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Lake County bar leader’s vision for year ahead includes looking back

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Michael Tolbert is making history as the new president of the Lake County Bar Association in more ways than being the organization’s first African-American leader.

A partner with Hoeppner Wagner & Evans LLP in Merrillville, Tolbert is focused on telling the organization’s story that he said could be lost if action isn’t taken to preserve it. He’s establishing a history committee, part of his “Triple-H” leadership initiative that also focuses on health and hunger.
 

tolberts-15col.jpg Michael and Shelice Tolbert (IL Photo/ Mark Shephard)

“What we’ve been doing since the inception of the organization is kind of relying on the more experienced and seasoned members to sort of fill in the gaps, to tell us information about what occurred in the past,” Tolbert said. He hopes a history committee will record and preserve institutional knowledge of the region’s longtime attorneys for future generations.

“We want to capture all the wonderful things and accomplishments the Lake County bar has done over the years,” he said. “The first thing I thought about when I knew I would be president of the bar association was, ‘What am I going to do to leave a lasting impact on the bar association and make it better?”


tolbertoath-15col.jpg Indiana Justice Robert Rucker, left, swears in Lake County Bar Association President Michael Tolbert Jan. 10 in Gary. (IL Photo/ Mark Shephard)

For the other two “H”s, the bar will build on immediate-past president Michael Jasaitis’ wellness efforts by encouraging attorneys to have at least one annual doctor’s visit for health screenings. Tolbert also will ask board members to bring food items to each monthly meeting to collect for the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana. The local bar also has a few other anti-hunger initiatives in mind.

“A lot of lawyers, we get a bad rap in terms of how the public views us,” he said. “The general public views us negatively because they feel we’re not invested in the community. … We’re really fighting two things. We’re fighting the perception of lawyers the general public has, and we’re also fighting hunger.”
 

 

EXTRA
Click here to view a gallery of photos from the Lake County Bar Association’s Jan. 10 installation dinner.

Lake County Bar Association President-Elect Jacquelyn S. Pillar King said Tolbert’s leadership agenda builds on Jasaitis’ wellness and community outreach efforts last year that included a day of service in which bar members prepared the residence for the homecoming of a pediatric cancer patient.

“We’re very excited for Mike’s leadership,” King said. “Frankly, we called (the growing outreach efforts) ‘Mike squared.’”

Jasaitis said the bar’s effort for the young cancer patient – joined by the James Kimbrough Bar Association, the Women Lawyers Association and the Hispanic Bar Association – was a highlight of his tenure, as was the first Indiana Supreme Court oral argument held in Lake County in many years.

Tolbert was installed as president Jan. 10 at a dinner in Gary. His wife, Shelice Tolbert, a partner at Kopka Pinkus Dolin & Eads in Crown Point, was installed as vice president and is in line to lead the organization in two years.

The Tolberts are active in local and state bar and judicial organizations, their community and their church, and they share a special history, too. Shelice Tolbert said they met in middle school, went their separate ways through college, but stayed in touch until they came back home and met up again as Valparaiso University Law students. About three years out of law school, she said, they began dating, and they’ve been married more than seven years now.

Jasaitis and Michael Tolbert also go way back. Jasaitis said they attended rival high schools, both went to Valpo as undergrads and for law school, and for a year and a half of law school had all the same classes.

“I consider him not only a great lawyer with great leadership ability, but also a genuine friend,” Jasaitis said. “Michael has a fantastic agenda in store for 2014, and it’s my honor to hand off the baton to the first African-American president in the history of the Lake County Bar Association.”

Early influences

Michael Tolbert knew early he wanted to be a lawyer. “I’m a very competitive person,” explained Tolbert, the fifth child in a family of seven whose father worked for 32 years at Inland Steel.

“I used to watch old shows like ‘Matlock’ and ‘Perry Mason’,” he said. “It really fascinated me from an early age.”

Shelice Tolbert wasn’t so sure about a legal career until sometime later, but she also remembers being intrigued by flickering images on the small screen. “Really, the only female lawyer I had seen growing up was on ‘The Cosby Show,’” she said, referring to the character Clair Huxtable.

But then a real-life lawyer came to speak to her eighth-grade class – a Harvard Law-educated woman who had returned home to Gary. “She said, ‘You can do whatever you put your mind to,’” Shelice Tolbert recalled. “That little thing made a difference to me.”

That visitor, Karen Freeman-Wilson, went on to become mayor of Gary. After she was elected in 2011, Freeman-Wilson told the Tolberts she needed their help on her transition team – Michael focused on good government policies and efficient delivery of services, and Shelice served as counsel for the transition team.

“I couldn’t think of any better two people than Michael and Shelice” to help in her transition, Freeman-Wilson said. “Because of their legal training, because of their commitment to the city of Gary, and they are young and reflective of what we say to young people in Gary – get your education, and come back and help.”

The mayor also acknowledged feeling touched by Shelice Tolbert’s recollection of the influence of that early school visit.

“I feel ancient every time she says it,” Freeman-Wilson said with a laugh. But the Tolberts, she said, are likewise inspiring younger generations as mentors and teachers.

“That’s what we’re supposed to do as attorneys,” Freeman-Wilson said. “One of the things I’m clear on, and most of my colleagues share this point of view – it doesn’t stop with us.”

Finding balance

As married attorneys whose general practice is concentrated in similar areas – defense litigators who represent businesses, insurance and other complex matters – the Tolberts say they find a balance by sharing fulfilling things they enjoy and setting aside “date night” time for themselves. “Saturdays are our time,” Michael Tolbert said.

And Shelice Tolbert acknowledges that a fair amount of the couple’s time when they’re not practicing is taken up by bar activities, church and community functions. “When it comes down to it, we’re usually involved in the same things,” she said, “and if we didn’t enjoy these things, we wouldn’t do them.”

But finding the elusive work-life balance isn’t always easy.

“The fact that we pretty much do the same things, we’re in the same practice areas, we are competing for the same clients, which makes it a little difficult at times,” Michael Tolbert said. “I can’t think of a better person to lose a client to.”

Shelice Tolbert estimated that 80 percent of her practice involves litigating, but she makes down-time a priority. “I do try to make sure I keep that balance so it’s not consuming.”

“I think first and foremost, when we put God first, it creates a balance for everything we put our energy into,” she said. “Also, don’t forget to have fun. Do things outside the law.”

Over the holidays, for instance, she and her husband went roller skating – something they hadn’t done since they were kids.

The Tolberts also find time to teach or mentor. Michael Tolbert, for instance, is a frequent presenter on getting expert evidence admitted and strategies in personal-injury defense. He also conducts a seminar called “Bridge the Gap” that provides new lawyers valuable practice tips.

Shelice Tolbert is an adjunct professor at Valpo, where she is a co-instructor of a trial-practice course in which students try a case from jury selection through closing arguments. “It actually keeps me on my toes,” she said.

Michael Tolbert also gets something back from helping others succeed as legal practitioners. “Very rarely will people say, ‘I got here all by myself,’” he said. “It really, really is a powerful thing to be able to help somebody and assist somebody in their professional growth.”•
 

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  1. This guy sounds like the classic molester/manipulator.

  2. Louis D. Brandeis was born in 1856. At 9 years of age it would have been 1865. The Brandeis family did not own slaves. My source Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, by Melvin L. Urofsky.

  3. My name is Matthew Lucas Major, I recently went through a jury trial in Bloomington , In. It was the week of Feb 19-21. Although I have been incarcerated since August 5, 2014. The reason I 'am writing to you sir is on the 21 of February the jury came in with a very excessive and wrongful verdict of guilty on 6 child molesting charges against my daughter who was 9 at the time I was accused. I also had 2 other Felonies one of Intimidation and 1 of Sexual Vicarious Gratification. Judge Marc Kellam on the second day of trial gave me a not guilty on those 2 felonies. The jury was sent out during that time and when brought back Judge Kellam told them to not concern themselves with the 2 Felonies that he ruled on them. They were told to not let evidence they had already heard influence there verdicts. I never in my life touched any child sexually and definitely not with my own daughter. When I was arrested Detective Shawn Karr told me I would be convicted guilty just on my daughters word even without evidence. That's just what happened. my public defender did me so wrong he never once proved to the court and jury all the lies the child told, and Jeremy Noel my public defender could of proven the lies easily. The stories in Serenity's depositions and Forensic interview changed and were not consistent as Prosecutor Darcie Fawcett claimed they were. Yet my attorney never mentioned that. The facts that the child accused me of full penetration in her vagina and rectum was proven lies. Doctor Roberta Hibbard of Riley hospital in Indianapolis confirmed Serenity's hymen intact, no scars, no tearing, no signs of rape to her. Yet my attorney didn't use that knowledge . the DNA was all in my favor. I tell you I will spend my entire life in prison going through rape and beatings etc. even Judge Kellam abused his authority by telling the jurors to listen and believe what the prosecutors side in evidence like my daughters testimony. In one interview with the detectives my daughter got flustered with her mom and said on camera " I'm saying what you told me to mom"!! Yet Mr. Noel said nor did anything to even resemble a defense attorney. Judge Kellam allowed edited version of a taped conversation between the child and her mother. Also Judge Kellam allowed the Prosecutor too bring in to my case a knife found under my seat, the knife wasn't part of my case. She was allowed by my attorney and the judge to put a huge picture of it on the screen and huge picture of my naked privates in a full courtroom and open court. Ms. Fawcett says to jury see how easy Mr. Major could reach the knife and cut his Childs throat. Even though I had no weapons charge against these cases. This gave the jurors prejudice thought against me thinking I threatened her with that knife and how scared she would of been knowing i could get it and kill her. On my sentencing court March 19, 2014 my public defender told Judge Kellam he wish to resign from being my attorney and wished for the court to give me outside council to file a error to trial or appeal. We were denied. Now after openly knowing my public defender don't want to represent me he has to. Well when as parents we make our kids clean a room when they really don't wish to, well the child will but don't mean she will do a good job, that's where I'm at with Mr. Noel. please dont ignore mine and my families pleas for your help . we have all the legal proof you could need to prove Im innocent. Please dont make my spend years in prison innocent when you can fix this wrong. Im not saying Im a perfect man or that I was a perfect dad to my 2 children none of us are. Ive made some bad choices in life and I paid for them. But I didnt ever touch or rape my daughter . I love my children with all my heart. And now through needing attention and a ex-wife who told my granny several times she wish she could put me in prison to get me out of their lives. Well my ex finally accomplished her goal. Sad part is she is destroying our daughter with all this horrific lies and things she taught my daughter to say. My daughter will need therapist to ever hope for a chance of a normal life after what she had done to her by her mom and their side of the family. My daughter told everyone even on stand she had a dream months before i supposedly molested her in this dream I was molesting her and when I finally did it matched her dream perfectly. She admitted to watching movies about little girls being molested and watching U-Tube videos about child molesting all before it happened supposedly to her. Doesn't that sound very unusual that a non molested 9 yr old would need to know so much about being molested? The only reason I could think a 9 year old would need so much information is to be prepared to know what to say and be able to say how it felt what took place etc.. So when questioned by authorities she would be prepared. And there again sir if a parent is pre grooming a 9 year old child she would need intimate details . Like telling her daughter about a couple moles on my private area. The child admitted to sneaking my cell and looking many many times at nudes of me and my girlfriend even one where my penis was entering my girlfriends vagina. In that picture my moles are obvious. Yet when prosecutor showed everyone in court my privates and pictures of the moles she said the only way the child would know about them is if she saw them for herself. My attorney once again said nothing about the pictures my child saw. Or could a ex-wife be able to describe my moles to help her case against getting rid of me? I beg you help me. This is my very existence. Ive lost everything , a good job, a wonderful girlfriend, my freedom, but worse thing Ive lost is my children. They were my reason to get up every morning and strive to be better. The wonderful bond I had with my Serenity is gone. After this I would be afraid to even hug her for fear of what next can they do to me. I'm not afraid to tell you I sit here in this cell and try to hold back my tears. Everyone knows you cant show weakness in prison. My life has already been threatened here at Wabash Valley Prison. After only 3 days of arrival. I was tricked into signing a waiver now Im in G Block General Population with 6 child molesting felony charges. Mrs. Hart as a 18 year old I almost died hooked to machines in hospital almost 1 month and now I know that fear was childish compared to this . I cant help but put emotions in this, after all Mrs. Hart Im human and God help Me I never been more afraid in my life. I didnt hurt my little girl I didnt touch her sexually. As much as it shreds me and fills my mind what Im facing I worry more about my mom and granny because of their great love for me mam they are suffering so deeply. I aint done this things but my loved ones suffering right along beside me and If you take my case you will be in essence freeing them also. I sent momma this letter and asked her to email it to you. I'm scared I have been done so unjustly by our legal system and I need you to fix this and give me freedom. I ask you please don't just ignore my pleas. Here in America its nice to be able to trust our legal justice system, well they destroyed my and my loved ones trust in our justice system . And I'm trusting in You !!! My entire family is suffering this nightmare with me. My 77 year old granny had a stroke and isn't doing so well. My single mother that raised 3 kids alone is dying from Lupus and since my arrest has stayed so sick and weary. Our lives torn to peices by a government I was taught I could trust in. my momma has tried so many innocent project and wrongfully accused and cant get anywhere. please please help me. A quote from the late Nelson Mandela: To be free is not merely to cast off ones chains, But to live in a way that respects and enhances The Freedom Of Others. I have Faith in you and your clinic to cast my chains off and give me freedom I do deserve as a wrongfully accused Man, son, brother, father, friend. Matthew Major DOC# 246179 Cause # : 53c02-1308-FA-000779 God Bless you. Please contact me with your decision so I know you made a life changing decision for me , just please at least write me so I know you care enough about your citizens to respond to cries for your help. You can speak openly with my mother Charlotte Spain (828) 476-0406: 71 Lakeview Dr. Canton, NC 28716 Thank You Matthew Major I know yall get thousands of request and inmates claiming innocence, and each person who are innocent deserve to have organizations like yours willing to fight for them and I give yall so much Thanks and I thank God everyday yall are out there caring enough to help free the innocents. Since discovering firsthand how easily lives and families can be destroyed by Poor Defense attorneys not doing their job . And Prosecutors allowed to do as they please in court

  4. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  5. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

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