Alumni Spotlight: James F. Botana (JD ’92)

Q. Please share with us your path to DePaul Law and the legal profession?

James F. Botana (JD ’92), Principal, Jackson Lewis P.C.

My father was a lawyer who practiced in Cuba and Spain, consequently the law and the legal profession have always been a part of my life. I have always enjoyed reading and problem solving, so I thought law was a good career for someone with these affinities. I was a school administrator prior to attending law school and liked serving the community. By becoming an attorney, I thought this would be a good way to follow my strengths, while maintaining my involvement with the community.

As for my path to DePaul Law, financially I needed to continue working while attending law school and wanted to stay in Chicago. I applied to the four law schools that offered evening programs. All of the schools provided similar financial aid packages, but after attending the open houses at each institution, I decided to attend DePaul. The College of Law gave me the best feeling from the interactions I had with the administration, the faculty, the students, and the alumni.

Q. What were some of your notable experiences at DePaul Law (classes, professors, student organizations, etc.)? 

Attending law school as an evening student was a unique experience. In the evening division, we were working professionals coming from a variety of backgrounds; school administrators, police officers, physicians, nurses, engineers, etc. In speaking with many of my professors, I know they appreciated teaching us because we brought a different level of discussion to our classes. We were older, had different life experiences and could draw on these professional experiences and that made class discussions very lively. 

There was a great deal of camaraderie among the evening cohort as well. Law school is a stressful experience in general, but especially after a full day of work. All of us in the evening division understood the position everyone else was coming from and that collective spirit allowed us to build a collaborative learning environment. I developed strong relationships with my classmates and I still keep in touch with many of them today.

In terms of student organizations, I was involved with the Latino Law Student Association (LLSA). My involvement came about because they reached out to me. As an evening student, participating in a student organization was not something that was on my radar. I give credit to the LLSA leadership at that time for being proactive and reaching out to evening students. Being part of LLSA helped me feel connected to the law school community and offered a support system. Also, LLSA provided a scholarship that assisted in paying for my books. Most importantly, this experience taught me the value in reaching out to ensure students have support when in law school.

I have very fond memories of Professors Craig Mousin, Wayne Lewis and Mark Weber. I always felt they really knew how to engage students generally and me specifically in class discussions. 

Q: Please share with us your early years as an attorney and your transition to Jackson Lewis?

Working as a school administrator, I had the advantage of being off during the summers. Therefore, I was able to participate in summer internships/externships. I externed for Judge Marvin Aspen one summer and learned a lot.  During the summer of my third-year, I worked as a summer associate with the City of Chicago’s Law Department. At the end of the summer, they offered me a job. I enjoyed my experience as a summer associate, so I took the position. 

One of the advantages working for the Law Department as a young attorney is that the experience is similar to working at a large law firm. You have access to many different practice areas and opportunities to gain experience with a variety of cases. I started as a prosecutor in the branch courts working mostly misdemeanor cases. From there, I worked in the consumer division dealing with the enforcement of consumer ordinances. Next, I moved over to the torts division, which defended the city and our employees against accident claims. In this position, I had the opportunity to do a significant number of jury trials. In my two years with the torts division, I was able to try 18 jury cases, which provided me with invaluable courtroom experience. Around 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing a number of news making sexual harassment and employment discrimination cases. Reading and learning more about these cases peaked my interest in this area of the law. Following this interest, I asked to be transferred to the Law Department’s employment litigation division. This was my entry into the field of labor and employment law.

I found my calling litigating employment cases and after a few years, I came to point in my career when I had to decide if I wanted to stay with the City of Chicago or move into the private section. I decided to venture out to private practice, as I was looking do more preventive and counseling work, as opposed to 100% litigation. I interviewed with Jackson Lewis. Similar to what guided my law school decision, it was the positive feelings I received when I met with the partners and the other attorneys at Jackson Lewis that convinced me this was the correct fit. I have been with Jackson Lewis now for 21 years, having made partner in 2004 and it has been a good place for me and I am happy that I made the move.

Q: Please share with us your experience as a firm leader and your work on Jackson Lewis’ Diversity Committee?

I served a four-year term as Jackson Lewis’ managing partner of our Chicago office, which ended in June of 2020. My term was ending as the Covid-19 pandemic was beginning. From this experience, I learned that law firms are not very different from any other organization. You must adapt and grow. In January of 2020, we were busy making our plans for the year like plans for the firm’s June weekend where all families get together, plans for upcoming trials, investigations, training schedules, etc. We get to March and now the world has changed and everyone is working from home. 

As a firm, we were known as and are firm with a heavy litigation practice. With the courts closed and cases delayed, that aspect of the business slowed greatly. However, we found our clients had significant legal needs that were different from representing them just in litigation. Overnight, our firm pivoted to become a leader in providing Covid-19-related legal counsel to employers. Much of this work has been assisting our clients in navigating the various scenarios including complying with laws that have enacted by local, state, and federal authorities to protect workers and maintain businesses as a result of the pandemic. Kudos to our firm’s leadership for very quickly adapting to the current environment to serve our clients in their time of need.

The Diversity Committee at Jackson Lewis was founded around the time I joined the firm. This was around 2002 or 2003, as I was still an associate. I was identified by the managing partner as someone who was passionate about diversity and inclusion. Being one of the few minority attorneys with the firm at that time, one of the objectives of the committee was to increase the diversity of the firm. This included additional recruitment of minority candidates and educating the firm on issues of equity and inclusion. We as a profession still have a great deal of work to do in this area. It is one thing to hire diverse candidates, but law firms must then build an inclusive environment which allows diverse attorneys the opportunity to fully participate in the firm including developing business, becoming a partner, and participating in firm leadership. This has been an on-going process at Jackson Lewis, just like at every law firm, but I do feel the needle has moved over the past several years thanks in part to purposeful initiatives including the work of the Diversity Committee.

Q: What advice do you have for today’s law students?

Do not get discouraged. I volunteer with a number of different mentoring initiatives and I always provide this advice to my mentees. As a law student, it is very easy to look around the classroom and believe that your classmates are better prepared and more “ready” or more accomplished. This can lead to students getting discouraged, which can negatively impact their classwork. I always tell my mentees that they should not allow self-doubt to derail their dreams of becoming an attorney.

Secondly, I would advise law students to be flexible. I never took an employment law class in law school. I never had a traditional labor class in high school. I did not start practicing labor and employment law until I was already a few years out of law school. Yet, here I am, nearly 25 years later a firm partner working in labor and employment and I cannot see myself practicing in any other area. Flexibility is needed because you may not get the job you want right out of law school due to a variety of circumstances. What I believe to be more important for recent graduates is to look for and take advantage of opportunities that will provide you with good training, strong mentoring and the ability to learn writing and critical thinking skills. You may end up by coincidence in an area of the law that you love and that you had not even considered. And if not, you will acquire the necessary skills to look for a different opportunity. 

My final piece of advice to students is to not allow yourself to become isolated. The law is a demanding profession. It requires a great deal of concentration and you are living by deadlines. This is true no matter if you are working in the government, in private practice, or in-house. There are always going to be outside demands, which will become stressful. Look forward to activities outside of the office. This could be dinner with your family or a night out with friends or dedicating time to an outside interest, but it is important to build-in little incentives. And, always use your vacation time. One of the best pieces of advice I received was to plan your vacation at the start of the year. Place your vacation time on your calendar and protect it. Otherwise, it becomes extremely easy to say I have this case or deadline, my vacation can wait. 

Q: You are involved with a number of different community organizations. Tell us more about your volunteer activities?

In the legal community, I am involved with The Diversity Scholarship Foundation and their fundraising/planning committee. The organization was founded by Justice Jesse Reyes and is comprised of attorneys, including many judges, who are committed to the ideal of helping diverse students to go to law school. Over the years, the fund has grown from a few awards to now providing 30 scholarships to law students from underrepresented communities. In addition, I am engaged with the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois and their mentoring initiative and have helped with the Illinois Latino Judges Association.

One of my proudest community accomplishments was being appointed by President Obama to the State’s Advisory Committee on Civil Rights. As part of that appointment, I chaired a committee on immigration reform. We were tasked with running public hearings and making recommendations regarding immigration issues in our community. 

Outside of the legal community, I served on the board of directors for the Children’s Center of Cicero and Berwyn. This organization provides educational and health services in the near west suburbs. I was also a board member for the Oak Park Children’s Clinic, which offers free medical and dental services to underserved communities. I received my undergraduate degree from Chicago State University and I was a board member on their foundation, which is Chicago State University’s fundraising arm. 

I never wanted to be involved with an organization just to have my name on their board of directors or as resume builder. I have always sought to be an active participant; attend board meetings, provide counsel, mentor students, solicit philanthropic support, etc. While I did step back from my volunteer commitments when I was in the managing partner role at the Chicago office, I have been involved with a variety of not-for-profits over the years, in the legal community and in the City and near-west suburbs and look forward to getting back into the swing of things.

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