Dorothy Kirie Kinnaird Photo from Donnellan Family Funeral Services
Dorothy Kirie Kinnaird Photo from Donnellan Family Funeral Services

“I know that there’s a whole bunch of things out there that I want to change in the world. I just have to figure out how to go about doing it.”

Dorothy Kirie Kinnaird didn’t share these thoughts right after she graduated law school or became an assistant state’s attorney. They’re not from when she formed a law firm and specialized in local government, or when she was appointed to the Cook County bench and became the first woman to preside over the Chancery Division.

Kinnaird gave those words in a December 2010 interview with the Daily Law Bulletin as she was preparing to retire from the bench after nearly 20 years.

She was ready for a lengthy and productive third act, marked by the same can-do attitude that helped her innovate in the legal world even as she rose through its ranks.

Kinnaird died late last month. She was 70.

“Her passion for life and her passion for people and passion for making the world better really jumped out of her,” said Robert A. Glaves, executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation, who worked with her on access-to-justice issues.

“She was always looking for ways to try and make the system better.”

She leaves behind a legacy of organizing, mentoring and forward thinking. She was the only female judge in the Chancery Division when she joined in the mid-1990s. By her retirement, eight out of Chancery’s 15 judges were women, thanks in large part to her recruiting.

She made sure her division was the first inside the Daley Center to have internet access in 2002.

And when foreclosures were increasing at the onset of the 2008 economic crisis, she helped establish the Cook County Circuit Court’s mortgage foreclosure mediation program, marshaling community groups and housing education experts to help people and banks negotiate new terms on their properties.

Chief Judge Timothy C. Evans, who also spearheaded the effort, noted that at one point, only one in 10 people facing foreclosure were even coming to court to defend themselves. Many couldn’t afford legal help and were afraid of being humiliated.

By providing free legal help and counseling, the program made a big difference, Evans said.

“We were not only able to save homes in some of those instances but rescue their credit rating through this negotiation process,” Evans said in a statement. “Those are the kinds of things that I think reflect the kind of compassion and commitment to duty that Judge Kinnaird possessed. She will be missed for the work she did in our courts, but also missed as a great human being.”

Mediation was a center of gravity for Kinnaird. She was on the board of the Center for Conflict Resolution for 20 years, and in addition to the foreclosure program, bolstered the ranks of mediators in the courts to help reduce caseloads.

“I think as a judge she was really able to see in how many cases mediation was a better solution than pursuing through the court process. She saw that it could be faster for people, less acrimonious, less expensive and really that it could help alleviate the burden on the court system,” said Cassie Lively, executive director of the Center for Conflict Resolution. “And not all judges see that.”

Kinnaird graduated from DePaul University College of Law in 1974, joining the Cook County State’s Attorney’s office. She then went into private practice, forming a law firm with her husband, R. Burke Kinnaird, in 1978 specializing in local government while serving as village attorney for the Village of Franklin Park. She also taught law for a few years at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.

She chaired the Young Lawyers Section of the Chicago Bar Association in 1981-82, and served as CBA secretary in 1985-87. She was the second woman ever to serve as a CBA officer.

The Illinois Supreme Court appointed her to the circuit court in 1991, and voters elected her to a full term in 1992. She was assigned to the Chancery Division in 1994, and in early 2002 she became its presiding judge — one of the first assignments Evans made after becoming chief judge in September 2001.

Her successor in that role, Circuit Judge Moshe Jacobius, called her a mentor for new judges and said she “couldn’t have been kinder” in teaching him the ins and outs of the division. He also said her intelligence and dedication to the job stood out.

“She contributed so much,” he said in a statement. “She was very, very proactive in terms of running the division and solicitous of always doing the right thing and making sure everything ran perfectly.”

Funeral services are private. In lieu of flowers, Kinnaird’s family recommended donations to the Center for Conflict Resolution, Chicago Bar Foundation and Legal Aid Chicago.