Brian Wilson has spent much of his life standing up for people who could not defend themselves, from challenging high school bullies to serving in the military.
He’s poised to continue that tradition as a public defender in DeKalb County.
“We have nothing greater than our personal freedom,” he said. “Freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the freedom to vote – they’re all meaningless if you’re locked in a cage somewhere.”
Wilson, 47, of St. Charles is set to graduate today from Northern Illinois University’s College of Law and will be recognized for contributing a record number of volunteer hours in the public defender’s office.
Wilson put in more than 1,000 hours over two years working under DeKalb County public defender Tom McCulloch and additional hours in Kane County Court.
McCulloch said his office typically consists of eight full-time attorneys, and volunteers such as Wilson can put in as much or as little work as time allows, such as meeting with clients and appearing in court under attorney supervision.
“Brian has been like the model intern,” McCulloch said. “He does good work, puts in an extensive number of hours and does important research.”
McCulloch said he would have no hesitation recommending Wilson for a job, as his work ethic has been “impeccable.”
At NIU, Wilson was notes and comments editor of NIU Law Review journal.
His goal is to continue in DeKalb County as an assistant public defender; however, his ability to do so will depend on whether McCulloch’s office has an opening when he is ready to begin work.
Wilson is set to take the bar exam in July to get his license to practice law. The earliest he would be able to work as an independent attorney is November, after passing the exam and being sworn in.
Wilson said he worked a variety of jobs before deciding to study law, including as a mechanic, in private security and in banking. He then went to paralegal school at Elgin Community College before enrolling at NIU.
“Why not just go for broke and go to law school?” he said.
Wilson enlisted in the Army as an 18-year-old right out of Evanston High School. He served from 1988 to ’92 and fought in the Desert Storm and Desert Shield operations of the Gulf War.
“At that point I was sick of school, but it was also something I had always wanted to do,” Wilson recalled. “My family has a long history of military service, and I think it’s important to serve your country in some way.”
Wilson said public defenders are “on the front line” of protecting people’s liberty by defending those who have been charged with a crime but cannot afford an attorney.
“There’s an obvious need for this kind of work,” he said. “All you have to do is look across the street [from the courthouse] at the jail.”
Wilson said he wants to work in DeKalb County because of the kind people and because and it has both small-town and city elements.
“It’s not a big city out here, but that doesn’t mean at times we don’t have big-city problems,” he said. “Do I think DeKalb County is going to descend to chaos and anarchy? No, but people’s lives are important everywhere.”