Former Watergate Attorney Jill Wine-Banks on Being a Successful Woman

Jill Wine-Banks of Evanston never let her gender hold her back from achieving her goals—including several “firsts” for women.

A groundbreaking businesswoman and attorney, Wine-Banks was honored this fall by the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana as a “Smart Cookie.” The program, which honored Banks and four other local women, salutes female leaders who have changed the rules of the game for women through their professional achievements.

“I think there was something in how my parents raised me that taught me that I could do whatever I wanted to do, and gender didn’t interrupt that,” Wine-Banks says. “It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, so I just always did it.”

Wine-Banks graduated from Columbia University School of Law several decades ago, when the legal profession was still dominated by men. Over the course of her career, she has accomplished several “firsts” for women. She was the first woman in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Organized Crime Section, and was one of three trial attorneys in the Watergate case.

After working as a litigation partner at Jenner & Block in Chicago, Wine-Banks went on to become the first female Deputy Attorney General of Illinois. She was then selected to serve as Chief Operating Officer of the American Bar Association—and is still the only woman ever to hold that position.

After shattering multiple glass ceilings for women in the legal profession, Wine-Banks decided to make a career transition into the business world. Today, she works as a management consultant with F&H, a national firm that specializes in human resources and labor relations. She also serves as the managing director of Operation Green Jobs, a non-profit that provides green job training for veterans, and she is on the board of Ashworth University, a for-profit school that offers accredited online educational programs.

Juggling all of those balls doesn’t leave her with a surplus of free time, Wine-Banks admits. But she says choosing work that you really love makes it easier to put in long hours.

“I do what I enjoy doing, and I think that’s how you get balance,” she says.

Of everything she has achieved, Wine-Banks says one of the things she’s most proud of is the fact that many of her successors have been women. That, she believes, is evidence that she “did a good enough job that the board would hire another woman.”

“As the first woman, you’re being judged for not only yourself, but for all women,” she says.

Wine-Banks’ advice to young professional women is to follow their passions and be willing to learn from their mistakes. Most importantly, she encourages women, even as they are advancing their own careers, to take the time to mentor the women who work for them.

“Be a good role model and open doors for other women,” she says.