By Grace Renshaw
Judge Staci Yandle ’87 entered law school in 1983 unsure of her legal career goals. By the end of her first semester, “I knew what I didn’t want to do,” she recalled. “I did not want to work for a Wall Street firm.” She spent the summer of 1984 in the state attorney general’s office in her home state of Illinois.
That fall, Yandle was diagnosed with a brain aneurism that required emergency surgery. The prognosis was grim: Yandle was warned she might lose her sight and her ability to speak, and told that law school was definitely over for her.
“When I walked out of the hospital in 10 days and was back in law classes in January, I had been given a second chance,” she said. “I had also spent a lot of time reflecting about myself, and some things that had seemed really important didn’t seem so important anymore, and a few things that hadn’t seemed important became very important.”
One of Yandle’s realizations was that she was a lesbian.
A private person, Yandle was not immediately open about her orientation. “The legal profession is still one of the most conservative professions in this country,” she said. “Going in, I wanted to be able to prove my abilities, and I didn’t want my race, gender or orientation to have anything to do with that. I wanted the opportunity to be judged fairly as a professional first.”
Yandle’s father died the summer before her final semester of law school, so she returned to Illinois after earning her J.D. to be near family and joined a small plaintiff-side civil law firm.
An unintentional pioneer, she became her firm’s first African American partner. “My six partners were all white men,” she recalled. “Being first is something I’ve become pretty good at.” Yandle focused on personal injury, nursing home negligence and medical malpractice at that firm and later at her own firm.
In 2013, Yandle was one of five candidates Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., proposed to President Barack Obama to fill seats on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. She and Durbin had discussed the fact that her gender, race and orientation would likely make headlines. “President Obama has made a commitment to increasing diversity in the courts,” she said. “He and Sen. Durbin were both committed, and they were living out that commitment.”
But when her nomination to the federal bench was announced in January 2014, Yandle acknowledges being shocked to see a headline reading: “President Obama nominates black lesbian.”
“That kind of took me aback,” she said. “One of the first calls I got was my mom. She was proud and happy, but she said, ‘Why did they have to say you’re a black lesbian? Are you OK with that?’ And I really wasn’t OK with it. There’s a difference between being openly gay and publicly gay. I’d been a lawyer in the community for 27 years, and the local coverage didn’t even mention my orientation. In the national media, that’s all they mentioned. I understood why it was a national story and why it was needed, but I initially struggled with that.”
Yandle’s nomination was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on June 17, 2014. She believes the strength she gained during law school weathering both a serious health crisis and her father’s death gave her the perspective to endure the spotlight. “I thought, ‘If this has to be my story nationally for a year and a half so that in however many years your gender, race and orientation aren’t even spoken about, I can do that,’ ” she told VLS students Nov. 11.
In her talk, “From Blackacre to Black Robe,” which was moderated by Professor Terry Maroney and sponsored by the Branstetter Judicial Speaker Series, the Black Law Students Association and OUTLaw, Yandle urged students to focus on their professional goals and persevere. “A lot of times life isn’t fair and yet you still have to push through,” she said. “Focus on the things you can control and let go of the rest of it.”