As Patrick Fiedler talks about his 33-year career in law, the phrase “out of the blue” pops up frequently. It seems that’s the way many opportunities have come to him in his professional life, and Fiedler has made the most of them.
In the latest of such occurrences, “I got a call out of the blue,” he says, “from someone on the Bar’s nominating committee.” The caller inquired whether Fiedler would be interested in running for State Bar president-elect in the spring 2012 elections.
He had just returned to private practice a couple of months prior to that phone call, after serving for 18 years on the Dane County Circuit Court bench. Having recently made this major career transition, he might have taken a pass on assuming an additional demanding commitment such as the Bar presidency. But Fiedler decided to run.
“It goes back to the fact that I enjoy being a lawyer,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I’m euphoric about it every moment of every day. Like with any job, it has its ups and downs. But I’m glad I’m a lawyer, and I’m glad that now I have the opportunity to lead the State Bar for a year.”
A Diverse Career
One of the strengths he brings to the Bar presidency, Fiedler believes, is his varied legal background, which can help him relate to the Bar’s diverse membership. During his career, he’s been a prosecutor, defense attorney, government lawyer, head of a state agency, judge, and a private practitioner in both rural and urban settings.
It all began in 1980. Fiedler graduated from Marquette University Law School in mid-May of that year, and by the end of the month he’d landed his first job. A friend at a Milwaukee law firm where he’d clerked while a third-year law student told him about a possible opening in the Waukesha County District Attorney’s office. While in law school, Fiedler had his sights set on being a trial attorney. So he inquired about the Waukesha County job, soon got hired, and was an assistant DA there for four-and-a-half years.
He then returned to his home county – he’s originally from Mineral Point – to set up a private practice in Dodgeville. It was in this part of the state where his interest in law had taken root a decade or so earlier. His father, James Fiedler, was a sole practitioner in Mineral Point for 19 years before serving for 24 years as an Iowa County judge. The father’s example had a strong influence on his son.
“My dad always seemed very happy with his career,” Fiedler says. “But he didn’t push me to become a lawyer. He left that decision up to me.” Like a lot of young adults, Fiedler wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life while he was studying business at U.W.-Milwaukee. He took off 18 months to sort out his options. When he returned as a full-time student, “I knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” he says. “My goal was to do as well as I could as an undergrad so I could get into law school.”
Fiedler had been in private practice in Dodgeville for two years, doing mostly criminal and insurance defense work, when “I got a call out of the blue from another lawyer I’d tried cases against,” he recalls. The caller informed him that there was an opening for a U.S. attorney position for the Western District of Wisconsin. Fiedler applied, and President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the post in 1987.
Dianne Molvig is a frequent contributor to area and national publications.
Four years later, he received yet another out-of-the-blue phone call, as he describes it, when one of Gov. Tommy Thompson’s cabinet members called to ask if he’d be interested in becoming secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. To that job, Fiedler brought his background in criminal law, on both the prosecution and the defense sides, and management experience from the U.S. attorney’s office.
His next career step came in late 1993, when Thompson appointed him as a Dane County Circuit Court judge. Fiedler then went on to win three judicial elections, the last two of which were uncontested. He twice gained special recognition as a judge. He won the Victim Advocacy Award in 2008 from the Wisconsin Victim/Witness Professional Association and the Judge of the Year award in 2007 from the Wisconsin chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates. He also taught courses to judges from 1999 to 2009 at the Wisconsin Judicial College, where he served as the associate dean from 2003 to 2009.
Back to Practice
Then, after 18 years on the bench, Fiedler felt the time was right for him to return to law practice. “I realized I missed being a lawyer,” he says. “For me, it’s about the opportunity to appear in court and advocate on behalf of clients. And frankly, there’s an adrenaline rush from being a trial lawyer. In some ways, it’s like being on stage.”
He’s enjoying being back in the courtroom, this time on the other side of the bench. He’s now been in private practice for nearly two years with the litigation practice group at Axley Brynelson in Madison. Besides trial work, he also focuses on alternative dispute resolution (ADR), which is “a natural,” Fiedler says, in light of his experience as a judge. About 45 percent of his ADR work is in family law matters, with the remainder involving diverse civil law disputes. The most satisfying aspect of ADR work, he says, “is getting folks to agree and resolve their issues without having to go to trial.”
As Fiedler sees it, his current blend of ADR and trial work suits him well. “It’s a good balance for me,” he says, “and I think each makes me better at the other.”
As he looks back on his 33 years in law, Fiedler says he feels fortunate to have had such a varied career. “Not everyone would want that much change,” he says. “But the result for me was that I never felt bored.”
In the coming year, he’ll add one more new experience to his career list by serving as Bar president. He describes the past year as president-elect as “an accelerated training program” in which he’s gained a close-up perspective on Bar operations and finances. “Kevin Klein brought me in from the day I won election as president-elect,” he says, “and that’s what I’m doing with Bob Gagan.”
Fiedler plans to consult with both Klein and Gagan to make appointments in his capacity as Bar president. “I think the three of us together can make better appointments,” he notes. In addition, he looks forward to working with the Board of Governors to arrive at decisions that “are in the best interests of the Bar’s members and the legal profession,” he says. “That has to be the primary focus.”
Another of his objectives is to reach out to young lawyers. “When I was a young lawyer,” Fiedler says, “I wouldn’t have approached a State Bar president on a dare. To me, they all seemed to be old white men with gray hair.”
These days he himself matches that description, Fiedler points out, although his perspective on the definition of “old” has changed as he nears his 60th birthday. “I’ve told young lawyers that I don’t want them to feel like I did when I was a young lawyer – that older lawyers and Bar leaders are unapproachable,” he says. “It’s really important to me to get out that message.”
When Opportunity Knocks
On the personal side, Fiedler admits that vacation time has been a bit scarce in the last couple of years due to making the transition to private practice, running for Bar president, and subsequently taking on Bar leadership responsibilities, both as president-elect and president. When he can manage to take some time off, “what’s most refreshing to me,” he says, “is a three-day weekend to let my batteries recharge.”
Other than that, his favorite leisure activities include taking walks and reading fiction. He enjoys the works of such authors as Nelson DeMille, who “writes the types of stories I lose myself in,” Fiedler says. “There’s so much reading involved in being a lawyer or a judge. When I read on my own time, I read to be entertained. A good author gets me totally engrossed in a book, and I can forget everything else.”
The top priority for his personal time, however, is family, including his wife, Sandy, three grown children, and four grandchildren ranging in age from 10 months to 14 years. All of them live in southern Wisconsin, as do Fiedler’s five siblings and his parents, who, like Fiedler, live in Madison. Some family members proudly watched as Fiedler was sworn in as Bar president on June 12.
Certainly, Fiedler has navigated through significant changes in his professional life in the past two years. He acknowledges that if he were to take one of those pop-psychology stress quizzes, he’d earn a high score. Leaving the bench and shifting into private practice wrought change enough. Still, he couldn’t pass up the chance to run for Bar president, on top of everything else, when that chance came along.
“When you get one of those calls out of the blue,” he says, “an opportunity is presented to you that’s available at that moment, and it may not be there in a couple of years. So when people asked me to run, I talked to some folks. I asked a lot of questions. And I made up my mind that this is something I want to do.”