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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Q&A with attorney Norris Cunningham

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Late last month, attorney Norris Cunningham and 14 other employees left the city’s fifth largest firm, Hall Render Killian Heath & Lyman, for different pastures, joining firm Katz Korin. Cunningham, who previously served as Hall Render’s health care litigation practice group leader, became a name partner and shareholder in what’s now known as Katz Korin Cunningham.

“It’s actually not a very interesting story,” Cunningham humorously stated when asked about how the merger came to be.

Following a dinner meeting with Michael Gabovitch, Katz Korin’s managing partner, it was apparent to Cunningham that his aspirations in the legal field matched with those of Katz Korin. 

“We felt like this would be a good fit … and here we are,” he said. 

As a full-service firm, Katz Korin Cunningham will offer a complete range of legal services to businesses, entrepreneurs, health care providers and governmental entities. 

“We greatly appreciate the contributions made by this group of attorneys to Hall Render and our clients over the years, and it will be hard to part ways,” said John Ryan, president and managing partner of Hall Render, in a written statement. “But Norris and I agree that the delivery and cost model at Katz Korin Cunningham will make this work economically viable in a way that is not possible for a firm of Hall Render’s size and scale. This is truly a positive outcome for both firms, the attorneys and staff involved, and most importantly, the clients that we will continue to mutually serve well into the future.”

Recently, the Recorder spoke with Cunningham about his background and future plans for this new venture. 

 

Indianapolis Recorder: Tell us about yourself and your career in law. What has it been like for you in this business for two decades?

Cunningham: I graduated from IUPUI’s McKinney (School of Law) back before it was McKinney in 1996. Prior to that, for four and a half years, I was on active duty in the United States Air Force. In fact, I was a health care administrator. From the very beginning, I had an interest in health care in particular. I always knew that I wanted to be a lawyer, but I needed the military as a way to make that happen financially. I joined the military after graduating from college and got a master’s degree in health administration while I was in the military.Then I got off of active duty, and along with the help of the G.I. Bill and a scholarship from IU, I was able to afford law school. In my second year of law school, one of my professors, Eleanor Kinney, passed on my resume to John Render, one of the name partners at Hall Render and said, ‘Hey, this is someone you’d be interested in. He’s got a background in health care,’ and Hall Render had always been a firm focused on health care, so I was a natural fit because of that. I got there and absolutely liked the people, loved them. It was a great experience even though for many years I was the only minority there and that presents some interesting challenges.

 

What were some of those challenges? 

It would be hard to find an African-American in any setting where you’re the only one, where there isn’t a learning curve, both for you and for the company … for your colleagues. My focus was always on trying to grow and develop as an attorney. I think my background in the military helped with that a lot. In the military, which I consider one of the last true meritocracies, you are really able to rise and fall based on what you’re able to do, not who you know or any of those things. It’s just, are you good at your job? I focused on being very, very good at my job and using that as a way to get opportunities to work with other clients and build a good book of business and good relationships with clients. And Hall Render was supportive of that for the most part. Most of the challenges, if you will, were all the individual things as an attorney that you’re going to face. People that are not familiar in one respect or another with minorities or dealing with minorities. I like to think that my time at Hall Render was an education to some extent. Ultimately all of us want the same things: We want to go into a job, we want to succeed there and be valued. We want to be able to grow and develop.

 

What are some of your biggest takeaways from that time that influence where you are now?

It was a great platform for me to be able to grow my practice and mentor other attorneys. More importantly for me, it was an opportunity to help the firm grow in terms of diversity. I was able to help found and serve as the first chair of the firm’s diversity committee. We produced a great video on the issues of diversity and Hall Render’s mission with regard to that. Myself and Charise R. Frazier (a partner at Hall Render) worked together to lay the groundwork for the committee. The number of minority attorneys has grown over the years and it’s certainly higher than it was when I started. We also started a diversity intern program. One of the things that was a challenge for me when I first started (in law) was that I didn’t know anyone. I’m originally from the Chicago area and I was here because of law school, and my wife is from northern Indiana. I thought that it would be a challenge for me starting the job search, but I was very fortunate that Professor Kinney was interested in the health care background that I had. But I want other minority law students to feel that they have an opportunity to learn about being in a law firm and to grow. It gives them a level playing field. Having things like diversity internships and a diversity program that looks to expand the pool of minority attorneys that get interviewed is the best shot at that. It really has yielded good results at Hall Render and I look forward to being able to do the same thing at Katz Korin Cunningham. We need to do more. The statistics are daunting. Only about 4 percent of large firm associates are African-American, and less than 2 percent are equity partners. The number is even smaller when you look at people who serve in leadership roles, and we need to change that as a people, as a society and profession.

 

How do you plan to increase diversity within this firm? 

We have a little over 20 attorneys right now, and I plan to be at 40 by the end of 2020. I have about two and a half years to pull that off, but it’s doable and possible. I’m 51 years old, and I’ve spent most of my life trying to overcome odds. This is just one more challenge in building this firm in a way that’s a good example of what happens when you focus on diversity, not for diversity’s sake but for the sake of providing better, stronger, higher quality legal services for clients. When you have lawyers from a bunch of different backgrounds and you have diverse experiences and opinions, that means the conclusions that you come to are typically going to be stronger. Having more minority attorneys is a good thing for this firm and for the city. I want to spend a lot of time focusing my energies on diversifying and growing the legal profession.

 

What do you feel is the social or cultural impact of this merger? 

I hope that I can be an example to young high school students and undergrad students who have an interest in the law and are looking to find opportunities and wondering whether or not they will get a fair opportunity to succeed. If you put 10 people in a room, I guarantee I’m not the smartest there. I don’t think I’m all that. I just know I want to be able to work hard and show my skill set that way, and if this accomplishment means there are other African-American males out there that are wondering if you can come from humble beginnings, not knowing if you’ll be able to afford undergrad or graduate school, then yes, absolutely it’s possible. It can happen, and I hope that’s a story a lot of young people can get behind and use for the their own individual situation.

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