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In Good Hands

Shelice R. Tolbert on good lawyering, good health and good lessons learned

Published in 2015 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine

Shelice R. Tolbert was hired at Kopka Pinkus Dolin to handle workers’ compensation matters in 2003, but she soon became an insurance defense lawyer. “One of the attorneys had an injury and couldn’t come in, so I ended up inheriting her caseload,” she says.

Insurance companies have called on Tolbert to represent their insureds ever since, in cases mainly involving premises liability, motor vehicle accidents or insurance coverage issues.

In her most memorable case, Tolbert defended Nasir Farrakhan, the son of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Two plaintiffs claimed he injured them when he rear-ended their vehicle with a Hummer in May 2003. When he was stopped by police less than half an hour later, he explained that he left a barbeque late, fell asleep at the wheel and didn’t know he had collided with another vehicle.

“[Because] Minister Louis Farrakhan was actually named in the lawsuit, because the vehicle was registered to him, I had to take his deposition,” Tolbert adds. “It kind of got a little press.”

The jury verdict in 2006: the younger Farrakhan was ordered to pay more than $460,000 in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages.

“It was my first federal trial,” says Tolbert. “I had just gotten married and my name was in the paper, and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re calling me for comments.’ And I didn’t want to comment on this case.”

She is more open to talking about it now: “One of the reasons I think the result was not favorable is because the jury did not like my client. Unfortunately, there is no real way to prepare for that; the jury either likes your person or they don’t and that is determined before anyone takes the witness stand.”

But Tolbert came out stronger from the experience. “After that case, I have tried to encourage my clients to be attentive throughout the trial,” she says. “And if they make eye contact with any jurors, do not appear intimidating.” To calm nervous clients, Tolbert offers them a notepad and pen to take notes during their trial.

Tolbert has now taken more than 40 cases to trial and settled countless more.

In one case, her client had admitted liability in an auto accident. Tolbert argued that the plaintiff claimed injuries that could not be totally linked to the accident, made unsubstantiated lost wage claims and wanted damages for loss of consortium, even though counseling records indicated that the plaintiff’s marriage was having problems before the accident. At trial, plaintiff’s counsel had asked the jury for more than $350,000. Thanks to Tolbert, the jury returned a verdict of $70,000.

She says her success comes from her faith in God; support and encouragement from her colleagues, family and husband—Michael E. Tolbert, her partner at the recently opened Tolbert & Tolbert; and, of course, extensive preparation. It takes stamina, but that’s no problem for Tolbert, who describes herself as “a lift-weights kind of girl.”

As chairperson of the wellness committee at the Lake County Bar Association, she launched a “Practice Health, Not Law Day” event last June. Attorneys learned about healthy eating, completed stress assessments and checked their cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. As the president-elect for the association, Tolbert hopes it will become an annual event, and the Lake County Bar has encouraged the Indiana Bar to make it a statewide event.

“It’s important,” she says, “because if we’re not healthy, we can’t do anything for anyone.”

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