Shelice and Michael Tolbert met in a seventh-grade Health & Safety class at Tolleston Middle School in their hometown of Gary. Their friendship grew into a mutual love for the law, and eventually, for each other.
Shelice remembers clearly the day she decided to become a lawyer. “We had career day at Tolleston. It was the first time in my life that I saw somebody who looked like me — an African American woman — who was a lawyer,” Shelice said. That woman was Karen Freeman-Wilson, also a product of Gary who would go on to become a judge, Indiana Attorney General, and Gary’s first black female mayor. “She spoke to us, and it struck me that I could do this,” Shelice said.
Michael credits his father, a steelworker for 32 years at U.S. Steel’s Gary Works, for instilling in his children the importance of speaking well, which led Michael to the practice of law. “He always focused on strong verbal and written communication,” Michael said. “He taught us if you have a position, you have to make sure you’re able to articulate it.”
Michael and Shelice graduated from Valparaiso University Law School in 2000. Since then, the power couple has amassed an extensive list of awards and positions in the field of law. In 2013, Michael was recognized as one of the Top 20 Under 40 Minority Lawyers in the Midwest. A year later, he was appointed as the first African American President of the Lake County Bar Association. He is currently chair of the House of Delegates of the Indiana State Bar Association.
Shelice is the current president of the Lake County Bar Association. A nominee for the Northwest Indiana Influential Women in Business in 2011, 2012, and 2014, Shelice was also selected by the Indiana Super Lawyers as a Rising Star in 2013 and 2014. In 2015, she received an Indiana Super Lawyer designation in the area of Insurance Defense Litigation. The couple has also been featured in Indiana Lawyer.
With all their success, the easy thing would have been to forget about Gary and stay at their comfortable law practices, but the Tolberts were driven by a higher calling and decided to give up their practices at respected legal firms and come home to Gary. In 2014 they opened their own practice in the heart of the city.
“It was an intentional decision after praying to God to come back and do this,” Shelice said. The couple concentrates their efforts on education: speaking at schools around the city, to student youth groups, and providing high school internships through the Youth Services Bureau.
I believe God puts us in a place he wants us to be. We both come from families that always helped people out no matter how much or little we had. That’s why we both wanted to be attorneys, to help people. It’s natural to want to help the community. This is where we’re from. If we’re not able to help them, who will?
“Knowledge and education are the pathway to success, particularly in an impoverished area like Gary,” Michael said. The couple is active in the United Negro College Fund and the Gary Literacy Coalition. Both teach trial practice at Valparaiso University Law School, and spend a lot of time outside the classroom mentoring and talking to students.
The Tolberts place great importance on providing positive images for young people in Gary. “They need to see somebody who looks like them doing something positive in the city where they’re from,” Shelice said. “If all the people in our age group who left Gary decided to come back to this community to open a law firm, medical practice, dental office, restaurant, or coffee shop, our downtown would look drastically different than it does now,” Michael said.
We hope and pray more and more people look at us as an example. Piece by piece the community would become revitalized. But you can’t do it sitting idly — the only way to drive this change is to be engaged.