Insights

The View From the Bench_Ann Claire Williams

ONE Connection | Second Quarter 2022

Read the full issue of ONE Connection. 

Several of our colleagues joined the Firm after serving as judges. We asked some of them to discuss their experiences on the bench, why they chose Jones Day, and what advice they have for their colleagues.  

Today's installment features an interview with Judge Ann Claire Williams (Ret.), of counsel in the Chicago Office. Judge Williams heads Jones Day's efforts to advance the rule of law in Africa. She is devoted to promoting the effective delivery of justice worldwide, particularly in Africa. She has partnered with judiciaries, attorneys, NGOs, and the U.S. Departments of Justice and State to lead training programs in several countries, including Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Liberia, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.

She also has taught at the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

In 1985, President Reagan nominated her to the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, making her the first woman of color to serve on a district court in the three-state Seventh Circuit. In 1999, President Clinton's nomination made her the first judge of color to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit and the third Black woman to serve on any federal circuit court. This past March, Judge Williams testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee as chair of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, on its evaluation of the professional qualifications of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. 

How and why did you first become a judge?

My name had been mentioned for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and I was asked by Sen. Charles Percy's staff to apply. I had been in public service as an Assistant United States Attorney in Chicago for nine years and was Chief of a criminal division. I considered the opportunity to become a judge an extension of the public service that had always been so important to me. I also thought I could be fair and could help ensure that the people who came into my courtroom walked away with more confidence in our legal system. 

After serving for 14 years as a district court judge, I was nominated by President Clinton to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. While I truly loved serving on the district court, I was excited to return to the court of appeals, where I began my legal career as a law clerk for Seventh Circuit Judge Robert Sprecher. 

What experiences stand out from your years on the bench?

There are certainly individual cases that stand out, such as directing $3.2 million in cy pres funds as a district court judge to create a two-year post-law school public interest fellowship program that is now Equal Justice Works, and being on the unanimous Seventh Circuit panel that struck down same-sex marriage bans in Indiana and Wisconsin. As a more general matter, I think about the weight I felt when imposing sentences in criminal cases, no matter how long or short the sentence. 

Many highlights come to mind as well. On the district court, the rewards included swearing in new citizens, seeing the impact of decisions on litigants' lives, and the interactions I had with lawyers and jurors. Delivering justice felt very substantial and real in the district court; I knew that the judge was the symbol of justice to the parties and to the public in my courtroom, and I took that responsibility seriously. 

For the court of appeals, the humbling nature of the position stands out. For most litigants, our decision represented their final chance to win because the Supreme Court takes so few cases to review. I was also cognizant that our decisions made law that would affect the people in three states. With those considerations and my judicial oath in mind, I took pride in working together with my colleagues to try to achieve a just result under the law. I also found it satisfying when I was able to convince my colleagues who might have initially been inclined to rule another way to come around to my point of view. 

Finally, the evolving role of judges and the courts in community and civic education stands out to me. I think it's more critical than ever that judges and the courts continue to play that role. 

After serving as a judge, why did you choose Jones Day?

Jones Day gave me the unique opportunity to pursue a passion I had had for more than 15 years prior to leaving the bench—advancing the rule of law in Africa. The rule of the law is the foundation of any society, critical not just for individual citizens but also for businesses to operate with confidence. The opportunity Steve Brogan presented to build on my years of experience collaborating with and training judges and lawyers in Africa to make institutional, systemic change was very appealing to me. 

In addition, I had positive interactions with many Jones Day attorneys who volunteered for the pro bono programs I led for Lawyers Without Borders and NITA. I had been very impressed by the quality of these Jones Day attorneys, on both professional and personal levels. I particularly enjoyed working with Michael Ginsberg, partner in the Business & Tort Litigation Practice, who came to Africa with me to do training many times. 

In what ways did your approach to practicing law change after your years on the bench?

My time on the bench gave me my first significant experience with civil litigation, as I had served as a prosecutor and law clerk before taking the bench. One thing I observed was the increasing importance of mediation as a way of resolving disputes at the trial and appellate court level. As a district court judge, I was able to resolve many cases that others thought had no chance of settling, and I have carried that passion for resolving cases into my work at Jones Day. 

For example, in partnership with the Weinstein International Foundation, a nonprofit on whose board I sit (along with former Jones Day partner Ambassador (Ret.) David Carden), we conducted a 13-session, 40-hour mediation training program for members of the Zambian judiciary and private bar. The goal is to help reduce case backlog for the Zambian judiciary—the backlog in many African countries is overwhelming—and to resolve cases more expeditiously for the litigants, most of whom proceed without counsel. 

I also recognized during my time on the bench that in order to enhance the quality of justice for all that the system serves, it is critical to have partnerships between the courts, academic institutions, and not-for-profits. In that vein, I was very pleased that Javade Chaudhri, of counsel in the Global Disputes Practice, connected me with the International Law Institute-African Centre for Legal Excellence. I now chair the Advisory Board of the ILI-South African Centre for Excellence, and we work with ILI on a variety of topics in Africa including mediation. 

What advice would you give your fellow Jones Day lawyers in terms of best practices when dealing with judges?

While top-notch legal skills are very important, integrity, honesty, and your reputation are so critical. Attorneys trusted by judges tend to be more persuasive and more effective for their clients.

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