Coming in First
Julia Blackwell Gelinas has blazed trails for female attorneys in Indianapolis, but it’s her work ethic and passion for the law that mark her 30-year career
Published in 2013 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine
on February 14, 2013
Updated on April 2, 2013
In 1980, when Julia Blackwell Gelinas walked into Locke Reynolds in Indianapolis (now Frost Brown Todd) as the firm’s first female attorney, she knew she would face some challenges in the courtroom.
“When you are a brand-new lawyer and you happen to be female, and you’re the only female in a group of lawyers that are in court and the comments are made that are kind of a harassing nature,” she says, “I think they were intended oftentimes to throw us off our game, make us uncomfortable and therefore gain a little bit of an advantage. When you’re a young lawyer and you’re the only woman, it was not always easy. I think there were a couple different ways you could look at things that happened to you: You could either laugh it off [or] get offended. I didn’t typically get offended.”
It helped that she received nothing but support from those within her firm.
“I never felt like I was the first woman lawyer hired at the firm. I think that’s because as you walked into the office on a regular basis there were women in the firm; it’s just that I was the only female at the time that happened to be an attorney,” Blackwell Gelinas says. “The men that I worked with never ever made me feel that I got certain opportunities or didn’t get certain opportunities because I was a woman. I thought that it was a very easy environment to be in, and I never had an issue with it at all.”
She went on to become the firm’s first female partner, and is one of the few women in Indianapolis to serve as managing partner for any firm.
While Blackwell Gelinas focused on rising to the top of her field through her exemplary work in construction law and, more recently, appellate work, her roster of “firsts” for female attorneys in Indianapolis has made her a role model for women in the profession.
“She’s always been very comfortable being a woman in a room full of men. That doesn’t intimidate her. She is [so] disarming by her tremendous capability that her gender has never been a barrier,” says Sally Franklin Zweig, a partner at Katz & Korin in Indianapolis. “By being the first of anything, everybody who knows you starts to think of those as options for themselves.”
In 2010, Blackwell Gelinas was given the Antoinette Dakin Leach Award, administered by the Indianapolis Bar Association’s Women and the Law Division, which honors outstanding female attorneys, and is presented only when the division finds a worthy candidate.
“When I started practicing law, it was easier to be a trailblazer because there weren’t that many women. … Now days there are so many women practicing; these women will be trailblazers for different reasons,” she says. “I love doing what I can to make it easier for women to succeed and stay in the profession.”
“I feel very strongly about people like Julia getting the recognition they deserve,” says Zweig, a longtime friend and one of those who nominated Blackwell Gelinas for the award. “People in the community, men and women, look up to her for all the right reasons. She’s somebody who, because she’s had such a long and distinguished career, is an exemplar about what is rewarding about the profession.”
Blackwell Gelinas started her career as a construction lawyer, a niche she didn’t necessarily intend to pursue.
“I’d been with the firm for six months and there was a building that was going to be the tallest building in Fort Wayne. It had barely gotten out of the ground when the contractor got terminated,” she says.
Firm partner Hugh Reynolds put her on the case. For the next two years, Blackwell Gelinas—a Fort Wayne native—traveled all over the country taking depositions and working the case. She virtually lived in New York during the week for a time.
“To have been able to do that as, basically, a first-year lawyer was an unbelievable experience,” she says. “When that case ended, I was a construction lawyer.”
Blackwell Gelinas has gone on to represent a number of high-profile clients in the construction sector, including one of the contractors in the recent Indianapolis downtown library case.
“That case was resolved with a confidentiality agreement,” she says, “But I [can] say my client in that case—and typically my construction clients—are wonderful to deal with. They make it easy to believe in their cases. It’s easy to represent people when you believe in what their position is.”
Although Blackwell Gelinas still practices in the field of construction, fidelity and surety, her current focus is appellate work. She chairs Frost Brown Todd’s appellate group, which covers the firm’s offices in five states, and relishes her role in shaping the law.
“The thing I’m probably proudest of in my career is that I’ve helped in some small way to create law in a lot of different areas: products liability, construction, business litigation, procedure,” she says. “That feels good. That’s why I became a lawyer, to work to help create law.”
Blackwell Gelinas has been counsel on more than 170 decisions as an appellate lawyer. That number, as well as the variety of work that comes across her desk, gives her immense satisfaction.
“I have been involved in cases that cover a wide range of topics, as well as both sides of the issue—not just defense cases, but cases where you’re plaintiff-ing in a business litigation matter,” she says. “It’s just a broad area, which is probably what I’m proudest of.”
In 2011, Blackwell Gelinas was elected to the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers. She’s also been appointed to the Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission, where she served as an executive committee member for 10 years and chaired it for two years.
“I had the greatest respect for what the commission does,” says Blackwell Gelinas, who continues to represent lawyers before the commission. “They’re trying to make sure the public is protected from people who have no business having a law license, while at the same time trying to protect the bar from claims that aren’t valid.”
While she learned a great deal from her years on the commission, she also was able to offer perspective on the issues facing her gender.
“There have always been women on the commission, but she was someone who was a strong voice on the commission for some of the issues that are gender-specific,” says Zweig. “What constitutes sexual harassment in an attorney-client relationship, those are the kinds of things where having that female voice at the table really helped.”
Before the firm’s merger in 2009, Blackwell Gelinas served as managing partner at Locke Reynolds from 2000 to 2005. “I considered those five years to be some of the best because I really could see change,” she says. “We had this great attitude that you could enjoy and have fun, and still get the job done and do the job well.”
During her tenure as managing partner, Blackwell Gelinas and her team were able to find a balance between running an efficient operation, and treating all employees with respect, dignity and equality.
“I’m proudest of the fact that we were able to truly run [the firm] like a business, while at the same time keeping a very strong focus on the fact that it was a group of people working in this place,” she says. “It wasn’t just the lawyers and the partners I had to be concerned about, it was the entire staff and making sure we had an environment that was good for everybody.”
Blackwell Gelinas’ people-focused management style continues in her current management role at Frost Brown Todd.
“Julia possesses endless optimism for her teams’—and the firm’s—potential for success,” says Nelson Alexander, member-in-charge at Frost Brown Todd’s Indianapolis office, who has worked with Blackwell Gelinas for more than 20 years. “She leverages that optimism to secure the internal collaboration every organization needs to succeed long term. Julia simply makes everyone on the team better.”
In addition to, and in part because of, her managerial role, Blackwell Gelinas has naturally evolved into a mentor for female attorneys looking to find their place within the firm and the legal community. She currently serves as the Women’s Initiative chair at the firm.
“The young associates in her firm I regularly encounter know that we are friends and invariably want to tell me that regardless of what area of the law they work in, Julia has made them feel like her door is open and they can call upon her,” Zweig wrote in her letter nominating Blackwell Gelinas for the Leach award. “I mention this because it happens over and over again—and that is no mere coincidence.”