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New MCBA president discusses role of minority bar

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While the Marion County Bar Association was originally founded in the 1920s as an answer to other bar associations that didn't allow minority members to join, the organization remains relevant as a support system to its members and a voice for minority attorneys in central Indiana.

Supporting its membership and the community at large are among the goals of the MCBA for 2010, led by the recently installed president, Dana Phillips, a staff attorney for the Indiana Department of Child Services.

For Phillips, this is the second time she's taken over as leader of an organization from her law school classmate, Ryan Gardner.

Gardner has known Phillips since his second year of law school at Indiana University School of Law - Indianapolis, and the two served together on the Student Bar Association.

"After my year as SBA president, I had the honor of passing the gavel to Dana, and she did a wonderful job," Gardner said. "I was pleased to have been able to do so again for the MCBA.

"Dana works extremely hard and has earned the respect of the MCBA Board. I believe that she will do a wonderful job as the organization's next president," he added.

Gardner will remain involved with the MCBA on the board of directors. He, other past presidents, and board members will also support Phillips in her new role. She met with them to learn about what to expect and how to continue the organization's goals she and they think will best serve their members and the community.

One initiative she plans to see MCBA continue is its outreach efforts to law schools around the state.

"All students in Indiana potentially come to Indianapolis to work," she said.

MCBA has been working with Indiana's four law schools to let students know about the benefits of joining the association, including mentor opportunities and job announcements directly from the membership.

MCBA will continue a few programs to help younger students as well. One program works with high schools to help students fill out their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which has helped a number of students see they can attend college even if they didn't go to the best school or earn the highest grades.

MCBA is also involved with Shortridge Magnet High School for Law and Public Policy, which became a magnet school at the beginning of the 2009-10 school year. Phillips said an MCBA member is on that school's board, and another has a child attending the school.

For these and other reasons, she said MCBA has made itself available to the school to help with their needs and to nurture the students.

MCBA will also continue its Boys' Rites of Passage and Girls' Rites of Passage programs that provide mentoring opportunities, character development, and educational resources for boys and girls from elementary to high school.

Beyond these opportunities, MCBA offers support to all members, she said.

For instance, a revamped initiative is a group that will offer support to solo and small-firm attorneys. The reality, Phillips said, is many minority attorneys may start their careers at medium or large firms, but very few remain in those firms for various reasons and end up starting their own shops.

She added some members have reported that they get frustrated with their employers when they think they're on the partnership track but then see someone from another firm - possibly with less experience - join their firm with partner status.

For some MCBA members who have seen this happen, they have decided to hang their shingles as solos. There are also other members who lost their jobs due to hard economic times and have decided to become solo practitioners.

Or, as in Gardner's case, he enjoyed working for his former firm, LewisWagner, and would recommend others work there, but he decided to change up his practice areas.

With this new initiative, she said, for whatever reason members became solo attorneys, they'll have a support system for referrals and someone to vent to from time to time.

As a government attorney, she said she's enjoyed a healthy support system, and understands the need for all attorneys to feel like they can talk to someone who's had the same experiences.

It's also one of the reasons why MCBA is still relevant even though its members can join the Indiana State Bar Association and Indianapolis Bar Association now, while they couldn't when MCBA was founded in the 1920s, she said.

In fact, MCBA has been communicating with other bar associations, she added, including the Kimbrough Bar Association, a minority bar association in Lake County; the National Bar Association, the umbrella organization to minority bars around the country; and the ISBA.

Roderick Morgan, a former MCBA president and the current and first African-American president of ISBA, weighed in on how ISBA will work with the specialty bar associations.

"You can't deny the history," he said. "The reason the MCBA was founded is because minority attorneys were not permitted to join the Indianapolis Bar Association or the Indiana State Bar Association. ... So some of that tension remains. I think it's diminishing, and we're trying to work closer. In the areas where we can cooperate, we do."

Morgan is.

"She and I share the same theory," Morgan, a partner at Bingham McHale in Indianapolis, said about Phillips. "We're all lawyers in the same small state and small town and want to do the same things. There are some positions the bar associations can disagree on, and that's OK."

One of those issues is the discussion of whether judges should be chosen by merit selection, as it is in a handful of counties, instead of elections, as is the case in the majority of Indiana counties.

Phillips said she wants MCBA to have a voice in the discussion because merit selection has been historically harmful to promoting diversity on the bench. She added that urban counties might not have as much of an issue as smaller counties with having diversity in their judges if merit selection becomes the norm across the state.

"I look forward to working with her and all the bar associations in the state to improve relationships and communication," Morgan said. "Whatever assets we have, we can share. All boats rise with the tide."

For example, ISBA provides scholarships to specialty bars to attend the American Bar Association's Leadership Institute in Chicago. One of those scholarships will go to MCBA, he said, and one will go to Kimbrough Bar Association.

"Dana will do a good job as president," Morgan said. "She has a good energy. She has some good ideas and a great support group."

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