The Northern Illinois University College of Law held its 18th Annual Minority Alumni Reception, co-hosted by Dean Cassandra L. Hill and The Honorable Vincent Cornelius (’89) on February 24, 2021. Judge Cornelius, a former ISBA President, is the co-founder and has co-hosted the Minority Reception since its inception eighteen years ago.
Although this year’s reception was remote, attendees brought their same energy and enthusiasm to one of the law school’s longest standing traditions. And, this year’s virtual platform enabled alumni and friends from New York to California to attend the reception. The evening included special presentations recognizing The Honorable Thomas L. Kilbride (Ret.) and alumna Karen Wilkerson (’97) with the Excellence in Service and Leadership Award for their outstanding career achievements and devotion to the public good.
Justice Thomas L. Kilbride (Ret.) worked in private practice for 20 years before being elected to the Illinois Supreme Court in 2000, where he represented the Third District. In October 2010, he was elected Chief Justice of the state’s high court. During his term as Chief Justice, Kilbride carved out a legacy that was notable in several respects, including boosting public access to the court system, increasing transparency of court proceedings, and accelerating the court’s use of digital technology to improve public access and court administration efficiency. Justice Kilbride supported the creation of a supreme court commission on “Access to Justice” to help increase access for all citizens to the court system. He also supported the “JusticeCorps” initiative that trained volunteers to assist average citizens with civil legal matters when they can’t afford legal representation.
Justice Kilbride has received numerous awards including the 2012 Illinoisan of the Year Award from the Illinois News Broadcasters Association, the prestigious Award of Excellence in the Judiciary from The Illinois State Crime Commission, and the 2021 Unity Award from the Diversity Scholarship Foundation. Justice Kilbride also serves as a member of the NIU College of Law Board of Visitors. He has been as a speaker for the College of Law’s annual Francis X. Riley Lecture on Professionalism, and he has administered the Oath of Professionalism to first-year law students at the NIU College of Law for many years. Justice Kilbride retired from the Court in December 2020.
Karen Wilkerson (’97) has always known the importance of being an advocate for our youth and these experiences were critical influences in her decision to pursue her law degree. Early in her career, Karen was a prison guard for the Department of Corrections juvenile center, she has worked for NIU’s TRIO Program, and she worked for a facility in Rockford as the therapist for the first juvenile sex offender treatment program in the state of Illinois.
During law school, Karen had to balance family, work and student life. She started the organization for Law Students Who are Non-Traditional, participated in Moot Court and won the Spirit Award, and was an active member of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA). In 1995, she started BLSA’s annual Thanksgiving Luncheon, a timeless tradition that is still enjoyed by many across campus today. However, one of her most meaningful accomplishments was organizing a highly successful bone marrow registry drive. This drive added over 600 new names to the registry; but more significantly, over 400 of those were from minorities, for which the registry is always in desperate need. She received the Outstanding Woman Student Award for her numerous accomplishments as a student.
Karen opened her own firm in 2003 becoming the first African American owned law firm in DeKalb. For six years she specialized in family, juvenile, civil, and criminal law. She also served as Chair of the City of DeKalb’s Human Relations Commission and was on the Mental Health Board. Karen has been the Supervisory Regional Counsel for the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) since 2010. She represents 11 counties in the northern district of Illinois, where she supervises attorneys and paralegals and is responsible for protecting abused and neglected children. Some of her cases have been high-profile cases in the news.
During the reception, Judge Cornelius also acknowledged the highly accomplished and former recipients of the Excellence in Service and Leadership Award. “When we recognize people for this Service and Leadership Award, we recognize more than just achievements and accomplishments. We honor extraordinary service and we honor exceptional leadership,” said Judge Cornelius. “All of our honorees have made significant contributions to the legal profession and society, and they have enhanced the reputation of the NIU College of Law.”