The Few and the Proud

By James Dimos

As February brings with it Black History Month, the history of the legal profession in Indiana reveals that African American lawyers are a relatively recent phenomenon. According to the book Emancipation: The Making of the Black Lawyer, 1884-1994 by J. Clay Smith, Jr., the first black lawyer was admitted to practice in Indiana in either 1878 or 1879. By 1940 (slightly more than 60 years later), there were only 56 black lawyers in Indiana or approximately 1.5% of the state’s lawyer population at that time. Seventy-four years after that, in 2014 the Clerk of the Indiana Supreme Court reports that there are 383 black lawyers in Indiana, roughly 2% of the lawyer population in the state. This puts Indiana at less than half the national figure, which shows that according to the U.S. Census, 4.8% of lawyers in America are African American.

In an effort to have a more diverse profession, the Indiana General Assembly adopted, and Gov. Frank O’Bannon signed, legislation in 1997 creating the Indiana Conference for Legal Education Opportunity (ICLEO). Established at the urging of former Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard, ICLEO helps Indiana minority, low-income or educationally disadvantaged college graduates pursue a law degree from an Indiana law school and then a career in the Indiana legal community.

To accomplish that task, ICLEO offers a three-step program:

  • At the outset, ICLEO conducts a summer institute designed to help students become accustomed to what they will experience as law students. Over the course of approximately 40 days, participants are immersed into some of the required first-year law school courses. Participants not only receive support and assistance from faculty but also teaching assistants who are ICLEO Fellows and have also successfully completed the summer institute experience. The participants are not permitted to work during the summer institute and must reside in the provided housing. There is no cost to participate for selected students. Participation in the institute allows students to gain confidence and build relationships with their ICLEO classmates that provide a network for support and encouragement as they begin law school.
  • Students who successfully graduate from the summer institute are then eligible for an annual stipend. Stipends may be awarded for up to three successive academic years if the student remains eligible. The annual stipend currently is $6,500 for students attending a public law school and $9,000 for students attending a private law school in Indiana.
  • ICLEO also helps students locate law-related summer employment after their first and second years of law school with Indiana appellate courts, trial courts, other governmental employers, and law firms.

More information regarding ICLEO can be found at http://www.in.gov/judiciary/cleo/.

The impact of the ICLEO program has been noticeable. Since 1997, nearly 500 students have completed the summer institute and more than 300 have gone on to graduate from law school. ICLEO’s work has doubled the number of minority lawyers in the state and provided leaders to our profession. For example, Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Rudolph R. Pyle III is an ICLEO Fellow and as a member of the ICLEO Advisory Committee while another ICLEO Fellow, Cassandra Bentley, serves as the current president of the Marion County Bar Association.

Why does this matter? As our state and nation become more diverse, it is important for our profession to do so as well so as to remain relevant and accessible to the public that lawyers serve. Indiana has room to grow so as to make its legal profession reflective of the diversity of its population as a whole. ICLEO serves as a valuable piece in the development of a more diverse profession. Take the opportunity to support ICLEO Fellows, whether through mentoring or employment. They add to the rich tapestry of our profession and communities as a whole.

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