Vol. 82, No. 7, July 2009
As a candidate and now as State Bar president, Portage attorney Doug Kammer is not shy to speak out on the issues he sees confronting Wisconsin’s lawyers and their organization.
In blunt language, Kammer has called for an end to mandatory membership in the State Bar, insisted on delivery of better benefits to the organization’s attorneys, and challenged characterizations of lawyers as mere pushers of “frivolous” litigation.
But when asked to talk about himself, Kammer becomes far more circumspect.
“My background is not singular,” Kammer wrote in his “Meet the 2008 State Bar election candidates” message before boiling down to 84 words his summary of nearly four decades of legal practice, his community involvement, and his life as a father of three sons.
And nearly a third of those few words were meted out for a characteristically cautionary bit of advice on the matter: “You can’t really judge a lawyer during his lifetime anyway – you have to wait for the funeral and find out how many pallbearers the widow had to hire.”
But as he assumes leadership of the State Bar, Kammer spoke a little bit about his early career, his affection for the legal profession, and the importance of staying out of the way of hippos when whitewater rafting in Zambia.
“I came out of [law] school somewhere in the middle of my class, and there really weren’t jobs,” said Kammer, a 1970 graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School.
“There was a sign on the bulletin board in the law school saying they were looking for someone to run for district attorney in Columbia County,” Kammer recalled. “The job paid 16 grand. Nobody was making that kind of money. That was long, tall cash.”
Additionally, Kammer said, he was assured that the incumbent district attorney was very unpopular, and so he agreed to run.
“What they didn’t tell me was that no Democrat had been elected [in Columbia County] since 1934,” Kammer said. “So I came up and ran a good race, but I got shellacked.”
This defeat was hardly the full extent of his problems, however.
“In the meantime, I had borrowed six grand from my mom to buy this farm,” Kammer said. “My dad had died shortly before so she had life insurance money. So I was stuck. I was broke. I had about $200, an old car, a wife, a son, a mortgage, and a little farmhouse on 12 acres.”
Kammer said he went to work for Portage attorney Bill Murphy. “He was a pretty good general practitioner, a little irascible, but I learned a lot.”
“A year and a half later, I hung out my own shingle,” Kammer said. “I was 26 years old when I opened my own shop. Of course I had no work to do.”
Shortly after being mock charged by a couple of lionesses that were protecting the pride’s kill of a hippo, and after his photo safari group was out of danger, Kammer checked out their guide’s .375 big-game gun. The walking safari in Matusadona National Park, on the shores of Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe, was part of Doug and son Alex Kammer’s two-week trip in 2000 that also included whitewater rafting near Victoria Falls in Zambia, Africa.
Photos: Alex Kammer Photography © 2000, www.alexkammerphotography.com.
But Kammer noticed a legal niche particular to the early 1970s. “At the time, everyone was smoking pot. It was pandemic,” Kammer said. “So all these kids were getting busted and charged with possession of marijuana.”
With a $900 Opel Cadet for transportation, Kammer was prepared to make an offer to this burgeoning group of potential clients. “My deal was that I’d try a jury trial anywhere in the state of Wisconsin for $500 cash up front,” he said.
Kammer’s offer found a receptive audience, and he hit the road to deliver. “I tried those cases, one after another,” Kammer said. “I got a lot of trial experience. I got whipped most of the time, but I won some of them.”
In the course of this work, Kammer said he discovered a remarkable fellowship and generosity among Wisconsin lawyers.
“So I had to go to Lancaster, Eau Claire, Waukesha, Appleton – anywhere. I was all over the state,” Kammer said. “I’d find a law firm close to the courthouse. I’d knock on the door and I’d say, ‘I’ve got a case to try tomorrow and I need to use your library.’ Never once did anyone tell me ‘no.’
“In fact, many times, these old lawyers would take me out to dinner and several times they took me to their homes because I didn’t have any money,” Kammer said. “It was really wonderful. It really turned me on to the lawyers in this state.”
But that was not the only strong bond to develop in those hectic days. “When you’re a trial lawyer, you’re closer to your client than you’d ever believe,” Kammer said.
Sometimes the connection between lawyer and client endures over decades.
“I had a guy call me probably within the last three weeks,” Kammer said of a client from his earliest days of practice. “He was working for the railroad and he was getting into a management position. They were looking into his criminal background. He said to me, ‘You defended me at a time I had no money. You represented me pro bono and got me out of a felony.’”
Kammer said that after his client served three or four months for the offense (reduced to a misdemeanor), he arranged to have the client’s record expunged so that he would have no adult criminal history.
“He called because, he said, ‘I always wanted to thank you for that,’” Kammer said. “Thirty years later, he called to thank me.”
But Kammer said that he had not done anything any other small-town lawyer would not have done.
“You can go to any lawyer in this town and ask them when was the last time he represented someone for nothing and he’ll tell you a date in the last two or three weeks,” Kammer said. “We have to take care of people in the community. We’re the only people who can do it.”
A Traveler’s Ethic
Kammer’s practice has evolved from its itinerant origins. Land use, real estate, and personal injury law occupy his time today at the Portage firm he runs with his partner, Jason Stud-inski. Kammer has been a plaintiffs’ attorney which, he notes, is not for everyone.
“There was a time when I thought [the work] would eat me alive, but it didn’t,” Kammer said. “I’ve taken some terrible beatings. You lose two or three cases in a row, it’s hard to come back.”
Kammer specifically recalled one particular loss.
“I tried a case against Yamaha with another attorney because I could see it would involve enormous expense,” Kammer said. “We had some things that went wrong at the trial. I relive every moment of it. We were in court for two weeks and we probably spent two years to get the case ready.”
Because he worked on a contingency fee basis, the loss left Kammer out of pocket for $80,000. “That was a time when 80 grand was a shocking amount of money. It was the price of a new house, anyhow,” he said.
In addition to the people in his life, Kammer credits his resiliency to his interests that get him out of the office, including the farm where he raised beef cattle until 1995. “Nothing like spending your day in the hot sun baling hay to feel that there are other things more important than an irrational judge, or some prejudiced jury, or some irresponsible client,” he said.
Kammer also says it is helpful to have the traits of a “traveler.” A traveler “gamble[s] on [his] own strength and skill and stamina everyday,” he said.
Putting this to the test, Kammer has taken trips organized by his son Andy to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Costa Rica, Panama, and Mexico. These trips are intense.
“[Andy] sent me and [Kammer’s other son] Alex on a whitewater trip in Zambia just outside of Victoria Falls,” Kammer said.
Victoria Falls, considered one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, is found on the Zambezi River. With its tributaries, the Zambezi River forms the fourth largest river basin in Africa. Enthusiasts give the whitewater rafting on the powerful Zambezi River their highest rating for runnable rapids.
“We only did about half the trip so it was about five hours’ worth,” Kammer said. “When we got done with the trek, we had to climb above the river basin. We must have climbed 800 or 900 feet [in] 120 degrees. It was rough.
“We couldn’t carry any water with us,” Kammer added. “We would’ve lost it in the whitewater. [We were] upside down as much as right side up, just getting smashed against rocks. It was wild.”
On that trip, Kammer counted his blessings that the crocodiles did not frequent those particular waters. However, Kammer said, this still left the problem of hippos.
“Hippos are vegetarians, but they have these huge tusks designed for only one thing and that’s fighting,” Kammer said. “And they’re territorial. They’ll slash you to pieces.… They’re terrible. We had some close calls.”
Kammer recalled an instance when the guide suddenly directed his party to turn around.
“There was this big pod of hippos and we drove them up river and they were staying ahead of us,” Kammer said. “We drove them into another pod of hippos and they’re territorial. They started to raise hell with each other and all of a sudden this pod was coming back toward us again.
“We had not fully realized the danger we were in at the time,” Kammer said, crediting their guide for keeping a vigilant watch over those animals.
Asked why he would make this trip, Kammer said, “There’s a lot to see and a lot to learn.”