Of all professionals, lawyers may have the worst public image: We’ve all heard lawyer jokes, and they are never flattering. Gary native Michael Tolbert, a partner at the law firm of Hoeppner, Wagner and Evans, is determined to prove the longstanding stereotype wrong, whether he’s working with clients and colleagues or volunteering to better his hometown.
“At a really young age, I felt a need to serve people,” says Tolbert, who graduated from Valparaiso University School of Law in 2000. “I didn’t even think of the money. I was more concerned with where I could make the biggest impact. The practice of law seemed to be the best fit to me.”
Although just 35, Tolbert has already been practicing for 10 years, mostly focusing on civil, bad faith insurance and employment-related litigation. But he’s been doing more than just representing Northwest Indiana clients at his Merrillville-based firm during that time—he’s dedicated much of his time to ensuring lawyers keep their knowledge base up-to-date and adhere to strict professional ethics.
“As lawyers,” Tolbert says, “we often forget that we’re in the business of serving people.” While president of the Porter County chapter of the American Inns of Court, a national organization dedicated to changing the general public’s perception of lawyers, he helped make sure area attorneys lead by example. “If we can talk about making sure we treat a client fairly, making sure we are cordial and professional with each other, then slowly and surely the perception of lawyers will change.”
Partner/chair of litigation segment
Hoeppner, Wagner and Evans LLP
1000 E 80th Pl, 6th Floor, Merrillville, Ind
At the state level, Tolbert continues to serve on the Indiana Supreme Court Commission for Continuing Legal Education, which is charged with regulating the quality of approved continuing education credits all practicing Indiana lawyers must complete every three years.
“I think it’s essential. What we ultimately do is make sure that lawyers in Indiana stay current through instruction,” he explains. “I’m honored to contribute not only to the lawyer profession but to making sure that the attorney-client relationship is preserved.” He was first appointed to the commission by the Indiana Supreme Court in 2004, served as its chair in 2009, and will complete his second consecutive term at the end of next year.
Julia Orzeske, executive director of the commission, says Tolbert’s presence has been crucial during the last six years. “He brings leadership, he brings insight,” Orzeske says. “He’s not stuck in an old way of thinking.”
Michael Meyer, who has worked with Tolbert at Hoeppner, Wagner and Evans for two years, says his colleague taught him that “the practice of law is not just about winning in the courtroom.” Tolbert’s work ethic and determination to his profession, Meyer says, has provided “immeasurable guidance and insight into the importance of providing unwavering and zealous advocacy to those we represent, while maintaining a focus on the ultimate goal to seek justice.”
Tolbert may now live in Crown Point (with his wife, also a lawyer), but he hasn’t left his struggling hometown behind. While president of the Gary Chamber of Commerce during the last three years, he “tried to change the perception of businesses” by helping Chamber members “get the exposure and the clients that they need to be successful.” There are great businesses in Gary, Tolbert says, and the only way they’ll find the success they deserve is if citizens pitch in to help rejuvenate the city.
“We’re all in this together. That’s the way you change a community,” he says.
With no plans to leave the region—Tolbert is also on the board of directors of Housing Opportunities Inc., which helps NWI residents secure affordable housing, and sits on the diversity subcommittee of the Indiana State Bar Association—he looks forward to decades of sharpening his professional skills, and sharing them with the area. “A good part of who I am is from growing up in Northwest Indiana,” he says. “I love the region, and its people.”
Unsurprisingly, he also loves his profession. “My father used to tell me, if you find something that you love you’ll never work a day in your life,” he jokes. “I try to put myself in the client’s shoes,” he explains. “The only way you can provide good service is by being compassionate and responsive and by making sure that you have a client’s best interests at heart.”
“I didn’t realize how many good people there are in the profession,” Tolbert says. “The number of people that these lawyer jokes are based on is a very small percentage.”