Chaka Patterson spent much of his childhood surrounded by academics. He grew up in Evanston, Ill., with Northwestern University in his backyard. After his mom completed her PhD in History at the university, she was offered a position as a history professor. So the family set down roots for good in the near-north Chicago suburb.
As a history professor, Chaka’s mother educated her children about the most important aspects of American history—most notably, the Civil Rights Movement. While acquiring knowledge about this era of American history, Chaka grew a deep appreciation for the Civil Rights leaders he now refers to as his heroes: Thurgood Marshall, Charles Houston and William Hastie—all of whom were lawyers.
When considering his path to a legal career, Chaka looked again to his heroes. He noticed that many followed a similar path: Amherst College for undergrad, Harvard for law school. “I wanted to follow in their footsteps, so that’s exactly what I did,” he says.
Chaka graduated from Harvard Law in 1994 and set himself on a path that would ultimately lead him to the DGC seat at Adtalem, a leading workforce solutions provider.
So you finished up at Harvard Law. What happened next?
I clerked for two federal judges. First for Solomon Oliver Jr. on the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, and then for Karen Nelson Moore on the US Court of Appeals for 6th Circuit.
After that, I became an associate and then a partner at Jenner & Block in Chicago.
But soon you moved into the public sector?
Yes. Some of my mentors at Jenner were people who had storied careers in the US Attorney’s Office in Chicago. After I made partner at Jenner, I approached them and expressed interest in spending some part of my career full time in the public sector—just as they had done.
One of my former partners, Ben Weinberg, had become chief of the public interest division in the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, and Lisa Madigan had just been elected. I was going to go to the U.S. Attorney’s Office because Pat Fitzgerald (then the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois) is an Amherst-Harvard guy, but Ben convinced me to take a hard look at the Illinois AG’s office.
Why did you decide to go that route?
The thought of working for a new AG and the direction in which Madigan wanted to take the office was appealing. Plus, I would have the opportunity to build my own prosecution unit. We could do both civil and criminal trials and appeals. So ultimately I went to the AG’s office, where I was Chief of the Special Litigation Bureau. We prosecuted a wide variety of fraud cases—everything from complex consumer to healthcare to securities fraud and recovered over $400 million in three years.
In the meantime, two of my mentors from Jenner had become senior executives at Exelon. One was the chief administrative officer and the other was general counsel. They recruited me out of the AG’s office to be associate general counsel for litigation.
What was appealing about Exelon?
Exelon is a unique place in that it has a “best athlete” mentality. They look for talent as opposed to substantive expertise. Given how heavily regulated the company is, they often turn to the legal department for talent to be deployed elsewhere in the business.
I was in the legal department for less than a year before I was recruited to run investor relations. I did that role for two years before being promoted to treasurer of the company and finished my career at Exelon as treasurer.
As much as I enjoyed finance, I missed practicing law. So I made the difficult decision to leave Exelon for Jones Day, where I was partner in the Litigation group with a focus on complex civil litigation, white collar criminal defense, and internal investigations.
As much as I enjoyed Jones Day, with the election of Kim Foxx as State’s Attorney for Cook County, I had the opportunity to join her administration as Chief of the Civil Division, where I supervised over 100 lawyers and support staff, managed a $10 million budget, and served as General Counsel to the County Board.
While I was in the State’s Attorney’s Office, Steve Beard became GC of Adtalem and recruited me to the company, and that’s where I am today.
Why did you decide to go in-house?
I had just finished my MBA at University of Chicago, and I felt like the best way to combine the JD-MBA degrees would be in-house in a legal department in a heavily regulated company. That would give me the opportunity to put both degrees to work.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
The company has been in transition, and we recently divested two very large businesses. As part of that transition, the law department has also been in flux. Different skill sets and specialties are required as we reposition and streamline the portfolio of companies.
All of that presents several challenges. First, is integrating all the new talent into the department. Second, is reintroducing the legal department to our business clients. And just learning how to work with those clients to add value to what they’re doing as they learn our capabilities. Because the legal department is now bigger with different skill sets, our clients may not be aware of all the ways in which the legal department can help them. Third, is becoming nimble enough to work with the business as it continues to seek opportunities to grow the current portfolio.
What do you love most about being an in-house lawyer?
The opportunity to provide advice and counsel to people. As quaint as it sounds, there is a true nobility of purpose when someone turns to you for advice and counsel. When they say, “I trust and value your judgment and your ability enough that I want your guidance to make a decision.”
You were involved in fundraising for President Obama and Hillary Clinton. How did you get involved?
I first met President Obama in law school, and we were reintroduced in the late 1990s. I worked on his previous campaigns for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, and the first presidential campaign. A mutual classmate asked if my wife and I wanted to be more active in the fundraising side of the presidential campaign the second time around, and we were very interested in doing so. While raising money for President Obama, we got to know then Secretary Clinton. When Secretary Clinton decided to run for president, she turned to us for support and that’s how we got involved in raising money for her.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
Three people come to mind.
William Von Hoene, who is the chief strategy officer at Exelon. He has been my mentor since I was a summer associate at Jenner.
My stepfather, Carlton Odom, who is absolutely one of the best lawyers I have ever met, worked with or seen anywhere.
Judge Oliver, the district court judge for whom I clerked right out of law school.
Please tell me a little about your life away from the office.
I’m married to Tracey Patterson. We have been married 19 years and have two girls, 13 and 12. We do a lot of things together as a family in and around Chicago. We go to the museums, plays, the symphony, the opera—we live in the city and take full advantage of that.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a senior in-house counsel in a large company someday?
The most important thing they can do is develop their skill set. There is no substitute for being phenomenally good at what you do.
Almost equally as important is to put yourself in a position where you have to exercise judgment. Judgment cannot be taught. It has to be learned and the best way to learn great judgment is to put yourself in positions where you have to exercise your judgment muscle regularly. You’re going to make mistakes; you’re going to make wrong calls. But that’s all part of the learning process and continuing to develop excellent judgment so you can be in a position one day to deliver wise counsel.