Carolyn Shapiro

Evanston resident Carolyn Shapiro says she did not think she would become a law professor, much less practice law. “I thought I was going to do policy work, but I really loved law and law school,” she said. “When I go to reunions with my classmates, they always tease me when I say that I didn’t know I was going to be a law professor. They roll their eyes and say ’Well, we did!’”

Ms. Shapiro’s career, however, is not defined only by her being law professor – an Associate Professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. She also served as Solicitor General for the State of Illinois for two and a half years, 2014-16. Now, back to teaching at Chicago-Kent, she received a 2017 Abner Mikva Award in June, which recognizes attorneys who have advanced the American Constitution Society’s mission.

“It’s kind of incredible, and certainly very humbling, to receive an award named after Abner Mikva,” she said. “There are many people who have done incredibly important work in law that have been doing it longer than me, which was humbling, but it was also very gratifying and rewarding.”

During her time as Solicitor General, Ms. Shapiro represented the petitioner in the case of Duncan v. Owens. Ms. Shapiro describes arguing in front of the U.S. Supreme Court as “the most exciting professional experience I’ve had.”

Arguing before the Supreme Court taught her that preparation makes her feel most confident as a lawyer. “I always knew that arguing any case took a lot of preparation, but my biggest take away from arguing in front of the Supreme Court was that it requires a great deal more of preparation than other cases I had worked on. I was incredibly nervous before, but once I got going, I don’t remember feeling nervous. I remember feeling very focused,” Ms. Shapiro said.

“It was a huge honor for her to take on the role of Solicitor General, but also a great personal commitment,” said Katharine Baker, a colleague of Ms. Shapiro’s at Chicago-Kent. “I think others in her position might have said no to the opportunity, but she did it. It was a tremendous amount of work, especially as a mother of school age children, and I commend her.”

Ms. Shapiro graduated from The University of Chicago with an English degree. She said she thought about studying law throughout high school, but after college, she wanted to work as a clinical psychologist. She also wanted to travel, so she went to work in England for six months. After her time in England, Ms. Shapiro worked a few jobs in social services, but wanted to do work in policy and to advocate for a broader impact. She worked with Day Care Action Council (now known as Illinois Action for Children), where she spearheaded a campaign to pass a child care bill in Illinois. She admired the systematic, logical thinking displayed by lawyers she worked with and thought she could be more effective if she gained more credentials. She went back to The University of Chicago and received a law degree and a policy degree at the same time.

As a professor, Ms. Shapiro enjoys sharing her fascination of law with her students. “It is rewarding to engage with students in the culture of law, not so much about teaching them rules, but how to think about law and legal arguments.”

She has found her work as a professor very meaningful in terms of the relationships she builds with her students. “When I hear from former students that things that we talked about in class have been useful or important, or from students who tell me that my class has been meaningful, is always a highlight.”

Her impressive work ethic is impossible for Ms. Shapiro’s colleagues to overlook. “Carolyn is disarmingly kind and disarmingly smart, which is a very rare combination in academics, where all currency is in being smart,” said Ms. Baker. “She never gives the impression of working too hard, but she does work very hard and never seems flustered by her amount of work. She can definitely drink from the firehose.”

“She is a very precise thinker,” said Christopher Schmidt, another colleague of Ms. Shapiro’s at Chicago-Kent, who is also her neighbor in Evanston. “She knows how to put things in perspective and has a deep passion for her work.” 

Ms. Shapiro and her family moved from Chicago to Evanston in 2005. Her older son was starting kindergarten then, and she and her husband, Joshua Karsh, wanted to send their sons to public school and, after exploring their options, were pleased with the District 65 schools. “I feel like living in Evanston is the best of all worlds,” she said. “It is kind of a small town, we can walk anywhere we need to go. I love that the train is right here and that the city doesn’t feel so far away, more like an extension of where we live.”

When choosing a place to live and send their sons to school, Ms. Shapiro said that she and Mr. Karsh wanted to live in a diverse community. “I love the diversity in Evanston and I hope it can maintain that diversity in the coming years. I know there can be challenges to that.”

Beyond her impressive career, she enjoys spending time with her family. Her sons, Jonah, 17 years old, and Gabriel, 14 years old, are musicians, so they frequently attend concerts as a family. She is also an avid reader, whose only requirement for a book is that it is interesting and well written. “I like to read books that transport me to places I wouldn’t get to.”

A question that many of her law students bring up is how best to manage personal life and career in the field of law. “What I often say to both male and female students is if you want some aspects of your life outside of your work, which I think is healthy for everyone, it is important to think about the choices that you make about where you work and what types of work will allow for that lifestyle.”

However, her biggest piece of advice to her students is, “It is very important to have a global sense of what you are doing as a lawyer,” she said. “You are going to make arguments that you don’t think are correct you don’t think your client deserves what you are seeking for them, but your job is to zealously represent them. I think it is important, regardless of the kind of law you practice, to have faith in the system that you are a part. You are playing an important role.”