Putting their money where their beliefs are

Will County lawyers offering unique scholarship to help promote diversity

For perhaps the first time in Will County history, several bar associations in Will County have come together to offer one black or Latino law student a really significant scholarship.

The scholarship recipient will be “eligible to receive up to $46,000 to help repay outstanding legal education debt,” the Will County Bar Association website said.

In return, the scholarship recipient will be expected to practice law in Will County. Scholarship committee members said the purpose of the scholarship is to encourage diversity among the legal community in Will County.

The concept started about six months ago with Chris Spesia of Spesia & Taylor Attorneys at Law in Joliet.

“The events of last year were troubling for everybody,” Spesia said. “So I started to think what we could do that would be positive.”

Spesia started making some calls and discussing ideas, which led to the formation of an official scholarship committee.

In addition to Spesia, committee members include Jaya Varghese of the Will County Bar Association, Rolonda Mitchell of the Black Bar Association of Will County, Philip Villasenor of Latino Bar Association of Will County and Shenonda Tisdale of the Will County Women’s Bar Association.

In addition, Jacob Gancarczyk, a lawyer with Spesia & Taylor Attorneys at Law, also did quite a bit of work on the project, Spesia said.

Why a scholarship?

Spesia said his father Douglas Spesia (deceased) practiced law for 40 years in Joliet. Douglas believed in the value of education and in opportunities for advancing in one’s career, which led to the idea of creating a scholarship, Chris said.

“Our second goal was to try to help diversify our members of the bar association and our Will County attorneys by offering the scholarship to black or Hispanic students with the added incentive to practice in Will County,” Chris said.

Rolanda Mitchell, the immediate past president of the Black Bar Association of Will County, said the motto for the Black Bar Association is “to seek justice,” so Mitchell felt this scholarship did just that.

Mitchell said scholarship itself came together fairly quickly once representatives of the different organizations began talking about it.

“It was an opportunity to look at society and ask, ‘How can we give back in a meaningful way and specifically impact the legal community in Will County?’” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said Will County sometimes competes with Chicago when lawyers decided where to practice. She felt the scholarship would let law students know Will County is an excellent location for growing a career.

“And for them to see that this is a great place to live and work,” Mitchell said.

Philip Villasenor of the Latino Bar Association said that, even though the Latino Bar Association offers its own scholarship to a high school senior, this new scholarship particularly addresses the concern of “why we don’t have many Latino attorneys in Will County.”

Villasenor said association members were already discussing ways on addressing concern when they heard about the scholarship, which he called “perfect timing.”

“It’s a fantastic opportunity,” Villasenor said. “We’re just excited to be a part of it. I’m glad that we can lend our help to it.”

Shenonda Tisdale of the Will County Women’s Bar Association, who said the Will County Women’s Bar Association also provides a scholarship to a high school student, is excited to see a major step being taken toward greater diversity among the Will County legal community.

“We’re happy to see all the bars working together toward this common goal,” Tisdale said.

Jaya Varghese of the Will County Bar Association echoed those sentiments and is glad to know the local bar associations are addressing last year’s disunity “and using it to make a change for the better.”

For more information about the scholarship and to apply, visit willcountybar.net/scholarship.

Denise M. Baran-Unland

Denise M. Baran-Unland is the features editor for The Herald-News in Joliet. She covers a variety of human interest stories. She also writes the long-time weekly tribute feature “An Extraordinary Life about local people who have died. She studied journalism at the College of St. Francis in Joliet, now the University of St. Francis.