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Diverse legal team brings diverse perspective

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Ask if it is important for law firms to comprise a diversified group of lawyers, and the answer will be a resounding “yes.” Mirroring society’s cultural mix, expanding the firm’s thought pool, and improving the ability of clients to identify with their lawyers are all reasons diversity makes good business sense.

diversity-15col LewisWagner received awards from the city of Indianapolis and the DRI in 2010 for its commitment to diversity. From left, John Trimble, managing partner; Robert Wagner, founding partner; Stephanie Cassman, partner; Edward Thomas, associate; and Stefanie Crawford, partner and diversity committee chair. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

The need for a diversified professional team is on the radar of many law firm management committees and has motivated partners to revisit their recruitment and retention policies. Some mid-size firms in Indiana – those in the 25 to 50 lawyer range – have found their size can be a plus in attracting a diverse group of associates.

“The larger a firm becomes, the greater challenge it is for the firm to personalize the way it does things,” said John Trimble, managing partner at Indianapolis firm LewisWagner. “We can get all of our equity partners around a table, and that may make it easier to make decisions.”

An award-winning approach

“Commitment by the top” is cited by law firm management strategists as a key to successful diversity recruitment efforts. When the commitment starts at the top, it is all the better.

Indianapolis lawyer Robert Wagner formed one of the first racially integrated law partnerships in Indiana – Fasig Goebel Chavis & Wagner – in the late 1960s. That firm evolved into LewisWagner.

“It was Bob’s passion at a very early age to have a diverse law firm,” Trimble said. Early on, that meant hiring women; today it means creating a complete cultural mix, he added.

If Wagner’s early personnel practices raised a few eyebrows, he didn’t notice.

“The notion that we needed to focus on diversity really didn’t occur to me,” Wagner said. “I don’t think black/white or woman/man.”

drummy-john-mug Drummy

Wagner said his eyes were opened in 1969-70 when he managed a U.S. Senate campaign for Vance Hartke. It exposed him to a lot of intolerance.

“In the business world, there were very few minorities – women or African-Americans – on boards of directors, and that hasn’t changed much,” Wagner said. “We have a (state) supreme court without women. We are continually pushing the stone up the hill.”

While the firm’s commitment to diversity has existed from day one, it has been formalized over the last decade, Wagner said. Goals targeting recruitment of lawyers, paralegals, and staff representing diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds are included in the firm’s strategic plan. A diversity committee supports those goals and develops initiatives that create an inclusive professional environment.

racher-peter-mug Racher

“We have specific goals in the (strategic) plan to make sure our firm is a reflection of the community at large and that members of the firm receive training on diversity,” said Stefanie Crawford, a partner and diversity committee chair.

LewisWagner is a long-time participant in the Indiana State Bar Association’s Gateway to Diversity Program, which links legal employers with minority law students, as well as the Indiana Conference for Legal Education Opportunity fellows. Crawford’s association with the firm began when she was hired as a summer clerk through the Gateway program in 1996.

Weaving a culture of inclusion into the daily life of the lawyers and staff is an important part of the law firm’s diversity program. As a community expression of the commitment to diversity, the firm recognizes Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a business holiday. Social events like hosting a “celebration of diversity through food” begin with emails sharing recipes from countries around the world and culminate in a firm-wide pitch-in lunch.

This year, the diversity committee has taken on a new project. It is partnering with Noble of Indiana to create an internship/externship program for people with developmental disabilities.

LewisWagner has been recognized on several occasions for its commitment to diversity. In 2010, it became the first Indiana law firm to receive the DRI Law Firm Diversity Award, and it received the Mayor’s Workforce Diversity Award as part of the City of Indianapolis’ Celebration of Diversity. LewisWagner has also been an Indiana Lawyer Diversity in Practice award finalist and received the Indiana State Bar Association’s Rabb Emison Award for diversity.

“I don’t think anyone does this for recognition, but you feel warm inside when, by doing a good job, you can show that it works,” Wagner said. “There is still a lot of prejudice in our society, but I think people we have here feel as I do. You don’t permit it. You call them out on intolerance when you see it. We are all teachers to some degree.”

A proactive approach

Diversity of personnel leads to diversity of perspective, and law firm leaders are challenging themselves to create legal teams that represent a mix of gender, racial, economic, and ethnic groups. Programs that connect firms with prospective employees have proven effective.

Kightlinger & Gray has partnered with Shortridge Magnet High School for Law and Public Policy in Indianapolis to encourage minority students to begin considering law as a profession. The firm will host a high school student as a summer intern to provide a taste of what life is like as a lawyer.

And if those students decide to pursue a career in the law, the hope is they will remember Kightlinger & Gray.

“We have a heavy concentration of litigation; and diversity of perspectives, ideas, and thought is very important as we prepare a case for trial and an ever-diverse jury pool,” said John Drummy, a partner and member of Kightlinger & Gray’s legal personnel committee.

Laura Scott Scott

Participation in bar association diversity job fairs, such as the fair hosted annually by the Indianapolis Bar Association, and the ICLEO program has proven a successful way to connect with a diverse group of summer clerk and associate candidates.

“The ICLEO program exposes the firm to highly qualified attorneys who, because of their economic situation, may not have (otherwise) been able to go to law school,” said Peter Racher, a partner and chair of Plews Shadley Racher & Braun’s human resources committee. “I am proud of the fact that we have attorneys here who come from families that have few who have gone to college, let alone law school.”

In addition to gender and ethnic diversity, it is important for a firm’s diversity goals to embrace having men and women who bring perspectives from a variety of economic backgrounds to the firm’s leadership positions. Understanding the totality of clients’ disputes, which are often fraught with human emotions, Racher said, will be effectively done when the firm has diverse viewpoints around the table.

Lewis & Kappes’ large immigration practice magnifies the need for a diverse legal team.

“We have a good number of attorneys and staff who are bilingual; one staff person who is from China speaks five languages,” explained Deanna Cope, the Indianapolis firm’s administrator. There is an added level of trust, she said, when clients can talk with people they feel a familiarity with. The firm also offers, in Spanish, an exact duplicate of its website.

The need for diversity is integrated into the firm’s culture, Cope said. While many firms recognize Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other traditional American holidays, Lewis & Kappes also gives attention to the Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo and other cultural celebrations. It helps lawyers and staff better understand the mindset of the clientele, she added.

Location can present challenges when recruiting a diverse legal team, and “you just have to use what you have more creatively,” said Laura Scott, a partner with Bamberger Foreman Oswald & Hahn. The firm is based in Evansville and has offices in Indianapolis, Mt. Vernon, Poseyville, Princeton, and Vincennes.

Like other firms, Bamberger has participated in the ICLEO summer jobs program and created a diversity page on its website to attract attorneys with a range of backgrounds. The diversity committee of the Evansville Bar Association has also been a helpful resource, Scott said.

The EBA collects resumes from minority students interested in working in Evansville and distributes those to potential employers. Firms can apply to the EBA for funding to help cover the cost of hiring summer clerks or interns. The EBA has helped area law firms reach out to groups of law school students around the state and convey the benefit of working in small- or mid-size firms and those located outside of Indianapolis, Scott added.

“We have the flexibility to be able to think outside the box and hire interns and use them in nontraditional ways,” Scott said. “We can make our decisions fairly quickly and without a lot of red tape because we are a smaller firm.”

Edward D. Thomas joined LewisWagner as an associate after graduating from law school in 2009. He served in the military after receiving his undergraduate degree, and he knew he wanted to practice in the size of firm that would let him hit the ground running and give him immediate hands-on experience.

“I think diversity in a law firm or any business is crucial in light of the global economy we have today,” Thomas said. “Law firms that take that to heart will benefit in the future. Law students who really understand the big picture and what they need to bring to the table will have a head up over their peers. It is not specific to law firms – any business model needs to embrace diversity to remain ahead of the game.”•

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  1. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

  2. Low energy. Next!

  3. Had William Pryor made such provocative statements as a candidate for the Indiana bar he could have been blackballed as I have documented elsewhere on this ezine. That would have solved this huuuge problem for the Left and abortion industry the good old boy (and even girl) Indiana way. Note that Diane Sykes could have made a huuge difference, but she chose to look away like most all jurists who should certainly recognize a blatantly unconstitutional system when filed on their docket. See footnotes 1 & 2 here: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html Sykes and Kanne could have applied a well established exception to Rooker Feldman, but instead seemingly decided that was not available to conservative whistleblowers, it would seem. Just a loss and two nice footnotes to numb the pain. A few short years later Sykes ruled the very opposite on the RF question, just as she had ruled the very opposite on RF a few short years before. Indy and the abortion industry wanted me on the ground ... they got it. Thank God Alabama is not so corrupted! MAGA!!!

  4. OK, take notice. Those wondering just how corrupt the Indiana system is can see the picture in this post. Attorney Donald James did not criticize any judges, he merely, it would seem, caused some clients to file against him and then ignored his own defense. James thus disrespected the system via ignoring all and was also ordered to reimburse the commission $525.88 for the costs of prosecuting the first case against him. Yes, nearly $526 for all the costs, the state having proved it all. Ouch, right? Now consider whistleblower and constitutionalist and citizen journalist Paul Ogden who criticized a judge, defended himself in such a professional fashion as to have half the case against him thrown out by the ISC and was then handed a career ending $10,000 bill as "half the costs" of the state crucifying him. http://www.theindianalawyer.com/ogden-quitting-law-citing-high-disciplinary-fine/PARAMS/article/35323 THE TAKEAWAY MESSAGE for any who have ears to hear ... resist Star Chamber and pay with your career ... welcome to the Indiana system of (cough) justice.

  5. GMA Ranger, I, too, was warned against posting on how the Ind govt was attempting to destroy me professionally, and visit great costs and even destitution upon my family through their processing. No doubt the discussion in Indy today is likely how to ban me from this site (I expect I soon will be), just as they have banned me from emailing them at the BLE and Office of Bar Admission and ADA coordinator -- or, if that fails, whether they can file a complaint against my Kansas or SCOTUS law license for telling just how they operate and offering all of my files over the past decade to any of good will. The elitist insiders running the Hoosier social control mechanisms realize that knowledge and a unified response will be the end of their unjust reign. They fear exposure and accountability. I was banned for life from the Indiana bar for questioning government processing, that is, for being a whistleblower. Hoosier whistleblowers suffer much. I have no doubt, Gma Ranger, of what you report. They fear us, but realize as long as they keep us in fear of them, they can control us. Kinda like the kids' show Ants. Tyrannical governments the world over are being shaken by empowered citizens. Hoosiers dealing with The Capitol are often dealing with tyranny. Time to rise up: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/jan/17/governments-struggling-to-retain-trust-of-citizens-global-survey-finds Back to the Founders! MAGA!

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