Willie Lyles

National Jurist honor – Willie Lyles III, a third-year student at the Southern Illinois University School of Law in Carbondale, is one of National Jurist magazine’s 25 “Law School Students of the Year” for 2016-2017.  (Photo by Steve Buhman)

March 15, 2017

Lyles named one of 25 ‘Law School Students of the Year’

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Willie Lyles III, a third-year student at the SIU School of Law, believes a primary purpose in his life is giving back to others in ways that help them attain their own success. 

His work with The Carbondale Pipeline Working Group (CPWG) and with other organizations earned Lyles a spot as one of National Jurist magazine’s 25 “Law School Students of the Year” for 2016-2017. 

“I’ve been taught that once you have made it, it is your obligation to reach back and help others make it as well,” Lyles said. He will graduate in May, and said he has accepted a position as a civil defense attorney with the HeplerBroom law firm’s office in St. Louis. 

Lyles learned of his selection last week. To be chosen as one of the law school students featured in the magazine’s spring 2017 issue is humbling, said Lyles, the son of Carolyn and Willie Lyles, Jr., of Blythewood, S.C. 

“It is overwhelming to have this kind of recognition for something that is a passion,” he said. 

Lyles is convener of CPWG, which encourages young people from minority communities to seek careers in the legal profession. The working group is comprised of community members, clergy, and university faculty, staff, students and alumni.  One of the partnerships, between the law school and the Boys and Girls Club of Carbondale that began in spring 2016, gives law school students a chance to introduce young people to life skills and the wide range of careers within the legal profession. 

Lyles is vice president of administrative affairs with the university’s Graduate and Professional Student Council; president of the Law School Democrats; and a member of the Black Law Student Association and International Law Society, all registered student organizations. He also held positions as student liaison with the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism and the law school’s Student Bar Association. 

“Throughout his time in law school and before, Willie has demonstrated exceptional leadership in many ways. The work that Willie has done with the CPWG will provide a lasting legacy that will benefit the law school and the legal profession for years to come,” Dean Cynthia L. Fountaine said.

“It is wonderful to see Willie get this well-deserved recognition,” she said. “It is gratifying to see students like Willie not only make the most of their own educational experience, but also to create educational experiences to benefit future generations of law students as well.”

Prior to coming to SIU Carbondale, Lyles served from 2008 to 2012 as a legislative assistant for U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., the assistant Democratic leader in the House. Lyles provided advice on education, agriculture and defense. In 2012, Lyles was sent to assist U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Bellville, in his election. Lyles worked for Enyart from 2013 to 2014 as deputy chief of staff and legislative director.   

He thought of attending law school while growing up, but Lyles said it wasn’t until he began working with attorneys fighting to protect minority contracting programs at the federal level that he seriously considered law school. Enyart, a 1979 law school alumnus, persuaded him to attend SIU, Lyles said. 

Lyles graduated from Winthrop University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and is the first in his immediate family to attend law school.  Lyles was executive director of The Freedom Center in Rock Hill, S.C., from 2006 to 2008, and worked as campaign manager for John R. King, a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives since 2009. 

Clyburn impressed on Lyles the need to work with people who have different experiences and find a common ground based on those experiences and, Lyles said, that “my words are one thing, but the actions I take to give meaning to those words are what is most important.” 

The August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and subsequent related events were among factors that motivated Lyles to become more involved with youth, he said. 

“One of the things that was so frustrating was being two hours away from St. Louis where the activism was going on and feeling there wasn’t a way for me to contribute to the movement for Black Lives,” Lyles said. “I decided to commit myself to this project to help change the face of the legal profession.” 

Lyles said it is important to recognize and work toward a better relationship between people of color and law enforcement along with a better view of the legal profession, and to also promote more diversity within the legal profession. 

Lyles said his time at the SIU School of Law has been “transformative.” 

“Law school is not an easy pursuit. You find out how much you can take … in addition to life that happens outside of law school,” he said. “I’ve made some lifelong friends here and hopefully I’ve left this a better place.”