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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. 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!!!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. 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?

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