Land of the lawyers

by M. Scott Carter

[DECEMBER 1, 2011 – NORMAN, Okla.] – Anden Sharpe may not look Native American.

But for Sharpe, the second year of law school at the University of Oklahoma isn’t about how she looks but, instead, about what she’s learning.

Because here in the Land of the Red Man, the law, along with many lawyers, has gone tribal.

Each year, thousands of students across the country enroll in the nation’s law schools, and in Oklahoma, a growing number of those students are either Native Americans or specializing in Native American law.

Sharpe is both.

A member of the Seminole Nation, Sharpe has taken her heritage and used it to help focus her career.

“I probably don’t look Native American,” she said. “But I am Seminole and I’ve been very involved in the tribe. I don’t think it’s about the color of your skin, but about what you do.”

And for Sharpe, that means studying law – including Native American law – and then making that study a part of her future.

“In this area of the country, Native American law is becoming a real big issue,” she said. “And being Native American is, now, more of an extra benefit than a hindrance.”

Native American law, it seems, has become a growth industry.

“What’s happened is a number of tribes have been financially successful, so tribal resources have been allocated in a wide variety of directions,” said University of Oklahoma law professor Lindsay Robertson, faculty director for the school’s American Indian Law and Policy Center.

Because those resources have grown, Robertson said, the tribes need legal help.

“The increase in economic activity has spawned an increase in business law advice,” he said.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows tribal businesses have grown more than 17 percent from 2002 to 2007. That growth, the data shows, represents a $27 billion increase in five years. And with the growth, comes the attorneys.

In Oklahoma City, the number of lawyers who specialize in tribal issues has risen sharply.

“When I got out of law school (OU) in 1985, there really wasn’t a Native American law specialty,” said G. Calvin Sharpe, a member of the Seminole Nation and an attorney for the Phillips Murrah law firm. “It hadn’t really started. Now, there’s a whole program.”

Sharpe, who is Anden’s father, said he spent some time practicing business law, but his culture and history pulled him back into the tribal arena.

“I never lost my Native American connection,” he said. “And I tried to focus more on tribal practice.”

The same goes for Sharpe’s daughter. Tribal issues, she said, will always be a part of her practice.

“I want to focus on energy,” she said, “because I think it will play a big role in the future of the tribe.”

And those issues, along with a complex maze of tribal-related problems, now represent a specialized area of the law that continues to lure more and more professionals into the arena.

“There is a whole new area for attorneys,” G. Calvin Sharpe said.

He said issues such as tribal sovereignty, gaming and economic development are pushing both Native American attorneys and their non-native counterparts into new areas of the law.

University of Tulsa professor Judith Royster, co-director of the university’s Native American Law Center, said a number of factors have combined to heighten interest in Native American legal issues.

“Part of it is pent-up demand,” Royster said. “Up until the 1970s, or even the 1980s, tribes were emerging from an era of federal policy that was aimed at terminating them.”

Prior to 1975, the U.S. sought to assimilate the tribes into the country by eliminating their culture and heritage. In 1975, however, Congress passed the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act, which authorized tribal leaders to contract and operate federal service programs within the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

More than a decade later, in 1988, the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act gave tribal nations the chance to legally enter the gambling business.

With that change in federal policy, Royster said, tribal governments began expanding their economic development efforts, providing their own social services, and developing their own judicial systems.

“All of those promote the need for lawyers,” she said.

Tulsa attorney Michael McBride, a shareholder with the Crowe & Dunlevy law firm and chairman of the firm’s Indian gaming practice group, said opportunities in Native American law continue to increase.

“There are many new areas opening involving Native American issues,” McBride said. “And those issues are complex.”

The sector has become so vibrant that all three of Oklahoma’s law schools – the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma City University and the University of Oklahoma – offer specialization in Native American law.

“We teach across a range of topics,” TU’s Royster said, “natural resources, energy, gaming and economic development. We also offer specialization at the juris doctorate level.”

The story is similar at OU.

“We see more and more students – those who want to work for the tribes and address tribal issues and those who work for other entities which will be working with the tribes – studying Native American issues,” Robertson said.

Twenty years ago, Native American law studies had only a handful of students. Now, each law student at OU has at least one class dealing with Native American law and each year dozens of students make tribal issues their specialty.

Robertson said enrollment in the basic federal Indian law course has doubled since he started teaching at the College of Law in 1997.

And for tribal members there’s also the expectation of giving back to their community.

“It’s easy to go to law school and just focus on yourself as an attorney,” Anden Sharpe said. “But for Native American students, I think there is an expectation and a hope that you’ll contribute back.”

For attorneys such as G. Calvin Sharpe and McBride, the new focus on Native American issues is proof that the specialty has become a significant factor in the legal world, with a growing amount of professional opportunities.

“Tribal governments are probably one of the largest employers in the state,” McBride said. “And issues like employment, and the fact that tribal governments are concerned about building their communities – not just their own citizens, but non-Indian communities – will continue to grow.”

Growth that Anden Sharpe said she is counting on.

“There are many opportunities out there for Native Americans in the law,” she said. “Any Native American job is on my radar screen, whether it be with a law firm or doing tribal litigation. For me, it’s just keeping in mind where you came from.”

Whether you look Native American or not.