Inajo Davis Chappell may not be alone in her passion for volunteerism and community service. She stands well apart, however, in the degree to which she has been able to weave that passion into a sophisticated legal practice at a leading private firm. At Ulmer & Berne, one of Cleveland’s largest law firms, she has fashioned a career in which her altruism, leadership, and legal experience work hand-in-hand. Given the talents that Inajo brings to her work, that career is having a transformative impact on the Cleveland community, her law firm, and the people in them.
Leadership and innovation
Few major law firms have a practice group dedicated to serving nonprofit institutions, and Ulmer & Berne might not have one either, were it not for Inajo. She was critical to the formation of the group in the early 2000s, and has served as its chair since its inception.
The success of Ulmer & Berne’s nonprofit practice group, which has grown consistently under her stewardship, and has represented nearly 250 tax-exempt organizations since its formation, is a testament to Inajo’s leadership as well as her strategic approach to supporting nonprofits. Inajo, who has represented clients such as Recovery Resources, Education Alternatives, Karamu House, and Cleveland Metropolitan School District, knew she was not alone at Ulmer & Berne in serving the legal needs of nonprofits. To enhance the firm’s support for them, she played a lead role in organizing lawyers in disciplines of value to nonprofits—including tax, corporate governance, real estate, employment, litigation and other areas—to establish a nonprofit practice group that could provide more comprehensive service to its clients.
Today, the highly successful group includes 25 attorneys from across the firm’s four offices, advising clients ranging from social service agencies to philanthropic foundations to governmental entities. In her substantial work in the area, Inajo helps her clients navigate business issues such as those surrounding expansion, consolidation, and strategic affiliation. Among other prominent engagements, she has advised on tax-exempt bond financings to support the acquisition and development of Cuyahoga County Services Centers in the Fairfax and Mt. Pleasant neighborhoods, and provided legal counsel to Fairfax Renaissance Community Development Corporation which, in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, developed and constructed the Cleveland Clinic’s Global Center for Cardiovascular Research. She also, either directly or through the work of the firm’s nonprofit group, has assisted other nonprofit clients in expanding their facilities and delivering mission-based programming and services in the community.
Within Ulmer & Berne, Inajo has taken on additional leadership roles beyond her work with the nonprofit group. She is a member of the firm’s finance committee, and in another example of turning a passion into a legal practice—in this case her support of schools and youth development organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club of Cleveland, where she is a Board Member Emeritus—she chairs the firm’s school law group. Inajo has also developed a specialty practice advising school districts on compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Improvement Act and representing them in connection with placement, programming and services decisions.
Her skilled lawyering and commitment to causes important to her have made her a leader not just at Ulmer & Berne, but throughout the bar, as indicated by her past appointments to the Board of Directors and Executive Committee of the Cleveland Bar Association, and by an early role as co-chair of the Minority Clerkship Program – a pipeline program that provides experiential summer employment opportunities for first year law students. In that role, Inajo co-led an effort to revamp and strengthen the program.
Inajo’s tireless efforts in promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace and community have been widely recognized, and resulted in the CMBA honoring her with the Diversity & Inclusion Innovation Award. The Innovation Award, in part, recognized her early work for the CMBA as co-chair of an initiative to improve its minority clerkship program. The CMBA Minority Clerkship Program was designed to give first-year minority law students clerkship experiences with legal employers, and Inajo was instrumental in reconfiguring the program to enhance applicant vetting, give employers a larger voice in the program, and achieve other improvements that have made it a renewed success.
Involvement in mentoring or diversity initiatives
Inajo also co-chairs the Diversity & Inclusion Committee at Ulmer & Berne, an appointment through which she has effected meaningful change. At the recommendation of her committee, the firm instituted a formal mentoring program to ensure that all associates had an assigned advocate within the firm. Inajo made this recommendation based on her view that a structured program would ensure inclusiveness and complement the valuable informal mentoring relationships, including many that she maintains as a mentor to young lawyers inside and outside Ulmer & Berne.
Outside the firm, she was appointed to serve as one of the co-chairs of the Cuyahoga County Economic Inclusion Task Force, along with four other business, religious, and governmental leaders. The task force, which has now concluded its work with a series of recommendations to the county, examined the county’s employment and contracting practices to determine how it could better include minority workers, vendors, and businesses in the commercial life of the county.
Involvement in non-profit, civic, volunteer, or pro bono activities
As noted, Inajo does not support nonprofits as a sideline activity; instead, she has made a career of it, a fact that was recently recognized by Best Lawyers in America®, which honored her with the 2015 “Lawyer of the Year” award in the Non-Profit/Charities Law category. In addition to her work as an Ulmer & Berne partner—and because of the skill and energy she brings to that work—she is frequently asked to play a substantial role in the community outside of her capacity as a lawyer.
Inajo has served on the boards of directors of a long list of organizations including the American Red Cross Cleveland Chapter, Center for Community Solutions, Cleveland Leadership Center, Hathaway Brown School, and the Barbara Byrd-Bennett Foundation for Cleveland’s Children. Today, she serves on the boards of three organizations of particular importance to her: the Medical Mutual of Ohio Charitable Foundation; the Cleveland Foundation, where she chairs the governance committee; and the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, which she chairs.
Inajo, who has long been concerned with election and ballot access issues, credits her relationship with the late Stephanie Tubbs Jones, the first African American woman elected to Congress from Ohio, as instrumental to her civic and community involvement. Inajo is among a group of 22 who have been asked to give their reflections on Congresswoman Jones in connection with the dedication of a permanent art exhibit in her name at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. For Inajo, this is a profoundly meaningful honor. To those who know her, it is another reflection of her ability to forge deep connections in a life and career dedicated to improving public life in Cleveland.