Abby Clark

Attorney, Davis and Campbell

An attorney and volunteer, working with others to advance the community

I grew up in Beardstown, a farming community about 80 miles south of here. In a town that small, there is a real sense of community. Everyone knows everyone, and although that may have been trouble for a spirited high-schooler, it also came with a sense of security and support.

I played sports from an early age (everyone did—you can’t really field a team otherwise!) and that experience has never left me. I played on the same teams with the same people for almost 15 years. To this day, I still see them all frequently and there’s a genuine appreciation for the time we spent together as kids. In a small town, sports are king, so we also benefited from a remarkable amount of community support. During the summers, a big tournament win meant the fire department would load the team onto a fire truck and drive up and down the streets with the sirens going and lights flashing. Everyone would come out onto their porches and wave and cheer. That’s just one example of what a community can do. The actions we all take every day can unknowingly shape the core impressions and values of those around us.

A significant portion of my extended family lived nearby, so I was fortunate to have a great deal of regular family interaction. My paternal grandmother lives just a few blocks from the high school, and my brother and I would see her every day for lunch. Looking back, I realize that’s a pretty rare opportunity. My maternal grandmother reads more newspapers and books than anyone I’ve met, and she’d never forget to have ice cream waiting when we traveled to see her. But regardless of the occasion, or which side of the family was involved, there were always smiles and laughter and a real sense of joy at being together.

And of course, there are my parents, who underlie all of this. Every day, every event, every game, every trip... They were never too busy, and they never missed a game. There was always time to play, to talk over dinner, for a last-minute fun outing. And when you spend that much time with really exceptional people, you develop an appreciation for what things in life are important (and not). You realize there’s no reason to take yourself too seriously, and you learn how to value and treat other people with understanding, patience and respect.

Describe your educational background and career path. What inspired you to become an attorney?
I headed for the University of Illinois when it came time for college. I probably would have had a smoother time at a smaller school, but in hindsight, it was the best thing I could have done because it took me outside of my comfort zone. I made some great friends and got a fantastic education. Four years later, I had an accounting degree and was on my way to law school at Washington University in St. Louis.

My father is an attorney, so I grew up with the best inspiration you could ask for. We lived on a farm outside of town, so I spent a fair amount of time at my dad’s office waiting for a ride home. Or in the back row at court before he dropped me off at a friend’s house or practice. Or in a client’s kitchen if he had to stop and get some papers signed. So I saw a little bit of what an attorney does, but even more so, how much good an attorney can do for the people they help.

I loved Washington University and living in St. Louis. I met my husband, Aaron, in law school and our path ultimately took us elsewhere. I clerked for an Illinois Appellate Court Judge in the Chicago area and then went to work for Jenner & Block, a large national firm. The training I received there was invaluable. I learned how to work extremely hard, how to navigate difficult situations, and how everything truly does come back to the quality of the client’s experience.

Aaron was working for Baker & McKenzie, another legal juggernaut, and we didn’t have much time to spend together. He received a call one day regarding a job with Caterpillar’s in-house legal department. Aaron worked on large commercial deals (joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions, etc.), so this was an opportunity for both of us to keep doing the type of work we enjoyed, with a better pace of life.

You once appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court. Describe that experience.
I struggle to describe the experience, because it’s something so few attorneys ever get to do. The U.S. Supreme Court is generally involved only when there is a difference of opinion between the various appellate courts across the country. And that’s what happened here—there were varying approaches to how courts legally analyzed the way employment decisions are made within companies. It was surreal to sit in front of the most powerful judges in the country. The bench is so high, and the attorneys’ tables so close, at times I couldn’t see the justices when they leaned back in their chairs. Their questions were probing, precise and showed a clear regard for the underlying issues. Undoubtedly, it was the professional experience of a lifetime.

Tell us about Davis & Campbell and your area of practice. What types of cases interest you the most?
I couldn’t have hoped to fall in with a better firm when we moved to Peoria. My partners are intelligent and well-rounded, we have great clients, and the work is every bit as sophisticated and interesting as the work I did in Chicago.

I spend the vast majority of my time helping companies with labor and employment matters. I help clients with their day-to-day issues, but I also defend them if an employment-related lawsuit or administrative charge is filed against them. So the advising work I do really runs the gamut—from employee handbooks and policies, to employment contracts, to ongoing questions about how to properly handle employment situations.

But I also enjoy trial work. The strategy behind managing a successful defense is extremely interesting to me. You’ll generally find me involved in disciplinary issues, all types of discrimination suits, wage and hour litigation, and wrongful termination suits, with some time on collective-bargaining issues as well. The great thing is that regardless of how similar the underlying subject is, the facts of every situation are different because they all stem from human interaction. I never know what’s going to happen when my phone rings.

Between those two types of work—general advising and litigation—lies training (both the client’s and mine). I can’t tell you how much I enjoy being on-site and talking with management and supervisory employees about the issues they’re experiencing, training them on how to approach and respond to various employment situations, and then mapping out an action plan on how they can achieve whatever outcome they’re trying to attain. Spending that time with clients helps me get to know their organization and management personnel, understand their particular needs, and ultimately be a better business partner.

What is a typical day like for you?
I’m an attorney and a community volunteer, but I’m also a wife and mother of two. So while the days are action-packed and generally filled with heavy-hitter meetings, telephone calls and court filings, honestly they usually start and end with brushing someone’s teeth. (Not Aaron’s though, he brushes his own teeth.)

It’s important that I make just as much dedicated time for my family as I do for everything else, and I’m very fortunate that my husband is every bit as much a parent as I am. So when I can’t be there because I’m on the road, or have late or early meetings, no one misses a beat—he's on the job. And we make sure to set aside time to talk about our days or go out for an occasional date night. No day is the same, and nothing ever goes exactly as planned, but they all start and end with my three most important people. So even rough days are pretty great days, all things considered.

Abby J. ClarkWhat do you consider to have been the most pivotal point in your career?
Jenner & Block has a long history of pro bono representation. As a young attorney, I was assigned to represent the public housing residents of New Orleans who were displaced after Hurricane Katrina. Talk about on-the-job training! I went back and forth to New Orleans when there wasn’t much left of New Orleans. My job was to find the public housing residents, get an understanding of their general circumstances and serve as the face of the legal system to them.

I was pretty green from law school, often by myself, with no idea where I was going or who I was looking for, and without much guidance on what I should do once I found them. It was during those trips that I developed the ability to stay calm, keep a level head, evaluate options and make something happen. And I left that experience with not only personal skills, but a profound appreciation for how fortunate I have been in life. My very worst days are nothing compared to the outlook some of those clients were facing and the lack of options they had. But every single one was giving life their very best shot—something there’s no excuse for the rest of us to not do as well, regardless of circumstances.

How did you get involved in Junior League? Tell us about some of its initiatives and accomplishments during your term as president.
The Junior League of Peoria works to promote voluntarism, develop the potential of women and improve communities. I joined the League in 2008, primarily to meet other people in the Peoria area and become more involved in the community.

We’ve restructured our organization in recent years to focus appropriately on strategic, governance and operational functions. I’m currently in the second year of a two-year presidency, which has allowed for more stability in managing that change and providing strategic guidance as we continue to advance our leadership development curriculum and community impact work. I spend my time making sure opportunities exist for the membership to develop leadership and volunteer skills, and to take those skills and put them to work for this community. And that applies whether they’re working on a League project or not—it is vital that we all contribute however we can, wherever we can, to make our community strong.

The League continues to do just that, opening the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum in 2015 as part of a collaborative effort to make Glen Oak Park a day-long destination for families and play. The League and its partners worked for more than 10 years to build a state-of-the-art children’s museum, and it’s amazing. We didn’t stop with the opening of the PlayHouse, though. Looking at other areas of education, this spring we awarded a significant grant to the Peoria Public Schools Foundation to revitalize the Adopt-a-School program. This will provide a structure for area businesses and organizations to support our public schools in a strategic and meaningful way.

Describe some of the other causes that are near and dear to you.
In addition to my work with the Junior League of Peoria, the South Side Office of Concern and Heart of Illinois United Way are both near and dear to my heart. I began serving on the South Side Office of Concern Board of Trustees shortly after we moved to Peoria. Christine Kahl and her staff are doing remarkable things over there, helping a difficult and transient population find permanent supportive housing and take the steps necessary to turn their lives around.

I am also a strong supporter of the Heart of Illinois United Way, serving on its Board of Directors and as chair of the Solution Council, which administers the Community Impact Fund (the general pool for the majority of donations). I started reviewing grant applications for the United Way in 2010 and have since learned more about the great work going on in the community—and the charitable nature of our neighbors—than I ever thought possible.

The United Way’s competitive grant application process is unique, with more than 100 volunteers evaluating grant applications and deciding where to invest community-donated dollars. Since 2015, I have overseen that grant-making process as the United Way’s Vice Chair of Community Investment. Each year, our volunteers invest more than 5,000 hours analyzing grants and helping those programs achieve the most impactful results for the populations they serve. The United Way has turned this process into a remarkable investment of your community dollar.

What is your leadership style or philosophy?
I always try to remember that it’s not about how I would do it or what decision I would make; it’s about growth and development for the rest of the team. I try to give others the tools, support and confidence to take a clear look at a situation, consider the alternatives available and make the best decision they can in a way that provides the most collective benefit. Maybe it’s a huge success; maybe we have to back up and try again. But it’s always growth. If you can help other people develop and grow into leaders themselves, you can accomplish so much more than you could have on your own.

What advice would you give to a young, up-and-coming female professional?
The one thing in life you can control is yourself. You choose how hard you work, how you conduct yourself, your reactions, and the quality of your personal and professional product. So be committed, add value and be dependable. Be honest with yourself and your underlying motivations. When you do those things, you can be confident in every single thing you do. iBi

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