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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. Indianapolis employers harassment among minorities AFRICAN Americans needs to be discussed the metro Indianapolis area is horrible when it comes to harassing African American employees especially in the local healthcare facilities. Racially profiling in the workplace is an major issue. Please make it better because I'm many civil rights leaders would come here and justify that Indiana is a state the WORKS only applies to Caucasian Americans especially in Hamilton county. Indiana targets African Americans in the workplace so when governor pence is trying to convince people to vote for him this would be awesome publicity for the Presidency Elections.

  2. Wishing Mary Willis only God's best, and superhuman strength, as she attempts to right a ship that too often strays far off course. May she never suffer this personal affect, as some do who attempt to change a broken system: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QojajMsd2nE

  3. Indiana's seatbelt law is not punishable as a crime. It is an infraction. Apparently some of our Circuit judges have deemed settled law inapplicable if it fails to fit their litmus test of political correctness. Extrapolating to redefine terms of behavior in a violation of immigration law to the entire body of criminal law leaves a smorgasbord of opportunity for judicial mischief.

  4. I wonder if $10 diversions for failure to wear seat belts are considered moral turpitude in federal immigration law like they are under Indiana law? Anyone know?

  5. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

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