They say the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree, and in a good way, that has been a calling grace for Cook County Bar Association President Natalie Howse. Howse comes from a family of legal eagles following in the footsteps of her brother, Illinois Circuit Court Appellate Judge Nathaniel Howse, Jr. and father, attorney Nathaniel R. Howse, who died in 2010.
Visiting family in East Chicago, Indiana, Natalie’s mother went into labor with her where she was born on the other side of the Illinois state line, but she grew up in the Kenwood community. She attended the University of Chicago Lab School and later graduated from Seton Academy in South Holland.
“My father was an attorney, and currently my brother is on the appellate court. It was kind of in my blood. After I graduated from college, I took two years off. My parents asked, ‘What are going to do? You got to go to grad school, you got to get a job, you must do something.’ I ended up going to law school at Howard University School of Law,” she said.
There at Howard University, she says she was influenced by Criminal Law professor federal judge Alexander Williams who was formerly an elected State’s Attorney in Prince Georges County, Maryland.
He would often advise his law students. “A defense attorney merely reacts to the charges whereas a prosecutor is the one that sets the tone for the entire system like what kind of cases we are going to bring,” Howse recounted what he would advise students. “So, I returned home and got a job with the Cook County State’s Attorney office and I’ve been there since 2000.”
Working a government job as a prosecutor may not have the appeal of what people first think of compared to the prestigious halls of a big partner law firm, but Howse began her internship there.
“We’d never had a Black State’s Attorney when I started in 1999. When I performed my internship in night narcotics, an area where they put all the law clerks, I thought this wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”
Howse will be the first to tell folks that growing up in a family of lawyers did not make her climb easier—it was still a grind.
She reflects, “Law school is not what people think it is. Doctors go into medical school then they go into training in residence. Lawyers don’t get that kind of training when they graduate from law school. So, you must have some sort of an apprenticeship where you learn how to practice law. Those first five years, it can be extremely stressful because you are charged with handling serious matters for people. You oversee making decisions about their lives.”
As a member of the first and oldest African American bar association, started in 1914, Howse often participated in various functions from networking events, membership drives to chairing the annual installation banquet. She joined the Legislation Committee and the Young Lawyers Section. Howse follows a long line of prominent Black attorneys who once had the highest post in the 103-year-old association. The process of electing a new president is not simple.
“The Cook County Bar Association has a nomination committee. They are charged for providing a slate for all the officers who are going to be presented for election. There’s also an opportunity for people who are not slated for the office to have an opportunity to run for something.”
One of the major additions that have taken place under Howse’s tenure was helping the association’s LGBTQ members create a section within the CCBA.
“That was something that our board of directors voted unanimously in favor for. Before we brought it to the board, we had to run it by our past presidents, our older members of the CCBA—they were very supportive of it. Jerrod Williams was the liaison between the Black gay lawyers and our leadership,” she said. “When they found out that they wanted to embrace them, it was kind of a weight had been lifted from them.”
She said the addition spoke volumes on how progressively the CCBA is moving for- ward, and although there’s the Lesbian and Gay Bar Association of Greater Chicago, “they don’t address the issues of African Americans.” Howse says, “Black people can address the issues of African Americans. There are still issues of race there that they don’t address.”
It has been a productive year for Howse who takes her position as the installed president seriously. In the era of social media and digital engagement, she makes it a priority to attend and support various community events—implementing a fresh and youth component for the CCBA.
“When I go out, I like to be on social media, and if it’s something that I think will bring a good name to the association, I like to post. It’s always the first thing on my mind. I am representing the Black lawyers of Cook County and Illinois. I don’t want to do anything to make CCBA look bad.”
As she reflects on the responsibility that both her position as an officer of the law holds, the countdown to install the next CCBA president, Dartesia Pitts, in June, and witnessing a new chapter with newly elected Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx—it all comes down to her deeply rooted family values.
“My parents were influential first and foremost. I was very lucky to have two parents to look up to. I work in a criminal justice system where people didn’t have anyone.” Growing up with a strong group of sheroes who nurtured her from her grandmother, aunts and godmothers—she had no doubt in her ability to become a solid role model for others.
As the CCBA connects directly with the community, hosting numerous town hall forums in addressing head-on problems that affect African Americans, Howse understands the commitment must be long-term.
“Let’s talk about what investment we need to make in our own communities. What assistance we can get from the government, what can small business owners do, what can we do to help ourselves? You can’t do anything out in the world unless you’re helping yourself.”