Five years after passing the Indiana Bar Exam, Barnes & Thornburg LLP associate Leah Seigel is the youngest member of a select committee the Indiana Supreme Court has appointed to review the exam. That’s representative of the remarkable professional responsibilities that have been entrusted to her on complex litigation and intellectual property matters, and in appellate practice. Seigel also is extremely active in numerous bar and community service efforts.
What can you tell us about your work with the Indiana Bar Exam Study Commission?
In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of change in the bar admission process, including concerns about exam passage rates and its disparate impact, while at the same time witnessing a national trend to a uniform exam. I’m honored to be a part of a group of lawyers who care deeply about our bar, our clients and our future — specifically, ensuring the competence of and acknowledging the hard work undertaken by recent graduates joining our ranks. Under the leadership of retired Chief Justice Randall Shepard and Indiana Court of Appeals Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik, the study commission is thoughtfully considering the purpose of our bar exam and what we want it to accomplish for Indiana. In doing so, we are taking the time to learn from other states, law schools, researchers, psychometricians, test administrators and each other. As a lecturer on discovery and appellate practice through the IndyBar Review course, and as a relatively recent bar exam test-taker myself, I’ve enjoyed offering my perspective, and I feel confident we will arrive at a recommendation that will be a good fit for the needs of our profession in our state.
What motivated you to pursue a legal career?
Growing up in a household with two parents who were lawyers, I fought the legal profession for a long time, wanting to do something different. But years of watching my mom serve our state and local government, observing my dad help his clients through times of great need, and participating in their spirited policy conversations eventually wore on me, pointing me back toward the law. That upbringing was paired with a few formative experiences that taught me the value of joining a profession that would not only challenge me intellectually but give me a platform to play a key role in our community. I’ve certainly found both opportunities at Barnes & Thornburg, where I’ve been fortunate to work on complex cases and get great on-my-feet experience, but where I’ve also been encouraged to give back to Indianapolis through pro bono service, as well as nonprofit board service with some remarkable organizations, including Happy Hollow Children’s Camp and Back on My Feet Indianapolis. Having met and married a lawyer as well, I hope our own examples and spirited policy conversations likewise inspire the next generation to at least consider the law (even if they, too, fight it at first)!
What do you most enjoy doing when you’re not in the office?
I’m an avid runner and have been since middle school. I’ve had the chance to run the Boston Marathon a handful of times, and there is nothing like soaking in the cheers from thousands of people along that historic route.
What would you be doing if you had not become an attorney?
Before attending law school, I taught kindergarten through Teach For America in Phoenix, Arizona. I found that experience incredibly rewarding, particularly getting to be along for the ride as students began to read for the first time and seeing them soak up all that education has to offer them. Although my time in the classroom is a part of what drove me to the law — hoping to increase my impact on low-income communities — if I hadn’t pursued law school, I think I might still be teaching, although perhaps young adults as opposed to 5-year-olds.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of your practice?
I had the great fortune of starting my legal career in Justice Mark Massa’s chambers, clerking for the Indiana Supreme Court. In addition to the constant, every day learning from my justice and his colleagues about legal doctrine and leading with humility, I also had the chance to play a role in crafting sound legal opinions to be relied upon by Hoosiers for years to come. I value this same principle in private practice. As a litigator, and especially one with an appellate practice, the arguments we make continue to have an impact on the law, with the immensely satisfying added bonus of solving some of our clients’ biggest problems.
And the most challenging?
Balancing it all! Figuring out what to prioritize, actually following through with that plan, asking for help, and adjusting as needed. In short, as a practitioner, there are many demands on our time and resources. Of course, there are client needs to be addressed and case deadlines to be met. But in addition, there are professional development opportunities to hone our craft, bar association groups and events to enrich our connections, and community endeavors to pay it forward. Each of these is important, and it can seem like quite a puzzle determining what fits where. On top of all that, we must not lose sight of our sense of self and our families. Indeed, as of this writing, I am awaiting the arrival of our first child, and I know that the prioritizing, seeking help and adjusting will only kick into higher gear!
Who is someone who inspired or mentored you, and what did you learn from them?
In addition to the myriad life lessons and the value of service in law that I’ve learned from my parents, as well as the humility paired with healthy drive and intellect that I’ve learned from Justice Massa, I have also been privileged to work with great mentors through my firm. One who comes to mind is John Maley, who makes mentoring an integral part of his practice, including actively seeking out litigation opportunities for young lawyers. He is also a great example of how maintaining a steadfast commitment to civility and doing the right thing can be an incredibly effective approach in fighting tooth and nail for clients.
Why is it important to you personally to help IU Maurer graduates?
I hope to leave organizations I touch — and that have touched me — better than how I found them. I’m so thankful for the legal education that I received from IU Maurer, and my dream is that it becomes a school I look at and think, “Wow, I couldn’t even get in today.” I also get a lot of energy from students, whether chatting with them informally over coffee, interviewing them to become a colleague, or coaching them in moot court. They bring a fresh perspective to the practice of law, one full of hope and ambition, and it is inspiring to be around that sentiment.
Where do you see your legal career 10 years from now?
My dad used to joke about the practice of law: “I’m still practicing; someday I hope to actually do it.” I think there is something to that, which is really special in our field. Every legal matter we touch is unique, such that we are always “just practicing” and always learning. I hope that in 10 years, I find myself still in a place where I am continually pushed to grow professionally.
What’s your advice to a younger person who’s thinking about a legal career?
Find something that really fires you up. And honestly, check in with yourself along the way. Whether you crave learning the intricate technology behind a patent, feel passionate about pursuing civil rights or get satisfaction from seeing a deal go through, loving what you do (while of course acknowledging you’ll have some tough days) is not negotiable. The possibilities in the law are vast, so don’t let yourself get discouraged or stuck in something that doesn’t give you the professional joy you’ve worked for and deserve.•