of the case, but also that while the American legal system is, by definition, adversarial, that doesn’t mean we need to see the opposing side as an enemy. I always treat opposing counsel with respect. I hold myself to the highest standard of integrity. I think they would say that I am hardworking, that I have a fire in my belly and fight hard for what I believe in. And I’ve been told I approach serious situations with humor. Sometimes it helps to lighten the mood. 

LD: As a partner now, how would you say firm or practice management has changed since the start of your career?

KC: One of the biggest shifts I’ve seen in the approach to management is a greater focus from leaders on developing real relationships with the employees they supervise. And this has really accelerated during the pandemic. People have been dealing with so many challenges and just so many changes to the way we work now. For some it has been difficult to adjust, and it has become very important to keep the lines of communication open. There is a greater need to check in, especially when we may be working in different places, and to truly get to know each other. We need to understand different work styles and how we can work together to achieve optimal results. In the past, leadership has been much more hands off, much more the leader deciding how we would all work and the rest of the team complying. Now, it has become more more collaborative, and as someone who has worked under both sets of conditions and also led teams, I think that is a positive development. 

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?

KC: I love to travel, especially internationally. I love learning about other cultures, learning the history and visiting the museums in the places I visit. Wherever I travel I try to find the courthouse, so I never leave my interest in the law very far behind. I am especially interested in barristers, in England, in Africa. I find it so interesting to learn about the details of other legal systems around the world. In my off hours I also enjoy working out and spending time with my family and friends. They are my foundation and keep me grounded. 

LD: Do you have a favorite book or movie about the justice system?

KC: My favorite movie about the justice system is “A Time to Kill,” based on the book of that name by John Grisham. And my favorite part of that movie is the closing argument Matthew McConaughey delivers at the end of the trial. For those not familiar with the story, McConaughey plays a lawyer representing a Black father (played by Samuel L. Jackson) who avenged his daughter’s rape by shooting the white men responsible for it before they stood trial. Now on trial for murder and facing the death penalty, the father is depending on the jury to understand why he did what he did. This comes to a head in the closing argument, when McConaughey asks the members of the jury to close their eyes and listen as he describes the brutal crime the little girl experienced. After going into great, emotional detail, he ends his argument with, “Now imagine she was white.” I have always liked that scene because it demonstrates how our biases and prejudices can cloud our judgment of what’s right and wrong and can get in the way of our ability to humanize people who are different from us. It’s just a great scene. 

LD: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing now?

KC: I think I would be a teacher or a professor. I find mentorship and teaching very fulfilling.