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Diversity in legal community growing, but pace too slow

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When small-firm founder Nathaniel Lee was admitted to the Indiana bar in 1982, only four African-American attorneys were working at large law firms in the state.

Thirty years later when Rubin Pusha was admitted to practice in 2012, diversity had improved with the number of minority lawyers increasing at large and small firms alike. Others cleared the trail for Pusha but, as he looks around, he is still one of too few minority attorneys.

African-American attorneys see progress in the Indianapolis legal community. Many law offices are actively recruiting, hiring and making minority lawyers part of their teams. Committees inside the offices promote diversity and inclusion.

However, changes in fundamental culture come slowly. Overcoming the natural biases that can hinder an individual’s success or provoke a lawyer to leave a firm requires more effort by both minorities and nonminorities.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson pointed to that need after her address during the Marion County Bar Association’s Kuykendall-Conn Dinner on Aug. 23. She applauded, as an example, Barnes & Thornburg LLP attorney Jimmie McMillian, recognizing his hard work to become a respected partner in a prestigious law firm.

Yet, she said, he should not be the only African-American partner or one of just a few.

“We can get hired but staying, making partner, making equity partner, that’s something that people say you should pay attention to,” Freeman-Wilson said.

To attorney Cassandra Bentley, racism today is less overt although it is still present. She sees the cause as less about people purposefully trying to oppress another group and more about the human nature of individuals gravitating toward those with similar appearance and backgrounds.

Applying for a position and getting a job in a law firm was not difficult when Bentley was admitted to the bar in 2004. However, the difficulty came when she tried to develop her skills and advance her career after she was hired.

When work was being handed out, Bentley said she was often passed over.

A member of the firm’s diversity committee, Bentley was asked what the firm could do to help her succeed. She gave a forthright reply, telling them to give her the work they were paying her to do. The response was equally forthright. The firm said it did not want to tell people with whom they had to work.

Today, Bentley is a judicial law clerk for the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Indiana. She enjoys her work, but the question “Would she still want to become a lawyer knowing what she has experienced?” gives her pause.

“It depends on the day you ask me,” she said.

Lee witnessed professional segregation through the 1980s and he credited attorney Donald Buttrey, among others, with helping to integrate the legal community.

As president of the Indianapolis Bar Association in 1990, Buttrey started a program to provide summer clerkships at law firms for black law students. Also, he worked with the MCBA to build cooperation between the bar associations.

“We all had to grow,” Buttrey, now retired, said. “We can’t look back and say how awful it was, but we have to look forward and say have we progressed? I think the answer is yes, we have.”

An associate at Barnes & Thornburg, Pusha said the firm’s diversity committee and overall attitude has created a welcoming place for minority attorneys. Mostly, he said, he has benefited from having mentors at the firm. The cross-section of different perspectives and viewpoints has enabled him to see the legal profession through different lenses.

“I agree with Mayor Freeman-Wilson’s comment that if people are not willing to be captains of the movement to increase minority hiring and retention, then we will see people leave because they were not properly mentored,” Pusha said.•

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  1. So if I am reading it right, only if and when African American college students agree to receive checks labeling them as "Negroes" do they receive aid from the UNCF or the Quaker's Educational Fund? In other words, to borrow from the Indiana Appellate Court, "the [nonprofit] supposed to be [their] advocate, refers to [students] in a racially offensive manner. While there is no evidence that [the nonprofits] intended harm to [African American students], the harm was nonetheless inflicted. [Black students are] presented to [academia and future employers] in a racially offensive manner. For these reasons, [such] performance [is] deficient and also prejudice[ial]." Maybe even DEPLORABLE???

  2. I'm the poor soul who spent over 10 years in prison with many many other prisoners trying to kill me for being charged with a sex offense THAT I DID NOT COMMIT i was in jail for a battery charge for helping a friend leave a boyfriend who beat her I've been saying for over 28 years that i did not and would never hurt a child like that mine or anybody's child but NOBODY wants to believe that i might not be guilty of this horrible crime or think that when i say that ALL the paperwork concerning my conviction has strangely DISAPPEARED or even when the long beach judge re-sentenced me over 14 months on a already filed plea bargain out of another districts court then had it filed under a fake name so i could not find while trying to fight my conviction on appeal in a nut shell people are ALWAYS quick to believe the worst about some one well I DID NOT HURT ANY CHILD EVER IN MY LIFE AND HAVE SAID THIS FOR ALMOST 30 YEARS please if anybody can me get some kind of justice it would be greatly appreciated respectfully written wrongly accused Brian Valenti

  3. A high ranking Indiana supreme Court operative caught red handed leading a group using the uber offensive N word! She must denounce or be denounced! (Or not since she is an insider ... rules do not apply to them). Evidence here: http://m.indianacompanies.us/friends-educational-fund-for-negroes.364110.company.v2#top_info

  4. A high ranking bureaucrat with Ind sup court is heading up an organization celebrating the formal N word!!! She must resign and denounce! http://m.indianacompanies.us/friends-educational-fund-for-negroes.364110.company.v2#top_info

  5. ND2019, don't try to confuse the Left with facts. Their ideologies trump facts, trump due process, trump court rules, even trump federal statutes. I hold the proof if interested. Facts matter only to those who are not on an agenda-first mission.

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