Nelson Mandela once stated, “Remember to celebrate milestones as you prepare for the road ahead.” We will honor 18 attorneys who have achieved 50 years of practice and 62 attorneys who have practiced for 25 years on May 9 at the Woodstock Club for the annual Practice Milestone Celebration. Each of these attorneys has a remarkable story of hard work, dedication and commitment. I wish I could write a column about them all, but I only have room to focus on three 50-year practitioners who have personally impacted me in my career. These are truly remarkable people who, along with the other 50-year honorees, form the very fabric of our bar and personify the excellence to which we all aspire.
I clerked as a summer associate in 1981 and had an office a few doors down from a partner named Sarah Evans Barker. Her reputation within the firm as an outstanding litigator was already legendary, but what I immediately noticed was her warm, sharp wit and sense of humor. She had a way of arriving at the proper legal analysis in a way, and with a story, that had the whole room smiling and nodding in agreement.
I soon learned that she had been the first woman hired to be an Assistant United States Attorney in Indiana and later elevated to First Assistant within the U.S. Attorney’s office. And in those days, the practice of law held unfair challenges for now-Senior Judge Barker simply because she was female. She recounted for me one incident in which she was providing legal work for a firm client and happened to be in the room when the more senior partner called the client on speakerphone. The client, not knowing that Barker was in the room, stated that he was “old school” and preferred that only men work on his cases, even though he had no issue at all with her work. Can you imagine having Lennon and McCartney personally writing songs for you, and you let them go because you prefer not to work with songwriters from England? Barker handled the situation, I am sure, with the same poise and grace you would see today from the bench, and such events did not interrupt her climb toward legal pre-eminence — a path of firsts for women attorneys in Indiana.
When I returned to the firm after graduation, she had been named the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Indiana. Two years later, in 1984, Judge Barker’s day was interrupted when she received a phone call from President Ronald Reagan, nominating her as the first woman appointed to the federal bench in Indiana. During her tenure on the bench, she became the first woman Chief Judge in Indiana. In 2016, she became the first woman United States District Court judge to have a courtroom named for her.
And her achievements have had national impact. For example, Judge Barker has served as the President of the Federal Judges Association, a 950-member national association. As a trailblazer for women, Judge Barker has handed down momentous decisions and legal landmarks that withstand the test of time, and she has paved the way for other brilliant female attorneys to achieve their own highest goals.
Judge Barker has also achieved remarkable balance in her life. She and her husband, Ken, have been graced with three children and now seven grandchildren. And what impact has Judge Barker had on mine and my wife’s life? It’s immeasurable. When we traveled to Kenya in 2004 to pursue adoption of our now 14-year-old daughter, Eva, we carried with us a letter of recommendation from Judge Barker. Our attorney in Nairobi assured us that this reference letter would be helpful in establishing our suitability as adoptive parents, and I believe she was right. Thanks in large part to Judge Barker, we are now a Kenyan-American family.
But Judge Barker was not the only American University School of Law graduate to shape my early career. Ron Elberger — a classmate of Judge Barker’s — was my first litigation mentor during my first few years of practice. I could not have chosen a better teacher. Ron, who is a renowned and brilliant litigator, is likely better known nationally as the longtime personal attorney of David Letterman. Ron taught me more than just the skills needed in the courtroom. He taught me about trial preparation, strategies and the art of dealing professionally with opposing counsel. He taught me the attention to detail and the passion for getting everything right the first time. I enjoyed my first trial experience as Ron’s young associate, and I think he enjoyed teaching me the ropes almost as much as prevailing in our case. While Ron can be a fearless and assertive advocate for his clients, if you want to see his softer side, just ask him about his kids. It is hard to identify which is larger, Ron’s warm personality or his numerous professional accomplishments.
I have also been fortunate to practice with a living legend in corporate law, Jim Strain. Beginning in 1970, Jim clerked for Judge John Hastings on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, followed by a 1972 clerkship for then-Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist on the United States Supreme Court. Jim is a lawyer’s lawyer who was one of the architects of Indiana’s Business Corporation Law. I have learned many valuable lessons from Jim, one of which is unbending loyalty to professionalism. Jim treats opposing counsel with the same respect he shows for his own partners and associates, and thus establishes a certain dignity to communications that speeds focus on important issues. Jim is also well known for his fine voice, Christmas caroling and wine and fine dining recommendations. But most of all, Jim is a consummate partner and mentor to younger attorneys like me, who appreciate his company and wisdom on any issue.
As Winston Churchill famously stated in 1938, “all wisdom is not new wisdom.” Join us at the Woodstock Club at 5:30 p.m. on May 9 to pay tribute to our 25 and 50-year honorees, learn from them, and show our collective gratitude for their wisdom and achievements. You can register online at indybar.org/2019milestone.•