Feb. 5, 2014 – In April, candidates Kevin Palmersheim and Ralph Cagle, both from Madison, will square off in an election for the State Bar of Wisconsin’s president-elect post. Recently, State Bar Legal Writer Joe Forward conducted a Q&A with the president-elect hopefuls.
Ballots will go out the week of April 7, as well as election ballots for the State Bar Board of Governors, State Bar secretary, and a Judicial Council representative.
The winner of the 2014 president-elect position will serve a one-year term, starting July 1, 2014, before serving a one-year term as State Bar president.
1. What are the biggest challenges for lawyers today?
Cagle: The greatest challenge is change – its extent and relentless pace. Technology, economic relocations, competition, and new client demands are changing how we practice and, more fundamentally, how we must practice in the future.
Those who study and understand law practice agree that these changes are not temporary or cyclical. They are structural; many call it “the new normal.” These changes affect not just lawyers. The world of service-based professions and service organizations, private and public, is structurally changing.
It’s not all bad. Creative and nimble problem solvers who provide quality services in responsive and cost-effective ways will find opportunities. Successful Lawyers will need to ride to the front of that wave of change.
Palmersheim: The economics of practicing law have changed dramatically, impacting both new lawyers and veterans. The Internet, competition from other professions, and law changes have all negatively impacted lawyers’ practices. Meanwhile, 44,000 law students graduate nationally every year with only 24,000 available jobs. Because law firms are forced to focus more on the business aspect of practice, they hire lawyers who can bring a book of business with them rather than hiring and training new graduates.
New lawyers are increasingly forced to open solo practices, with limited income and significant practice expenses as well as law school debt. They not only have limited business experience, but are practicing without adequate mentoring. Eighty-four percent of newer lawyers report that they have no access to formal mentoring.
Through all of the economic struggles, the costs for CLE and other necessary expenses continue to increase. All of this trickles down to the State Bar, which contributes to its own financial concerns.
2. How can the State Bar best serve its members?
Palmersheim: The Bar must change its methods and business model to serve all members. We should start by assisting new lawyers who are graduating with fewer job opportunities and an average of $90,000 of debt. If we don’t assist new lawyers who are financially strapped and operating with little assistance, then we are failing. We need to provide low-cost CLE to new lawyers, as well as CLE that is affordable to all lawyers. We also should establish a statewide mentorship program that will provide guidance and training. The mentorship program should award CLE credits for both mentors and mentees, which would further aid current lawyers with their practice obligations. For example, the Illinois Bar Association allows up to 15 credits to be earned via mentorship.
The State Bar similarly has to change the status quo with services to experienced lawyers. It should make business and skills training available to address one of the biggest weaknesses of a legal education. There is often discussion of how law students receive so little practical legal training, but an even more glaring omission in legal education is business and financial fundamentals for future attorneys who may end up managing their law firm business. One way this omission could be addressed is to use the State Bar’s Solo and Small Firm Conference to provide sessions and information on business and finances.
The State Bar should also address deficiencies in services to government lawyers, non-residents and in-house counsel. They make up a significant portion of our membership and pay the same dues, which are typically not paid by their employers. Last year the Bar lobbied for funding and salary increases for prosecutors and public defenders. We need to continue with our support of members who provide a wide range of integral services, including those who accept public defender appointments at an appallingly low $40/hour rate.
Cagle: First, the State Bar does serve its members well through some exceptional programs and services, such as the Ethics Hotline, Wisconsin Lawyer Assistance Program (WISLAP), and PINNACLE seminars and printed and electronic practice books. We have an exceptional professional magazine in Wisconsin Lawyer. Bar members provide great pro bono and public service through programs that the Bar initiates, coordinates and financially supports.
But we are a diverse profession, with varied professional needs and interests, facing particular challenges. Wisconsin is unique in that a third of our members are a diaspora in a wide range of practice settings throughout the United States and beyond. This presents challenges, but it also offers great opportunities. The Bar must stay acutely and contemporaneously aware of the particular needs and interests of its diverse membership and must tailor programs and services to best serve them.
One example is the economic challenges lawyers face. Big firms and small firms face different paths to success. Lawyers with established practices must meet a payroll, evaluate the cost and value of technology or providing health insurance benefits; a new lawyer needs to develop areas of knowledge and expertise, build a reputation in a community and pay off law school debts. A state bar association must offer useful and relevant information, alternatives and coordinated programs to meet all its members’ needs. An example of the State Bar doing that so well was when it initiated WILMIC to provide affordable malpractice insurance coverage to members who were having difficulty getting affordable insurance. We hit a home run then; we may need to hit some more home runs now.
3. Why are you the right person for this job?
Cagle: I really doubt that, of our 25,000 State Bar members, I am the most qualified or the “right” person for the job. But I can make a case for why I am a worthy candidate to lead our bar association.
I know Wisconsin lawyers well from the perspective of “where the rubber meets the road.” I have represented many lawyers throughout Wisconsin. I have made CLE presentations, talking with and, more importantly, listening to lawyers in more than 30 counties. I’ve worked with lawyers from every corner of Wisconsin and beyond on committees and commissions.
For 24 years, I have taught collaboratively with about 1,000 Wisconsin practicing lawyers in the Lawyering Skills Course at the UW Law School. We work together for several days, sharing practice experiences, expectations and problems, and realistically teaching our students about that. It provides me a unique view of law practice up close in a wide arc of settings.
I have proven that I get things done; work well with others; listen; solicit opinions and advice from a range of viewpoints; and honor diverse voices. I place a high premium on asking good questions, not just to learn, but to lead. I have always had good relationships with lawyers and like working for and with them.
I would also have said I am modest, but this answer may make that claim somewhat suspect. Campaigning for elective office tends to do that to people.
Palmersheim: I understand the legal and business issues of running a small law firm and have been practicing for more than 20 years. Moreover, my practice as a business attorney includes advising businesses and organizations about financial and operational matters, which is precisely what the State Bar needs right now. I also possess the ability to build consensus and develop a good rapport with members, Bar staff and the Board of Governors. I recently served a four-year term on the Board of Governors, and was elected by the Board to sit on their executive committee that most directly manages the finances and operations of the State Bar. Finally, I enjoy bar service and believe it is an integral part of being a lawyer, and I have the drive and passion to lead the State Bar.
4. What would be your goal as president?
Palmersheim: In addition to assisting new and veteran members as described above, the State Bar should be less reactionary and more proactive on its finances and budget. We need to develop a business and financial plan, including a comprehensive dues policy. We can’t simply observe that reserve funds are diminishing and say it’s time to raise dues. Instead, we should recognize business opportunities to increase non-dues revenues, such as marketing our Books Unbound product to other states. Using another state’s statutes and case law, and the State Bar of Wisconsin’s proprietary software and staff resources, we could market a product through another state’s bar association that would look like it came from that state. However, the revenue would go to us. This and similar actions would generate revenues while concomitantly decreasing the financial burden for Wisconsin lawyers.
As part of this business plan, there is no reason why we cannot develop programs to subsidize new lawyers with their CLE costs, develop a mentorship program that aids both new and veteran lawyers, and be more responsive to the concerns of members about dues and other issues.
For more details, please see Kevin Palmersheim’s campaign website at www.facebook.com/palmersheimforprez.
Cagle: As I outlined in my candidate statement, I would like to pursue four areas of challenge and opportunity: the structural economic changes driving law practice; the opportunity to enhance lawyers’ roles as community leaders; bridging the gap between bar services and our public lawyer members; and creating a path to opportunity and excellence for our new and emerging lawyers.
But being practical and a realist, I know that in any term as Bar president, you deal with the cards you are dealt. You don’t plan or choose the crises that will arise. Whatever goals you set must share the available oxygen with other people’s goals, especially those of an engaged 52-member Board of Governors. So I would advance what I believe will make this a better profession, face whatever crises arise as ably as I can, and spend a lot of time meeting with and listening to Wisconsin lawyers in-state and outside. Oh, and if I could make it fun, that would be great, too.