By David Kuhnz, Staff Attorney | Office of Communication, Education & Outreach
With a national spotlight on the importance of equity and inclusion, the legal community is among those entities taking a hard look at its own practices. The Indiana State Bar Association has been moved to effectuate change, inspire action, and take decisive steps to communicate and listen to the experiences of others.
One such call to action led to the creation of Open Conversations, a groundbreaking, year-long series of candid dialogue and introspection about race and culture in the legal landscape. This partnership between the Indiana State Bar Association, Indiana Supreme Court, and many of the state’s diverse legal institutions and associations is the first of its kind. Justice Steven David and Marion County Public Defender Agency attorney Angka Hinshaw have joined forces to lead the conversations as cohosts. With different perspectives, they embark on a journey to engage in frank and honest dialogue, and ultimately work toward expanding the legal community.
The two hosts facilitate and moderate hour-long discussions with accomplished guests and an engaged audience. The guests have an opportunity to share their experiences and challenges as it relates to race and racism. Ms. Hinshaw explained, “We find ourselves again discussing the victimization and the inequities experienced by people of color. These struggles are real, and still exist within our legal profession, and resonate in other industries. The purpose of this conversation is to enlighten minds of the experiences of people of color within our profession…” The program is catered to legal professionals seeking to listen, understand, and broaden their perspectives. Justice David and Ms. Hinshaw also invite the audience to provide input in an effort to improve the conversations.
On January 29, 2021, the inaugural virtual event featured Chief Justice Loretta Rush and ISBA President Michael E. Tolbert. The cohosts kicked off the event by providing their vision for the year. Justice David challenged the audience to look inward,
Our commitment to you and what we are asking from each of you is that you come to these conversations with open minds, open hearts, honesty, and respect. Let’s try to recognize different perspectives and be unafraid to express our opinions and talk through them…Doing the best that I can and the best I have done is not enough. So, I pledge to do more, be more, and be better. I ask you to consider doing the same.”
The January discussion initially focused on Chief Justice Rush’s 2020 “Statement on Race and Equity.” Mr. Tolbert and Ms. Hinshaw both praised the statement and its impact on the legal community. Mr. Tolbert indicated, “that one little pebble that the Chief Justice threw into the water—the legal pond—caused a great ripple effect across our great state.” The Statement has served as a pivotal moment that has inspired others to act in the legal community, including the formation of the ISBA’s Equity Task Force and several Office of Judicial Administration initiatives related to race and diversity. Chief Justice Rush highlighted the Court’s creation of a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coordinator position and the continued focus to ensure there is diversity on all of the Court’s committees and in the justice system as a whole.
The conversation evolved into a discussion of diversity in the legal profession. Chief Justice Rush praised the success of the Indiana Conference for Legal Education Opportunity—a program established to help traditionally underrepresented individuals pursue a law degree—noting the 100% July 2020 Bar Exam passage rate by ICLEO Fellows and that there is much work to be done to diversify the bench.
Mr. Tolbert provided a candid description of his nonconventional path to the practice of law and the challenges that he has endured as an African-American, including overcoming racial stereotypes and acts of racism, to ultimately become an accomplished lawyer, which has allowed him to remain close to his hometown of Gary, Indiana, and practice law with his wife at the law firm of Tolbert & Tolbert LLC.
Future conversations will address overcoming racial barriers, recruiting and retaining diverse attorneys, and discussions featuring Latino and Asian-Pacific legal professionals. The full program will also include quarterly articles in Res Gestae that recap the discussions.
The program will continue to be held virtually with the hope of eventually convening in person. For more information, visit the ISBA website. Each conversation requires advance registration through the ISBA and provides an opportunity to earn free CLE. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org with comments or suggestions.