Ready to litigate • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Ready to litigate

Next generation of lawyers find Region perfect place to start careers

Martin Pritikin
Martin Pritikin, dean of Purdue Global Law School, said many students choose their online-only platform because they are in a midlife career pivot and cannot attend a brick-and-mortar school. (Provided by Purdue Global Law School)

The newest Region lawyers have navigated the academic demands of law school in the face of a pandemic, landed work at area legal firms and are litigating in our courts.

They arrive as the number of Indiana attorneys is shrinking, and technology threatens to disrupt their professional pursuits.

But, they’ve also won the admiration of seasoned litigators.

“You have some very talented women lawyers and more of them now, and they do a great job,” said Roy Dominguez, who has practiced criminal and civil law for more than four decades. He is based in Merrillville.

Shontrai Irving, president of the Lake County Bar Association and a business law professor at Purdue University Northwest, said he is impressed by the next generation of lawyers.

“I find them eager, hungry and excited about the profession,” he said. “Their technical skills are much stronger. They have ways of working and interacting with clients in ways we didn’t have. The ability to work productively in many places gives them an edge.”

James Old, a Valparaiso University adviser to prelaw undergraduate students, said in spite of today’s challenges, students are still drawn to the legal profession.

“The law is still attractive because they see it as a prestigious career where they can make a good income,” he said.

New class of attorneys

Nicholas Assise joined O’Neill, McFadden and Willett LLP of Schererville as an attorney in 2022 and defends health care providers accused of medical malpractice.

The Tinley Park, Illinois, native first took an interest in law during a summer when he shadowed a cousin’s work as a public defender. His respect for her civil rights advocacy prompted him to attend Notre Dame Law School.

“My first week at school, a presenter told us, ‘You didn’t quite know where you wanted to go in life, so you went to law school to make your parents happy.’”

Victoria Bain joined Merrillville’s Weiss, Schmidgall and Hires PC last year and already has a civil defamation trial under her belt.

“I was interested in human rights, so if you really want to change things, you read and understand the law and become politically active,” Bain said.

After growing up in Burns Harbor, she was in the second year of her undergraduate studies at Valparaiso University when its law school closed.

“I reached out to a couple of law schools but didn’t want to take the risk of moving far away (COVID had just broken out), so I chose University of Illinois Chicago (formerly John Marshall Law School) because I could commute to it easily.” She found work here on a job search website.

Rishi Asija began civil litigation this February as an associate for Crown Point’s Crist, Sears and Zic LLP. He grew up in suburban Detroit.

“I didn’t know what I really wanted to do,” Asija said. “I took my family’s advice to follow my passion. I wanted to do something meaningful and help people in some capacity, so going to law school was a no-brainer.”

Lauren Konagel, now at Merrillville’s Burke Costanza & Carberry LLP, was born and raised in Spring Grove, Illinois.

“In college I was planning to be a clinical psychologist and decided to double major in criminal justice and psychology,” she said. “I took some law classes and realized I was much more interested in the law, so on a wing and a prayer, I applied to some law schools.”

She earned her law degree in 2022 from Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Region’s firms ‘real’ them in

Finding a job in Chicago during the pandemic proved difficult for some, so practicing in Northwest Indiana was an easier fit.

“I started looking for jobs in my second year of law school right when COVID hit,” Konagel said. “Originally, I was anticipating I would be working in (Chicago), but a lot of firms there weren’t hiring or the positions would be fully remote.”

Many of her law school lectures met via Zoom.

“In-person was really attractive to me,” she said. “I was hoping to get as much experience and exposure to real hearings and trials, and Burke, Costanza & Carberry offered that.”

Northern Indiana law firms compete annually for graduates with the rest of the country with promises of hands-on job training and all Northern Indiana can offer a young person.

Joshua Hague, a partner at Krieg DeVault, with offices in Merrillville and South Bend, works with the firm’s new talent.

“I see close to 600 resumes a year — where there has been a determination to practice in Northwest Indiana and Chicago in a level of collegiality in our bar you may not see in larger legal environments,” Hague said.

“We believe it’s part of our job to teach them to be great lawyers by exposing them to all areas in which we practice, so they get to see, live- and-in-person, what it’s like to be a litigator.”

Jon Schmaltz, a partner at Merrillville’s Burke Costanza & Carberry, said with Chicago so close, the competition for top talent can be a challenge.

“Obviously, Chicago is a large market and, with its proximity to Northwest Indiana, creates a competitive atmosphere in lawyer recruiting,” he said.

BCC’s advantage, he said, is offering real-world learning experiences.

“We emphasize opportunities for summer associates and young attorneys to ‘get out of the office’ — attend and participate in court hearings, depositions, real estate closing, and a variety of events that expose them to the nuances of the professional practice,” he said.

Shelice and Michael Tolbert, husband and wife and partners of Gary’s Tolbert and Tolbert Attorneys at Law LLC, said their recruiting operates under the no-stone-unturned principle.

“We leverage our social media presence, and we’ve served in different sending organizations where we run into other lawyers,” Michael Tolbert said.

Tolbert said they hire younger recruits with the future in mind.

“We are trying to hire for the long run, trying to build a firm, a business, a community,” he said.

And students who accept their call will find no shortage of work.

“There are certain principles in the law that will never change — hard work and long hours,” Michael Tolbert said.

Shelice Tolbert said they like introducing new graduates to the nuances of the law.

“We expose them to research projects, summarizing, the kind of training you don’t get in the classroom,” she said.

The lawyer gap

The new class of lawyers joins a roll of attorneys across Lake, Porter, La Porte and St. Joseph counties, where the ranks have thinned out to just about 2,000.

Law schools have experienced a decade of smaller enrollments, which led in 2020 to the closure of the Valparaiso University Law School, which fed new talent to the area.

“The (2008-2013) Great Recession hit the legal career a lot harder than other professions,” James Old at Valparaiso University said.

“There were stories in the national media about law students graduating with $200,000 in debt and unable to get jobs,” Old said. “So, the number of students going into law schools dropped, and smaller schools, like ours, had a hard time competing for students.”

Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush said in April that, “Indiana faces a critical shortage of attorneys … and the gap is especially acute in Indiana rural and most socioeconomically disadvantaged communities.”

Less than 1 percent of Lake County’s practicing attorneys have offices in the city of Gary, Michael Tolbert said.

Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter said the now-defunct Valparaiso University Law School once “served in-state students and those who graduated there, many of them came back to our Region.

“It’s definitely hurt our office and every prosecuting office in the state,” he said.

He has had to reach out and hire more seasoned lawyers to help prosecute the more than 8,000 felonies and misdemeanors charged annually in Lake County.

The Indiana Supreme Court responded in February by opening the door to Purdue Global Law School graduates. They previously were denied access to the bar exam because their online-only education has yet to win approval of the American Bar Association.

Martin Pritikin, dean of Purdue Global Law School, said many of their students choose their online-only platform because they are in a midlife, career pivot, and cannot attend a brick-and-mortar school.

“We provide for people who cannot fit the traditional law school experience into their current lives,” Pritikin said.

Many of these students work, have a family and don’t live within commuting distance.

“Nationally, the average brick-and-mortar program is just under $150,000 for all three years,” he said. “Our total program — with no fixed campus to maintain and small staff to pay — is just under $50,000.”

He said Purdue’s law curriculum is just as good, if not better than traditional programs, giving its students more time to absorb abstract legal principles by rewatching online lectures if necessary and snap quizzes to ensure students are keeping up with the pace of instruction.

New technology

Shelice Tolbert said the difference between now and when they entered the legal field 24 years ago is the grasp of new technology by new lawyers.

“No one is taking hand-written notes like we used to,” she said. Her husband also said that students “understand the importance of using technology to deliver services a lot easier.”

Asija, a 2022 graduate of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, said he regularly used his internet browser, word processor and a personal information manager to organize his calendar.

“There are probably courses in law school about those, but I think they primarily are life skills,” he said.

There are concerns generative artificial intelligence might create risks in the areas of client privacy and someday even take legal reasoning away from flesh-and-blood lawyers.

The Indiana Supreme Court just created a blue-ribbon committee of academics, judges and legislators to work this summer to set ethical standards for AI.

Pritikin said Purdue Global Law has just launched an artificial intelligence law course, which looks at this new technology still in its infancy.

“Technology hasn’t replaced lawyers; it made them more efficient,” he said. “And I think, AI will do the same thing, eliminating the need for repetitive work, but not analytical thinking and judgment.”

But Old said the new technology will do more than that.

“I think large law firms will be looking at AI as a tool that can write briefs faster and more efficiently, so maybe they will have fewer first year associate lawyers doing that,” he said.

As for the future, Old can’t say for sure how AI will change his profession — even five years from now.

“This AI thing is so new we are still trying to figure it out, but it’s a safe bet that AI is going to change everything, every career, every field,” Old said.

Read more stories from the current issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.


  • Bill Dolan

    William Patrick “Bill” Dolan was born and raised in New Albany, where the attended and graduated from New Albany High School in 1967. He attended Indiana University Southeast in Jeffersonville and graduated at Indiana University Bloomington in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He was a staff writer for The Post-Tribune from 1972 to 1997, covering feature news, local government and Lake County criminal courts in Crown Point. He was a staff writer from 1997 until his retirement in 2019 at The Times of Northwest Indiana, covering Crown Point schools, U.S. District Court in Hammond and Lake County government, as well as feature and business writing. He has made his home in Northwest Indiana since 1972, with his wife, Mary Sue (Skees) Dolan, and their children Marissa (Dolan) Gale and Sean Dolan.


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