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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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