Making Their Mark
Five attorneys under 40 talk about their successes and their trials by fire
Published in 2021 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine
on February 25, 2021
Updated on February 26, 2021
Don’t get them started on Gen Y stereotypes.
“I’ve heard stories of older generations looking at us a little differently,” says 35-year-old litigator Ryan Leagre. “If we ask for something like expanded paid parental leave, I think it’s viewed as, ‘Nothing’s ever good enough. Millennials want an open floor plan and a pingpong table in the back of the office.’ A lot of people think, ‘Oh, millennials float around and they’re always looking for greener grass.’ I don’t fit that stereotype at all.”
“From a female perspective, we are told to lean into our industry and we can have it all—except we can’t,” says Jessica Merkel, who focuses on family law, estate planning and probate. “Striving for this balance between our professional lives and our personal lives is hard to translate and communicate and work through with the prior generations, because many just don’t get it.”
That said, the stories of these attorneys aren’t overly dissimilar to previous generations: Law school still doesn’t teach the practical day-to-day matters of being a lawyer; public defense or prosecutorial work is still a great path to trial experience; young female attorneys are still mistaken for receptionists; and the road to success is full of challenges.
LEANING TOWARD LAW
Nakeina Cane, 37; Cane Legal; family law, criminal defense; Indianapolis: I’ve always had a passion for advocacy. Growing up, I was always the kid who would speak on behalf of the group.
Ryan Leagre, 35; Plews Shadley Racher & Braun, insurance coverage; Indianapolis: [After serving in Teach for America], I got a job landscaping with my neighbor. I got carpal tunnel syndrome in both my hands from all the digging, and it made me realize, “Maybe I’m not cut out for this manual labor for the rest of my life.” My grandfather was a successful attorney in Indianapolis, and it just got me thinking.
Jessica Merkel, 39; Bunger & Robertson; family law, estate planning and probate; Bloomington: I really like to argue. But my desire to become a lawyer was really solidified when one of my best friends and teammates from high school was kidnapped and murdered. I felt drawn to justice and righting the wrongs of victims and the underserved.
Barath Raman, 33; Lewis Wagner; personal injury: defense; Indianapolis: I got my civil engineering degree and got assigned to work on a light rail project in Houston, Texas. The owner allegedly violated certain federal statutes and regulations and allocated funds to non-United States manufacturing companies. … I got to sit in on some meetings between corporate counsel, the construction entities and the owner, and they were talking about who’s going to pay for what. And I found that a lot more interesting than the actual engineering aspect of it.
Juan Pablo Román-Lagunas, 38; Keffer Hirschauer; criminal defense; Indianapolis: I have a history as a little bit of a rabble-rouser. The opportunity to be a check on authority was really attractive to me.
LAW SCHOOL DAYS
Leagre: You learn how to study case law. You learn how to read opinions and write briefs. But that’s very different from the real-world practice of law. Even simple things like navigating firm culture and relationships and how to deal with opposing counsel, where sometimes they can get pretty heated. We’re not really taught how to respond to that in law school.
Cane: There was a huge drive to increase diversity. As an African American in law school, I felt like that push was important. Representation matters.
Raman: Law school certainly teaches you to look at both sides of the situation. I think that is sometimes lost in the real practice because we’re so zealously advocating for our clients. The other thing that I thought was super valuable was the value of developing your own network.
Merkel: I really didn’t like the theoretical classes. I just wanted to know what I needed to know to help people, to do my job, and to pass the bar.
DEALING WITH DEBT
Cane: I have student debt, but it’s nothing that’s not manageable. I keep in good contact with my loan provider.
Leagre: Fortunately, my debt is not nearly as much as some of the numbers I’m seeing. Other things in my life, like day care for my two kids, are way more impactful than student debt.
Raman: I ended up graduating with about $80,000 or $90,000 worth of debt, and that is with a substantial scholarship from my law school. … It is a substantial burden because, at the end of the day, about half of my paycheck every month goes toward my student loan debt.
Merkel: My student-debt load was not as large as probably many others. That was freeing for me in the sense that I didn’t have to feel compelled to choose where I worked because of the compensation solely because of that debt.
THE ROAD TO PRIVATE PRACTICE
Román-Lagunas: I worked for a criminal defense firm in law school, which I really liked, but I wanted to get more experience quickly, which you don’t get as a first-year attorney in a law firm. So I applied and moved down [to Indianapolis] and started working at the public defender agency.
Cane: Before I hung my own shingle, I was a deputy prosecuting attorney. I started there as an unpaid intern, so I was actually paying more in parking than I was getting in salary. But the experience I gained—you just can’t measure it.
Leagre: After doing well in my first semester of law school, I was introduced to George Plews and John Bridge and invited to interview at Plews Shadley Racher & Braun as a summer intern. And that’s where I’ve been since.
Cane: The natural progression from being a prosecutor is criminal defense. I know criminal law like the back of my hand. After I left the prosecutor’s office, I went to a small private firm and that was my introduction to family law, and I actually fell in love with it. You’re dealing with people at some of the worst times of their lives, but being able to help them navigate that is very fulfilling.
Leagre: You’re always learning something new [in insurance law]. We represent the policyholders, so we’re always up against the insurance companies. A lot of times it feels like we’re helping just regular folks.
Merkel: I took my first criminal law class and had a crisis of faith. I realized that my brain doesn’t work that way. But thankfully, I was able to clerk for a small, civil practice in Bloomington and was really taken under the wings of some very, very excellent mentors who showed me that I can still serve that sense of justice. I’m translating to people who really have no understanding of what the law does in a civil context.
Raman: The culture of our firm is really important, so I chose Lewis Wagner more than I chose my particular field.
LEARNING THE HARD WAY
Román-Lagunas: I tried a theft case as a young public defender, and the defendant was accused of stealing some shoes. … The store manager went back on the stand, and the omitted question was: Can you describe in more detail the shoes? And she said, “I don’t have to. She’s wearing them.” I have no idea how, but I won the jury.
Merkel: I was asked many times if I was a real lawyer. People thought I was a secretary or a receptionist. I personally felt like, as a young individual and a young woman, that my quality of work and my understanding of legal matters had to be that much better so that people got over their initial judgment and got over underestimating me.
Raman: I remember my very first plaintiff’s deposition on a generic slip-and-fall case. I had taken this deposition training course, where they teach you how to funnel everything and you keep funneling until you get down to the detail. Well, I think I took that maybe too literally, so I was asking the plaintiffs their names, their nicknames, their maiden names, why their nicknames were given. And my boss read the transcript and was shocked and realized it was a great learning moment.
Leagre: [Newbies] do a lot of grunt work, and they don’t usually get the opportunities to do some of the public-facing actions. They could learn a lot faster if they were thrown in front of a judge to do a hearing. Thankfully, I’ve been given such opportunities, and I think it’s made me a better lawyer.
Cane: It was not supposed to be a court trial; we entered into a plea agreement. So the judge is going through the plea agreement with the defendant, and the judge just did not like the defendant’s attitude and he rejected it. He literally took it and tore it in half, and said, “State [of Indiana], your first witness.” And that was my first court trial.
Merkel: What has surprised me the most is just that the human condition is so amazing. People do crazy and illogical and wonderful and scary things all at the same time, and they lay these troubles at our feet as lawyers and expect us to be able to fix them.
Raman: It is surprising when you get those one-off cases where opposing counsel or a co-defendant’s counsel are just being absolute jerks and unnecessarily rude. I think it does a disservice, not only to the client but to the profession.
Román-Lagunas: I really enjoy the fight. It’s rough during [a trial], but looking back, it feels almost like you were taking the bar again. It’s a rush.
THE PROS …
Raman: The millennial generation is less dependent on paper files and being in the office. We can work earlier. We can work later. We can work at different times. I think that sometimes gets misconstrued as, “Oh, millennials are not as hard-working.” I think that millennials are the hardest-working generation.
Leagre: When I was a young kid, we had basic Nintendo that wasn’t that different from what my parents had as kids. Within 10 years, the evolution of technology from gaming systems to cellphones had changed a lot. Through that, we learned how to adapt to new technologies quicker than the older generation. That’s helpful in the practice of law.
Raman: We just have a great understanding of technology across the board, and I think that allows us to become more efficient.
… AND CONS
Cane: Sometimes the way we communicate, things get lost in translation, where in the past a good, old-fashioned phone call, where you could hear someone’s tone, went a long way. Now we’re more prone to send an email or a text message or electronic transmission where that tone is lost.
Román-Lagunas: In general, as a young lawyer, before you know the lay of the land and all of the players in the game, it takes some years to gain the institutional knowledge. As a younger attorney, it took me a while to get there.
Merkel: [One disadvantage] is this trite response that the greatest generation lives to work and the millennials work to live.
OUT OF COURT
Leagre: After [a hearing] is over I feel good about what I’ve done. You put in all the work and you overprepare and it ends up just fine. I don’t crave it, but I do wish I had more of it.
Román-Lagunas: I have spent the better part of my career in the courtroom fighting, and I oftentimes am yearning for more time at my desk to do the transactional work that’s necessary.
Merkel: I try to avoid going to court whenever possible. I am a big proponent of alternative dispute resolution when appropriate. I believe there are better ways to solve people’s problems—more creative and applicable ways—than blindly driving to a court-imposed solution.
Raman: Ninety-eight percent of cases end up settling at mediation, or at least settled through the course of the lawsuit. As a result, there are just so few chances for millennial trial lawyers to actually go to trial in the civil world. It’s a disadvantage for millennial lawyers because we’re kind of growing up in the practice of law without the opportunity to hone our oral advocacy or trial skills.
CHANGING THE SYSTEM
Leagre: A lot of us have young children, or we have a working spouse, or we have both, and it is very difficult to balance all of that. In the last couple of years, we’ve expanded paid leave at our firm, to 12 weeks. If there were more of those [work-life benefits] across the legal industry, I think it would be a positive development in the law.
Román-Lagunas: The COVID-19 crisis has forced a lot of efficiencies—such as virtual hearings. It’s new, but at least in the courtroom where I practice principally in Indianapolis, I think that the court has done an excellent job. Once this horrible pandemic is over, I think everyone will embrace it and continue it and perfect it.
Merkel: Because of the internet, because of our technology, and even worse now in the time of COVID, the expectation of being on call at all times and being immediately reachable and responsive at all times is just inappropriate for everybody, opposing counsel and clients alike. I just wish that there was a more graceful, realistic approach to those expectations. Not everything is an emergency.
Cane: I wish there was more diversity in law. I think it has increased over time, but it definitely could be more diverse.
Raman: Because of COVID, I’ve taken multiple depositions of clients or witnesses across the state of Indiana, or even outside the state, without having to needlessly travel for what’s going to be a two- or three-hour deposition. It almost took a pandemic for the law practice to kind of catch up with where technology is today.