CHICAGO (JGL) – She started her American Dream in the kitchen but she is living it on the bench.
Philippine-born Cook County Judge Jessica Arong O’Brien is going to be installed president of the storied Women’s Bar Association of Illinois by Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke during a dinner and reception at the Atlantic Ballroom of Radisson Blu Hotel in downtown, Chicago at 6 p.m. on June 4.
Judge O’Brien will be the second minority president of the bar group that has 1,000 members. Two other African Americans were elected presidents before her during the last 101 years.
United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit Chief Judge Diane P. Wood will install the officers and Circuit Court of Cook County Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans will install the board of directors.
Judge O’Brien’s installation comes in the heels of her choice as the recipient of the AACE (Asian American Coalition of Employees) of the BMO Financial Group’s Edward J. Williams Community Award during the “CelebrAsian” Many Cultures, One Bank: Promoting Leadership, Diversity & Inclusion ceremonies, marking the Asian-Pacific Islanders American Heritage Month, held last May 20 at BMO’s office in downtown Chicago.
Born and raised in Cebu City, Judge O’Brien was also the keynote speaker at the BMO CelebrAsian, where she urged her audience to be a “victor not a victim” of their life’s struggles due to their cultural background.
As a victim of child abuse from her drug-addicted cousins, who molested her, O’Brien was thankful she was able to rise above challenges of having an illiterate grandmother who raised her when her mother pursued medical studies in New York. She was left alone in the Philippines to fend off for herself as she failed to complete her third grade. It was the entire village, which made sure that she finished her homework and took turns in taking her to and from the school until she finished her high school.
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“When I was new here in this country, I could barely speak English,” Judge O’Brien recalled when she was about 16 years old, saying that in order to understand English she translated the words from her original language.
For the mainstream non-minorities, her assumption as the first Filipino- and first Asian-American president of WBAI is not really a big deal because “not many Asians came here (to join) the legal community since 30 years ago. But what is a big deal is that many Asians are perceived differently.” The perception built a huge gap due to cultural differences. This gap was narrowed by education, she explained.
She hailed the BMO for promoting the theme, “Many Cultures, One Bank: Promoting Leadership, Diversity & Inclusion.” The theme encourages those in the minorities to take up leadership position.
Ms. O’Brien recalled when she was a new lawyer, the judge granted her motion even without saying something to her. “He did not even look at me.” She said she wanted to say something. “But in my culture if you speak up without being spoken to, you are viewed as loud. We are taught we could not be loud or be considered rude or disrespecting people.”
She said that while most lawyers are promoted when they are “rainmakers,” she suggested that “diversity” should also play a big role in their promotion. “To succeed in business, you have to be global and diverse as your clients are coming from different countries.”
It was only by reaching out with her classmates with diverse cultures that “we celebrated our cultures after we reached out and helped each other that included others (in our school) activities that made our lives better.”
Judge O’Brien received her Bachelor of Science in Hotel & Administration and a minor in Financial Management from Boston University. She took up advanced training in culinary arts education at Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne, Switzerland and received her intensive Diploma from the original Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London.
In 1998, she earned her JD/LL.M degrees (Taxation) from The John Marshall Law School in Chicago with the distinction as the first student to complete both degrees in just three years. In 2002, she received her second LL.M. degree (Employee benefits) with honors from same school also.
Before serving as president of the WBAI in June 2015, Judge O’Brien was its first vice president. She has been a board governor of the Illinois State Bar Association since 2001.
She now serves as the non-jury, Civil Division of the First Municipal Division Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County in Chicago.