JOLIET – Vincent Cornelius of Joliet made history June 17 when he was installed as the 140th president of the Illinois State Bar Association at its annual meeting.
He is the first person from Joliet, the first person from Will County, and the first African-American, to become president of the association. While the first two are personally satisfying to Cornelius – having lived in Joliet most of his life – it’s the latter he feels is most historically significant.
“There’s always a diversity of mindsets and diversity of personalities and viewpoints,” Cornelius said. “The more of those viewpoints and perspectives that have a seat at the table and voice in the ideology, the stronger the organization and the stronger the association.”
Raymond Bolden, a former Will County judge, has known Vincent for most of Cornelius’ life. Bolden called Cornelius, whose practice focuses on criminal defense and civil litigation, a great attorney and leader.
“He has intelligence and he works hard at his profession,” Bolden said. “He cares about people and he wants to help others. Those are the qualities for people who want to help others lead.”
As president of the association, Vincent plans to emphasize education. According to a new release from the ISBA, Cornelius intends to collaborate with Illinois law schools and law school deans, the Illinois Supreme Court and the American Bar Association.
Vincent, who said he’s taught Bible study at his church, said education is important when communicating with clients, witnesses and sometimes even judges.
“I have a teacher’s heart,” he said.
He gives credit for that to his mother, Lorrayne Cornelius, a Washington Junior High School teacher for 34 years.
Lorrayne left Pine Bluff, Arkansas – where Vincent was born – in 1966 after Joliet Public Schools District 86 recruited her and other black teachers from the South to add diversity to the district, Vincent said.
Vincent had two more strong influences in his life: Bolden, who was a family friend (“He was courageous when he saw anything that looked like injustice,” Vincent said); and Perry Mason.
But Lorrayne’s influence was the strongest. She impressed Vincent with her dedication to helping students be the best they could.
“I saw how it gratified her,” Vincent said. “She [even] helped me see what I could be. Watching my mother engage in our community and help everyone she could in every way she could – I wanted to be in a profession where I could do that.”
Even at age 9 and a student at the former Edna Keith Elementary School in Joliet, Vincent knew he wanted to practice law as a trial lawyer.
“I wanted to be in the courtroom, standing in front of the jury box arguing cases on a regular basis,” Vincent said. “That’s the way I always envisioned it.”
That desire stayed with him, through his years at Washington Junior High School, Joliet Catholic High School and the former College of St Francis, where Vincent earned a bachelor’s degree in business and played basketball.
Vincent feels his enjoyment of sports contributed to his love of the courtroom.
“That probably caters to the athlete in me,” Vincent said. “It’s a highly competitive environment.”
In 2013, Vincent was elected third vice president of the Illinois State Bar Association, the first step, he said, toward his installation as president of the 32,000-member organization.
“It means I have an opportunity to make a significant contribution at the highest level of my profession,” he said.
Lorrayne died in 2013, but not before Vincent’s path to the presidency was established.
Was she proud?
“I think my mother was proud of the accomplishments of her son long before I was elected third vice president,” Vincent said.
According to a news release from the ISBA, Cornelius received his law degree from Northern Illinois University College of Law in 1989 and began his legal career as an assistant state’s attorney in DuPage County.
Afterward, he joined the law firm of James D. Montgomery and Associates in Chicago and then – by age 30 – opened his own firm in Wheaton. He later opened a second office in Joliet.
In 1999, Cornelius was elected to the ISBA Board of Governors’ 37-and-under seat. He also served as the chancellor of the ISBA’s Academy of Illinois Lawyers and as the president of the Illinois Bar Foundation from 2008 to 2010.
In addition, Cornelius served as assistant treasurer and as chairman of several committees of the DuPage County Bar Association. He is a founding member of the Black Bar Association of Will County.