Chicago-based law firm Croke Fairchild Duarte & Beres is making waves in the legal industry. The firm is currently the largest women-owned law firm in Chicago, one of the five largest women-owned firms in the country, and the biggest law firm in Illinois with a Latina equity partner. This acclaim is due in no small part to Lisa Duarte, a renowned attorney and lobbyist whose name was added to the firm’s door in September 2022.
Duarte’s career trajectory should come as no surprise to those familiar with her work. She’s held high-profile roles at both the state and city level, first as legislative counsel for former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration and later as chief of staff to both former Deputy Mayor Steve Koch and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s economic council. She went on to become Illinois Governor JB Pritzker’s first assistant deputy governor for budget and economy, in which role she oversaw seventeen agencies related to state budget, economic development, and regulation as well as more than 170 boards and commissions. She did all of this both prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the person most surprised and delighted by where she is today is Duarte herself.
“Sometimes it can feel like I have no business being here,” she admits. “I don’t come from money or a political family, and I didn’t have anybody teaching me the way. Politics and law are two incredibly male-dominated professions that have tons of legacy political people. As a woman and as a Latina, I’m proud of how far I’ve come, because not a lot of people have done it. However, there’s a ton of space for more people like me.”
Duarte grew up in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood in the eighties and nineties when it was a predominantly Latino neighborhood for working-class families. The daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and Colombian father, Duarte was encouraged to work hard and pursue an education. In fact, her mother was a lifelong Chicago Public Schools teacher and was determined to get Duarte placed in a magnet school.
Duarte ended up attending Chicago Public School in Lincoln Park, a magnet school in one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. There, she was encouraged to socialize with peers local to the school.
“As much as my parents might have not wanted me to socialize with kids in my neighborhood, it’s not something they could really control,” Duarte reflects. “I often saw that the values of the people in my neighborhood were actually more aligned with the values that my parents were instilling in me. They wanted me to have a future that was more like the kids I went to school with, which meant creating distance from where I was from. But I quickly realized where you’re from doesn’t dictate who you are.”
The manner in which Duarte’s friends from these two different worlds interacted with power and authority left an impression on her. Her friends from well-off families moved in comfort, while those that resembled her family shrank back.
“It wasn’t right,” Duarte says. “I often thought the kids from my neighborhood were actually better kids. From that experience, law became this equalizer. And so, I decided at a really early age that I was going to become a lawyer.”
Duarte took her family’s advice, put her head down, and went to work. She received her bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and her JD from DePaul University. While she had to register as a lobbyist to do legal work related to zoning changes, she says she didn’t become a “true lobbyist” until her time at the mayor’s office in 2013. Today, part of the work she feels inclined to do is clear up misconceptions about the industry.
“Some of the most powerful lobbying groups are not for private interests,” Duarte explains. “Lobbyists go in, find the people that are going to be the primary decision-makers on certain bills, communicate important details, and help usher issues in and out of the general assembly.”
The attorney says her current role is best described as a strategic advisor. As an equity partner at Croke Fairchild, she helps clients connect with their target audience, make better investments, think through long-term planning, and create stronger partnerships that benefit local communities. “It’s a hell of a way to make a living.”
But Duarte’s career hasn’t been a straight line of wins. She’s faced criticism for her career choices.
“People have called me a sellout because I don’t want to do immigration and health and human services or education,” Duarte says. “They act as if my desire to pursue business somehow makes me less of a Latina when we need Latinos in all aspects of law and policymaking. I’m Latina, therefore what I do is Latina. This is not the tail wagging the dog. I say who I am and what I do.”
It’s a lesson in self-esteem that Duarte says comes from her family—particularly her father, who passed away when she was thirty-two. Duarte believes he would have been proud that she’s running her own companies and has succeeded in such a competitive and challenging environment.
“Anything is possible. You can chart your own destiny just by following the things that you love to do. It doesn’t have to be premeditated, but your idea of success needs to come from you, and it needs to be rooted in your personal happiness,” she advises. “You can’t let somebody else’s definition of success be the yardstick that you measure yourself by.”