What brought Karen Lillie to law school was the notion that she could be a part of moving society forward. The nation’s leading progressive legal organization agrees—and has admitted her into a select group of promising future advocates.
Lillie, who’s just finished her second year at UB School of Law, is one of 28 law students nationwide named to this year’s cohort of Next Generation Leaders by the American Constitution Society (ACS). The designation recognizes her work as president of ACS’ active chapter at the law school, as well as her demonstrated potential as a leader in progressive legal activism. It opens the door to networking within the organization, which has more than 200 student and attorney chapters, as well as mentoring and training in leadership skills.
“Karen is a deft and generous collaborator,” Professor Michael Boucai, the chapter’s faculty adviser, wrote in a letter of recommendation for the honor. “She knows how to listen, how to delegate, how to build consensus, and, when that fails, how to make a tough call without giving offense or hurting anyone’s feelings.”
Lillie is a non-traditional law student, having pursued a career in teaching—first at the high school level, then as a teacher of education at SUNY Fredonia. “I was writing academic papers,” she says, “and finding myself more and more passionate about issues that were happening in the world. I knew I wanted to do more than write papers about them.” As a Next Generation Leader, she says, the ACS “wants you to be an advocate and an activist. They want you to try to effect policy change, and to get into positions where you can effect change across communities.”
Coming to law school in order to change careers, Lillie says, has made the experience all the richer. “I made a very conscious choice to completely shift my life to go on this path,” she says. “Some people see law school as very difficult, and it is, but it’s a challenge I fully embrace. This is my last shot at school, so I’m trying to embrace everything. I feel like I’ve made some really deep connections with both faculty and students here, at a level that I haven’t felt when pursuing my other degrees.”
Under her leadership, the law school’s ACS chapter has had a banner year. It was one of just 15 law schools recognized by ACS with a Programming Award, given to the national organization’s “strongest chapters who have conducted at least 17 substantive and compelling events during the school year.” Other recipients include Columbia Law School, Harvard Law School, New York University School of Law and Yale Law School.
The chapter’s virtual presentations have included such topics as “decolonizing” Puerto Rico, the death penalty, threats to American democracy, issues of tribal sovereignty, election reform, and violence against Asian-Americans. Major events included a viewing and discussion of the film Just Mercy, about a lawyer’s attempt to exonerate a wrongly convicted prisoner on death row, and a conversation with Sally Roesch Wagner, a women’s rights pioneer and historian.
Lillie has finished her term as the chapter’s president; her successor is current first-year student Kurt Snuszka. But she’ll remain active with the chapter, and now can build on her experience with the national organization.
Next Generation Leaders have gone on to careers in government work, academia, public service and private practice. Lillie, who is interning this summer with U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence J. Vilardo in the Western District of New York, says she aspires to the bench herself, or to elected office.