Liu keeps moving forward

Laura Liu has done a lot in her career. After a successful run as an attorney, she became the first Chinese-American female judge in Illinois and, later, the first Asian-American on the state appeals court. Her toughest test, though, came  when she was diagnosed with breast cancer — news she refused to let slow her down.  - Ralph Greenslade
Laura Liu has done a lot in her career. After a successful run as an attorney, she became the first Chinese-American female judge in Illinois and, later, the first Asian-American on the state appeals court. Her toughest test, though, came  when she was diagnosed with breast cancer — news she refused to let slow her down.  —Photo by Ralph Greenslade

Mother. Attorney. Judge. Cancer patient.

Many would assume any one of those titles requires a good degree of intelligence, resolve and personal strength. It so happens that Laura Liu can check off all four before reaching the age of 50.

When Liu, 47, was sworn into the Illinois Appellate Court in February, she became the first Asian-American judge in the court’s history. As she adjusts to the new appointment, she also maintains an active presence in the region’s judicial community, is a mother and wife and continues a life with breast cancer that is 3 years old this month.

With her close-cropped, stylish hair, a megawatt smile and an effervescent personality, you wouldn’t assume Liu has cancer. She also doesn’t lead with the information when you meet her for the first time.

Liu’s “seize-the-day” attitude toward her career, her family and her life is a testament to her plan to continue a busy life — and possibly break some more barriers in the process.

Unique and isolated

Liu was born in downstate Carbondale and moved to Austintown, Ohio, a suburb of Youngstown, when she was a year old.

The first-generation Chinese-American child — a product of an economics professor father and an auditor mother — did not grow up around many people who resembled her. When she graduated from high school in 1984, she was the only Asian-American in a 600-person graduating class that also had one black person.

Laura Cha-yu LiuShe experienced mockery of Asian stereotypes from classmates, something she believes was not mean-spirited. But it drove her into self-isolation just the same.

“I was a lot about singular achievement,” she said. “I wanted to be head of the National Honor Society and excel at piano competitions and speech instead of getting more involved with people and integrating myself. I became more independent out of a need for self-survival.”

She enrolled at Youngstown State University with the intention of going to medical school afterward. After graduating in 1987, she went to Ohio State University to take a few liberal arts classes. One of her friends had a district attorney husband who took Liu to sit in on a trial in the courtroom.

“I was very intrigued,” she said. “I felt energized by what was happening in the courtroom and motivated to find out how two people can argue about the same set of facts and come to two completely different conclusions, and someone would win. It also appealed to the side of me that wanted to advocate.”

Liu has no regrets about passing up a medical career, mainly because she initially pursued it because “that was the expectation” of her and her several cousins.

“All of us were urged to study medicine,” she said. “Not one of us became doctors.”

After graduating from the University of Cincinnati College of Law, she started her legal career in 1991 doing mostly medical- malpractice and product-liability defense for six years at what is now Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym. She admits to being very conscious and wary of being one of the only people of Asian descent practicing law in Chicago.

“I was always very careful to make sure I followed all the rules and watched what other people were doing,” she said. “I wanted to fit in more than I wanted to be a trailblazer. I didn’t want to be distinguished from everyone. I didn’t want to be an Asian-American on the rise. I wasn’t mature, prepared or motivated enough to be a role model.”

Bench transition

After a year at a two-person firm, Liu went to Hogan Marren, where she handled health-care transactional work, labor and civil rights cases and contract disputes.

Firm founding partner Robert Hogan worked with Liu for the nearly 13 years she spent at the firm.

“Anyone not as well-prepared as her — and she is always exceptionally well-prepared for anything she gets involved in — was in for trouble,” he said. “As an advocate, she represented her clients admirably. I can tell from her short time on the bench that she brings that same talent and dedication to being prepared. A citizen would have a tremendous benefit from having her serve as a judge.”

In 2010, the Illinois Supreme Court appointed her to the Cook County Circuit Court.

Liu admits that moving to the bench was a welcome transition after litigating for nearly two decades.

“Sometimes the adversarial process is good, but it can turn to a long, hostile process,” she said. “Toward the end, I felt as if I always wanted to move toward resolution more and work things out in a way that is not so antagonistic.”

The appellate court still requires some adjustment for Liu; her office at the Bilandic Building, adorned mostly with the basics of a professional workspace, has the feeling of someone still getting comfortable and easing in.

“I love it. … I feel like I’m in law school again, only more mature and with more experience,” she said. “There’s a lot of intellectual curiosity, the ability to research things, to think about things, analyze and interpret the law, take time to come to disposition of a case. It’s really a dream.”

She said the transition from trying cases in the appellate court — where she hears oral arguments about three times a month — from the mortgage foreclosure section of the circuit court’s Chancery Division is almost as profound as the transition from litigating to the bench.

“The pace was different. I had two calls a day, numerous cases to read, prepping. … It was like a constant fire going,” she said.

“In the Daley Center, it’s like you’re in a high-rise. You have deputies who say ‘hi’ to you; the clerks, staff members, all of the judges on the same floor. I love doing this job, but sometimes I miss all the people.”

Blazing trails

Liu’s first appointment to the bench brought with it a series of firsts: She was the first Chinese-American female judge in the state and the first Chinese-American judge of any gender to serve in Cook County.

“I was surprised when I found out about (the firsts),” she said. “People asked me about it so I checked around for the answer.”

She said that each of her groundbreaking appointments has resulted in a certain degree of excitement and celebration from ethnic legal communities, especially the Asian and Filipino bar associations. However, the appointment to the appellate court also came with a flashback to early fears.

“There’s the curiosity from some people as to whether this is a token assignment,” she said. “That comes with the territory of being a minority and being the first to be in a certain position. But I don’t begrudge anybody. … Whatever their opinion is, they are entitled to it.”

Liu received the Vanguard Award on behalf of the Asian-American Bar Association at the annual Vanguard Award Luncheon in April. The award honors members of the legal profession from various minority-focused bar associations for their work in diversifying the profession.

She didn’t believe she necessarily deserved the award, a sentiment derived from the fact she was inactive in the ethnic bar associations for an extended period before she moved to the bench.

“Since being welcomed by all of the Asian communities, I really try to make up for lost time,” Liu said. “They welcomed me so openly, I’ve doubled my efforts to try to give back.”

Asian-American Bar Association President Jeanah Park said Liu has certainly put in effort: Park worked with Liu in 2011 as co-organizer of an event for a Continuing Legal Education program, and Park helped Liu during the latter’s one-year stint as president of the Illinois Judges Foundation.

“Laura’s been extraordinarily generous with her time and was very committed to giving back to the Asian-American community, even before she was a judge,” Park said.

Liu also helped Park, a shareholder at Vedder Price, with the judicial development committee that’s designed to educate and promote Asian-Americans in the judiciary. Park said she was honored to bestow the Vanguard Award upon Liu.

“It’s quite monumental to be the first Asian-American to reach that level,” Park said. “It was important that the entire Chicago legal community recognizes this as a thing that hadn’t happened yet, not just the Asian bar associations.”

The list of organizations to which Liu dedicates her free time is lengthy. It includes working with the Chinese American Bar Association of Greater Chicago, giving speeches to the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association and guiding young people to the Illinois State Bar Association’s Law and Leadership Institute, a program for disadvantaged high school students.

“She is one of the most enthusiastic people we have in our legal community. … Whenever you ask her to help out, she automatically responds,” said ISBA President Paula Hudson Holderman. “She is an outstanding appointment to the appellate court, and she adds a great breadth of practice as a lawyer and trial court judge. And she brings a diverse woman perspective to our legal community.”

Never alone

On the afternoon of June 27, 2011, as she was preparing to attend a fundraiser for her 8th Judicial Subcircuit campaign at the Cork & Kerry pub in the Beverly neighborhood, Liu’s suspicions of a breast cancer diagnosis were confirmed by her doctor.

On a day when no one would have faulted her for clearing her schedule, she attended the fundraiser and delivered a speech, waiting until the next day to hunker down with family and doctors to figure out how to approach the bad news.

That response is representative of Liu’s general approach to her illness, which was in remission for a while but recurred last year. Fundraisers, campaign events, filming commercials and her eventual election to the bench all happened while punishing chemotherapy and treatments made her hair fall out and took a toll on her body.

Laura Cha-yu Liu“I put on my wig, put on my eyebrows, lots of blush, happy face, got out of bed and went to work,” she said.

Liu said she received an ample amount of professional assistance from colleagues and assistants who made and took phone calls that she couldn’t, as well as on the personal front from family who came in from out of the country and in-laws related to her husband, Michael Kasper, a Chicago litigator.

“I couldn’t have done it without them,” she said. “Not everyone has the luxury of going through cancer or some other illness with this big pillow.”

When the news of her diagnosis broke, she received an outpouring of support from a number of people, many of whom she had never met. She keeps a pink box that contains every card, note or letter she received in support.

“What I learned the most since that time was how incredible and thoughtful people that you don’t even know can be. I am so blessed from the kindness of strangers,” she said. “People reach out to you and they extend themselves and show kindness and concern without you even asking.”

She also learned through experience that many victims of cancer — and other illnesses or profoundly damaging life circumstances — are often forced to stay strong for others.

“Lots of people are in the same situation I was, and you just don’t realize what they were going through,” she said. “They put on their strong face. I don’t necessarily think I was courageous. I did it out of survival, as a self-preservation thing.”

Liu said her illness also changed her approach toward the people she encountered in the courtroom, whose lives were thrown into disarray when they faced home foreclosure.

“I had much more empathy for foreclosure victims at work,” she said. “I took more time to speak to them and address them.”

The love of it

Even before her diagnosis sparked a new level of compassion and empathy, Liu’s approach to the judiciary was born of a desire to assist those who need a little extra assistance in the courtroom, especially given her ongoing efforts to provide adequate language access to parties with limited English proficiency.

When considering a moment that made her appreciate her job, she cited an instance in which a Spanish-speaking litigant received a dense two-page order in English. (“If you speak English, you might be able to understand; if you don’t understand English, it’s almost impossible,” Liu said.) She saw to it that the litigant got a Spanish-language version of the form.

“She was so elated,” Liu said. “Moments like that make it very rewarding and fulfilling because you can see it. … The difference you made is literally palpable.”

Hogan, her former colleague, noted that Liu’s appellate court swearing-in ceremony at the Bilandic Building included a speech from Chancery Division Presiding Judge Moshe Jacobius.

Jacobius recalled Liu’s work on diversity panels — including as co-chair of the Language Access Committee, part of the Illinois Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission — and her helpfulness toward the many litigants whose first languages make it difficult to understand what’s going on in the courtroom.

“Most of us don’t think about the fact that people from different countries, who don’t speak or read English, are completely lost in a building like the Daley Center,” Hogan said. “She had made recommendations in terms of signage and phone numbers for translators — little, common-sense things that people don’t give much thought to. … They don’t escape her.”

One day at a time

Because she was appointed to the appellate court, Liu plans to run for the seat before the assignment ends in December 2016. If she changes her mind or loses the election, she would finish her six-year circuit court term in 2018.

When not working, she enjoys her free time, which largely consists of playing piano, traveling and setting up play dates for her young daughter. She said family has become even more important in the wake of her illness.

Laura Cha-yu Liu“I am, in certain ways, much more aware of everything I do because it counts more,” she said. “It’s changed my life. I’m not the same. I don’t look at things the same. I feel very grateful — more than I did before.”

Liu is also doing work with the Lynn Sage Cancer Research Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit breast cancer research and outreach organization. She serves as a mentor of sorts to other women diagnosed with cancer, helping those who have approached her for advice since the news of her cancer first broke.

“It becomes like a sisterhood,” she said. “It opens up discussions. You feel connected because so many more women are affected by it than you know. I’m not happy they’re in the situation, but I’m happy that they ask me to help.”

Asked about Liu, Appellate Justice Jesse Reyes mentioned one thing they have in common: bringing their daughters to work.

“No matter how busy she is, she always makes time for her husband and daughter,” Reyes said. “It’s the little things that personify who she is. She’s a very caring and kind person, but at the same time, she’s a serious jurist and does a great service to the profession.”

Even in the face of her cancer’s recurrence, Liu stays positive, insisting that she takes it one day at a time.

“It’s the loudest wake-up call anyone will ever get,” she said. “And if you don’t think it changes your life, if you don’t think it makes you better in certain ways, you’re kidding yourself.”

Of course, she’s only human.

“Sometimes if I think about it, it feels like I’ll drop like a stone,” she said. “Other times, I feel so lucky I want to drop down on one knee and thank God I’m here.”