Providence Over Coincidence
Paul Sinclair’s life and practice are guided by his LDS church principles
Published in 2022 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine on February 14, 2022
Almost three decades ago, while preparing for his first major case as a labor and employment lawyer, Paul Sinclair stared at the boxes and boxes of evidence, interrogatories and other documents and wondered, Is this what litigation is? Later, as he listened to testimony in the discrimination suit against his corporate client, it became obvious that both sides were too emotionally charged to budge.
“I realized that when I’m sitting down in a deposition with the plaintiffs, there could be two people who can look at the exact same set of facts and see them completely differently and completely disagree about the interpretation of those facts,” says Sinclair, 55, a partner at Ice Miller in Indianapolis who represents the management side. “Ultimately we wound up getting summary judgment in the case, which is gratifying but it also put me in a position to say, ‘Is the best way to resolve people problems to go into a courtroom and have somebody win and somebody lose?’ Sometimes it’s necessary, but it has stuck in my mind over the years to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be better if we never had the problem in the first place? Wouldn’t it be better if, before we have to fire somebody, we’ve done all the things that we can do to solve those problems before it becomes a lawsuit?’
“That really is the motivating aspect of how my practice is encapsulated today.”
Spurred by this conviction and the service-oriented tenets of his faith, Sinclair has spent his career trying to avoid courtroom jousting whenever possible; litigation now comprises only a small portion of a practice that focuses on health care, manufacturing and higher education. And while he still handles legal claims, arbitration and other traditional labor issues, his primary goal is to help the parties find middle ground before things turn litigious.
The preventive approach applies not only to Sinclair’s legal work but to the discipline with which the 6-foot-4, 225-pound former college linebacker maintains his fitness level, which he does by working out every day but Sunday, eating right and avoiding caffeine per the health code, or “Word of Wisdom,” of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Pete Marciniak, senior vice president of human resources at Steel Partners, a New York-based global diversified holding firm with multiple companies, is a longtime client. Marciniak’s team initially asked Sinclair to negotiate union matters and was so impressed they hired him to help with acquisitions, relocations and general labor relations. “With [our] employees in practically all states, he is able to guide us as issues come up,” Marciniak says. “He is very professional and measured, so he is very good at assisting in situations that can be challenging for our employees and supervisors—such as a death in a family—and in helping our employees through a very difficult time.”
Sinclair is no stranger to union matters. Life in his boyhood town of De Pere, Wisconsin, revolved around the river, farming and the blue-collar mill industry. His dad, a rewind operator in a paper mill, and his mom, who loaded bakery trucks for Wonder Bread, were both staunch union members and no strangers to hard work. Neither was Sinclair, who worked on local farms on summer breaks. His parents were adamant about two things: that he get a proper education, and that he never, ever work at the mill.
A devoted fan of the Green Bay Packers, who held their summer camps at a small private university in De Pere and were often spotted in town, young Sinclair dreamed of playing pro football. He participated in every sport possible, often sharpening his leadership skills as captain. “I felt comfortable, and it helped me to identify that this was [an area where] I can help people be better. Even as a kid on the playground, if you’re going to play a game of baseball, somebody’s got to decide who’s going to be on what team. It’s always been in my personality to say, ‘You know, I don’t necessarily need to be the leader of this, but we’ve got to get this thing moving in whatever direction it’s going to move.’”
One day, his high school English teacher pulled him aside and asked, “Have you ever thought about law? The world is full of lawyers, but there’s always room for good ones.”
Her words resonated with Sinclair. He did, after all, tend to dive headlong into every project. And he’d already discovered a knack for pulling together patterns and understanding the principles behind them. So with his new goal of becoming an attorney, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire to study political science and play football.
He’d already joined the LDS church, thanks in part to a girlfriend and Brigham Young University student with whom he wrote letters because he couldn’t afford long-distance calls. So he didn’t hesitate when he got the chance to transfer to BYU. “This was a great opportunity for me to not only have a shot at playing at the highest level of football, but also to be enmeshed in a culture that is really not prevalent in the Midwest,” Sinclair says. “Others might look at it and say it was coincidence, but for me it was providence. It was perfect.”
By the time he graduated from Southern Illinois University School of Law in 1993, it had been almost 20 years since his dad, a member of the Paper Makers union, had taken his wide-eyed son to observe a picket line of strikers yelling and carrying signs. “At the time, I was just a kid,” Sinclair says. “I look back now at that experience and say … that’s one method on a spectrum of how people solve problems.”
Sinclair joined Ice Miller—“the real titans of labor law back in those days”—just after President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act and two years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which paved the way for jury trials in employment cases and prompted a tsunami of lawsuits.
As it turned out, many of Sinclair’s clients were, and still are, decision-makers at colleges and universities, where complex employment and academic issues often overlap. Over the years, he’s helped those clients create human resources policies, select new leaders and conduct internal investigations. More recently, he’s advised them on a new interpretation of the National Labor Relations Act that protects college athletes as though they were employees, and OSHA standards for dealing with COVID-19 vaccination mandates.
The FMLA cases, which required “tons and tons of teaching and training,” also shaped another facet of his practice: counseling clients on how to make better decisions and avoid everything from minor disputes to sexual harassment accusations. “I can’t count the number of lawsuits that we avoid because we learn skills that will help us head off those problems before they become ‘I need to win and you need to lose,’” he says.
During wage discussions between one corporate client and union members, Sinclair skillfully used his signature Is there a different way to look at this? strategy to avert a strike. It took a while, but eventually the workers acquired a gainsharing program that enabled them to earn more when the company made more, while company officials avoided having to increase employee pay outright.
“I’m not suggesting that every time these circumstances arise, I’ve always been able to avoid strikes,” he adds. “But when I’m at my best is when I can get engaged in something in a passionate way that allows people to come together.”
For a healthcare client facing a “really, really sticky set of issues” with an employee, Sinclair quietly navigated a labyrinth of concerns and ultimately brokered an amicable separation. “I’ve argued before the 7th Circuit and the Indiana Court of Appeals,” he says. “But in terms of the most meaningful kinds of things I’ve done, it’s the things that nobody ever saw.”
He adds: “It doesn’t matter who comes up with the solution because, to me, part of the value of leadership is not necessarily being the person in the room who has all the ideas but instead being the person in the room who can see and recognize what those ideas mean in relationship to each other, and how to build on those things to come to a resolution. That requires you to be willing to say that the problems are more important than the personalities and that the solution is more important than the credit.”
He takes pride in the fact that his clients place their confidence in him again and again: “I’ve come to a point where my clients don’t just trust me as a lawyer. I think they trust me as a person, and that I will give them advice that’s not only consistent with what the legal obligations might be, but also consistent with what the personal values would be.”
A few years ago, Sinclair went back to school for a master’s degree in organizational leadership, and, unable to stop thinking about his thesis, turned it into a book, The Perspicacity Principle: Embracing Perceived Adversity to Disrupt the Leadership Equilibrium. It was published in 2018.
Over the years, he has served in several capacities for the LDS church: as a bishop delivering sermons to 500 parishioners; as president of the Indianapolis “stake” (geographic area) in charge of 14 congregations; and as a “Seventy”—so named for the 70 Biblical followers who assisted Moses—speaking to various groups in the church’s North America-Northeast territory, which stretches to the East Coast and northward into Canada. Under his watch, the state’s first LDS temple opened in Indianapolis in 2015.
But it is a new, lower-profile role that gives him the greatest satisfaction. Each morning before coming into the office, Sinclair teaches a Bible study for teenagers in his local congregation. They not only keep him young with their inquisitiveness, he says, but “it’s a reminder to me that that’s where it makes the most difference.” He has also mentored 18- and 19-year-olds preparing for missions. (His own five children, who now range in age from 33 to 20, all served in this way.) Like Sinclair and other members of LDS, they don’t get to choose where they go, but instead receive assignments from the elders.
Feeding the poor and helping the needy comprise a big part of the LDS philosophy, he says. Sinclair has worked with his church’s food bank since moving to Indianapolis in 1993 and now serves as board vice chair at Gleaners Food Bank, the state’s largest hunger relief charity, which has seen an increase in both demand from those in need and the generosity of donors due to COVID-19. “Paul is always positive and encouraging, finding a way to softly guide you in the right direction with honesty, whether he agrees with your position or not,” says John Elliott, Gleaners president and CEO. “We value his praise and his criticism equally because he delivers both with a sincere, deep-rooted desire to be helpful.”
That doesn’t mean Sinclair is always serious, Elliott adds. “When something funny occurs to him, you can see his eyes light up, then a smirk forms, then a big grin, and then we all wait for him to say something we know we’ll all be laughing at. And his disarming humor often arrives at the time we all need it most.”
Despite his packed schedule, on Saturday mornings Sinclair likes to head outside to pull weeds from the flower and tree beds on his acre-and-a-half property outside Indianapolis. “It’s a big challenge, and at the end of the day I’ve pulled all those weeds,” he says. “I know in the back of my mind that they’re all coming back again, but for today this problem has been solved.”