My Chicago Law Moment: Sarah Wilbanks, ’16, Learned to Take Ownership of a Project

Sarah Wilbanks, ’16, came to the Law School with a desire to go into public service. She worked on the Prosecution and Defense Clinic and took classes with practitioners, including people like Judge Virginia Kendall of the Northern District of Illinois, who taught “a really great seminar about child exploitation and human trafficking” that Wilbanks found inspiring. She looked for opportunities to serve the public interest and, during her first year, became a part of Spring Break of Service.

It was an experience that she later described as one of the most formative of her Law School career. Her first year, she joined the board and, over spring break, traveled to Louisiana to volunteer at the Orleans Public Defenders office. During her second year, she became the president of Spring Break of Service and returned to the Orleans Public Defenders.

Her service on the board and as a volunteer taught her two things: it confirmed her interest in public service work—she is now an assistant corporation counsel in the City of Chicago Law Department’s Aviation, Environmental, Regulatory & Contracts Division—and it taught her the value in putting her own stamp on a project.

“I think what a lot of experiences in law school taught me was how to really take ownership of something,” she said. And even if you can’t see it at the beginning, “you can transform that and take ownership of it.”

As president of Spring Break of Service, Wilbanks expanded the program to include a new site in St. Louis and two additional sites in New Orleans, enabling 56 students to dedicate their spring breaks to public service — an increase over the 38 students who participated in 2014 and the 18 who participated in 2013.  

“I really wanted to focus on showing everyone at the Law School how you could incorporate public service into your life and your career whether you intended to be in public service full time or be at a law firm and do pro bono work,” she said.

Now, in the City of Chicago’s law department, Wilbanks looks for opportunities to take ownership of projects as well as looking for opportunities to learn all she can from the experienced attorneys around her.

“One of the best things about working for the city as a younger lawyer is that you get the opportunity to get hands-on experience right away,” she said. “I work with really fantastic lawyers who have been public servants for years or came from firms … and they are really mentors but they also allow you to take ownership of your work. I’ve been able to have direct interaction with my clients and go to court and administrative hearings. It is really rewarding.”

Her work with the city has given her a wide range of opportunities.

“One of things my experiences in law school taught me is that you don’t have to choose just one thing you’re interested in,” she said. “What I loved about our division is that we do transactional [work] and litigation and regulatory work, and we really serve many of the client departments throughout the city. So I get to do a wide spectrum of work, even my first year of practice, which is really great because I went into law school to become a public servant and become a really good lawyer—and I think I’m going to have those experiences.”

My Chicago Law Moment is a series highlighting the Law School ideas and experiences that continue to resonate after graduation. Video produced by Will Anderson.