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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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  2. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  3. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  4. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

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