Vol. 76, No. 6, June
The State Bar's First 125 Years
To commemorate the State Bar's 125th anniversary
in 2003, this article looks at some of the key events, issues, and
personalities that shaped the State Bar from the late 1950s, an era of
activity and energy that would surpass anything seen in the
organization's first 80 years.
by Dianne Molvig
When the State Bar of Wisconsin celebrated its 80th anniversary in
January 1958, several elements were about to click into place.
- That summer the Bar moved from its rented three-room office suite
near the Capitol Square into a home of its own at 402 W. Wilson Street,
Madison. Owning the newly constructed building "gave us a sense of
solidarity and permanency," said Eau Claire attorney and 1963-64 State
Bar president Francis Wilcox in a September 1998 Wisconsin
- At the end of that year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court made Bar
integration permanent, after a two-year trial period, thereby
solidifying the Bar's broadened membership base.
- The above developments meant that the Bar's staff, led by executive
director Phil Habermann, by then a 10-year veteran on the job, had the
physical space and financial resources to expand and improve services to
Thus, the State Bar was poised to enter a new era, in
which the energy and activity level would surpass anything seen in the
organization's first eight decades. By the late 1950s, the Bar had hit
its stride. And it's been on the move ever since.
This second installment of a two-part series summing up the Bar's
first 125 years highlights a few of the key events and issues of the
past half-century. Part
one of this series appeared in April and discussed the events
leading to the Bar's formation in 1878 and its early years.
New Focus on Public Service
A chance inquiry at a summer 1950 Rock County Bar dinner meeting
spurred the creation of a new Bar entity. An elderly lawyer seated next
to Habermann at the dinner table wondered whether there was a Bar
program he could name as a beneficiary in his will. Nothing like that
existed, Habermann responded, but he broached the topic with Wisconsin
Supreme Court Chief Justice Marvin Rosenberry as the two men drove back
to Madison that night. A foundation would be a solution, advised
Rosenberry, who offered to help Habermann form one. And so, the
following spring, the Wisconsin Bar Foundation (now the Wisconsin Law
Foundation) came to be.
Money trickled into the Foundation, and a few lawyers signed on as
members. But for years the Foundation sat inactive, as if waiting for
someone to figure out exactly what to do with it. An answer arose a few
years later, when the Bar drew up plans in the early 1950s to build a
new headquarters. Due to its then voluntary status, the Bar couldn't own
real estate or hold a mortgage, but the Foundation could. The Foundation
thus struck on its first useful purpose. Once construction of the new
headquarters was under way, however, the Foundation slipped into
dormancy once again.
In the late 1960s, the Foundation finally found a niche that it has
filled ever since. In 1969 it launched Project Inquiry, a program that
sent hundreds of lawyers into classrooms across the state to discuss the
law and stage mock trials. Volunteer attorneys also wrote the first
edition of On Being 18, which won the American Bar
Association's Silver Gavel Award. That booklet has undergone countless
revisions over the years and is still in distribution today. "Phil was
smart enough to see that the Foundation was a way to implement projects
the Bar couldn't do," says Madison attorney and 1975-76 Bar president
Jack DeWitt. "If you took dues money [to run certain programs], someone
might squawk about it. But the Foundation could try out these projects
because it was using donated money, not dues."
Project Inquiry was the forerunner to many current educational
programs that are now operated under the Bar's auspices, including
Lawyers in the Classroom, We the People, Court with Class, and the High
School Mock Trial Tournament, to name a few. As Chief Justice Shirley
Abrahamson points out, "Lawyers make wonderful teachers, and teaching,
in turn, makes the practice of law more rewarding." The Foundation now
serves as the fund-raising arm to keep these projects going. Besides
law-related education, the other function the Foundation took on was
public service. In 1978 it launched the Lawyer Hotline, through which
volunteers answered consumers' simple legal questions over the phone or
steered them to the Lawyer Referral Service if appropriate. "It was an
attempt to make the system more accessible to people," says Reedsburg
attorney Myron LaRowe, then chair of the Bar's Lawyer Referral Committee
and later Bar president (1981-82). "We basically had one phone in the
old headquarters. I'd be down there to work the phone for a few hours,
and other attorneys volunteered. We staffed it that way for quite a
The hotline and referral services continue to exist today, both now
under the umbrella of the Lawyer Referral and Information Service, a Bar
program. The LRIS assistants field more than 50,000 calls each year, and
volunteer attorneys still participate in various ways (see www.wisbar.org/bar/lris/sblrisatty.html
Yet another area of public service evolving since the
1950s was the Bar's pro bono work. This got a major push in 1957 from
the Bar's Legal Aid Committee chair Walter Graunke of Wausau, known in
his day as Mr. Legal Aid, who rallied local bars to help people who
couldn't afford legal services. The movement gained momentum in 1966,
when the Bar won a federal grant to create Judicare. The Bar developed
an innovative service model it felt would best serve people in a
predominantly rural state, despite wrangling with the federal government
over structure. Other state bars took note of Wisconsin's approach and
sought funds to replicate it in their states.
Eventually, the Bar spun off Judicare as a separate nonprofit
corporation, and it, like the other legal aid services established in
the state in the 1970s, has continued to struggle with Washington to win
sufficient funding to adequately serve low-income people. As La Crosse
attorney and 1992-93 State Bar president Tom Sleik observes, "Some
politicians love to talk about the rule of law, but what does the rule
of law mean to somebody who's excluded from it?"
Sleik made pro bono services one of his top priorities during his
tenure as president. For the first time, the Bar hired a full-time pro
bono coordinator to coordinate efforts statewide. That way lawyers could
devote whatever time they could give to actually providing pro bono
services to clients, rather than to the administrative side of it. "That
was the idea behind hiring a coordinator," Sleik points out. "How could
we organize the delivery of legal services to those who weren't getting
them? It's unrealistic to expect that lawyers who are already very busy
are going to find the time to make this happen."
The Bar's Team Pro Bono program, which has had a full-time
coordinator ever since 1993, makes it easier for interested lawyers to
get involved (see Team
Pro Bono). "It's one of the most positive things we've ever done,"
Sleik says, "to persuade the public that we really do care."
Advancing lawyer competency and integrity has been a Bar goal from
the outset, as evidenced by founder Edward G. Ryan's speech advocating
the expulsion of the "knaves and fools" from the lawyer community in
order to preserve the profession's reputation and protect the public.
Toward that end, professional education and ethics long have been
Education took major strides forward once Habermann came on board as
a full-time executive in 1948. "Before Phil became executive secretary,"
DeWitt recalls, "they'd have a lawyer or two speak on various subjects
at the annual Bar meeting. Typically it was a war story, and [the
presenter] might distribute 50 to 75 mimeographed copies of
As membership numbers exploded upon Bar integration in 1957 and law
practice grew ever more complex, demands for training grew. By the early
1960s, the Bar, the University of Wisconsin Law School, and Marquette
University Law School all had training programs for practicing
attorneys. In 1962 Bar officers and the two law schools' deans met to
discuss the future of post-graduate legal education and how they might
coordinate their efforts. From that discussion arose the Institute for
Continuing Legal Education for Wisconsin, or CLEW, in 1963. This new
entity, staffed and housed at the U.W. Extension Law Department,
presented institutes and clinics on diverse topics. Meanwhile, the State
Bar continued to hold a few clinics of its own, as well as the usual
annual and midwinter meetings and the popular annual tax school.
James Ghiardi, now an emeritus professor at Marquette
University Law School, was on the Bar's Executive Committee when the law
schools and the Bar pooled CLE efforts. By 1969, when John Wickhem was
Bar president and Ghiardi was president-elect, the three entities'
interests "had started to drift apart," Ghiardi says. "We talked about
it in the Executive Committee, and the question was, why don't we do
this on our own?" The decision to do so gave birth to the Advanced
Training Seminars, commonly known as ATS-CLE, the forerunner to today's
CLE program. Dalton Menhall managed ATS-CLE, along with Habermann, and
then in 1974 Menhall became the program's first full-time director.
Still, room remained for improvements. "When I worked for the
Judicial Council," DeWitt recalls, "I spent a lot of time talking to
judges and lawyers all around the state. I knew there were many lawyers
who didn't realize the statutes had changed in the 40 years since they'd
been to law school. The problems they created and the mistakes they made
might not show up until 15 to 20 years later."
Talk began to circulate nationwide, and in Wisconsin, about the
wisdom of mandatory CLE for lawyers. A Bar committee submitted a plan to
the supreme court in 1975, which in turn ordered the Bar to put the
issue before its membership in a referendum. DeWitt, at that time Bar
president, was among those who lobbied hard for passage. "We knew it was
controversial," he says. "We tried to get lawyers to see the value of
it. I told them they had to think about the kind of service the public
was getting." The referendum passed, with nearly 72 percent of voting
members voting in favor of mandatory CLE, which became effective Jan. 1,
The CLE program headed in another new direction in the early 1980s
with the expansion of CLE books. By this time, the days of the
mimeographed handouts were long gone, and seminar handouts had become
more substantial. These eventually evolved into books, whether as
seminar companions or stand-alone resources. "They were excellent
products," notes Madison attorney Carolyn Lazar Butler, who ran the CLE
book department from 1984 to 1999. "But they were not kept up-to-date or
supplemented on a regular basis. And they were not cite checked and had
Butler's task was to remedy these shortcomings and to create quality
publications that would prove useful for everyone from newly graduated
lawyers to seasoned practitioners. The endeavor also was required to pay
its own way, requiring no Bar dues to function. It was a program the
likes of which existed at the time in only a few states with larger
bars. "Gary Wilbert [then CLE director] was the force behind this,"
Butler points out. "He said, 'We're not a big state, but I bet we could
do a really good job for lawyers.'"
Coupled with the expansion of CLE since the 1950s has been a growing
emphasis on professional ethics and discipline. The Bar adopted its
first ethics code in 1901, but no genuine enforcement clout existed
until the supreme court issued its order integrating the Bar in 1956.
Court rules created new district grievance committees to investigate
complaints against attorneys and recommend action to the State Board of
Bar Commissioners. The latter operated under the State Bar's auspices
until 1977. Then, mirroring a national trend, the supreme court
transferred responsibility for grievance investigations to a new,
separate agency, the Board of Attorneys Professional Responsibility, now
the Office of Lawyer Regulation.
Meanwhile, in the last century, the ethics code has undergone
numerous transformations as society and law practice have changed. Now
the current Wisconsin Rules of Professional Conduct for Attorneys, in
effect since 1988, are being revisited in light of recent changes in the
ABA's Model Rules. "There is a continuing need to center on and update
our rules in order to properly self-regulate our profession," says
Wausau attorney Dean Dietrich, a member of the Wisconsin Ethics 2000
Committee, which is studying possible rule changes and will report to
the supreme court by October 2004.
"In the founders' time," Dietrich adds, "certainly lawyers were
important to society. The continued emphasis on ethics and professional
responsibility is designed to make sure we continue to focus on the
public trust and confidence vested in us."
Integration, Agitation, Legislation
After Bar president Claire Bird of Wausau first proposed Bar
integration in 1914 as a way to improve professional standards and
discipline, rounds of debate over the issue ensued for decades. The
supreme court finally settled the issue, or so it thought, in 1956, when
it adopted the Rules of Integration, effective Jan. 1, 1957, for a trial
period of two years. By mid-1957, after a six-month enrollment flurry,
membership had grown by 24 percent, from 4,968 to 6,174.
Fifteen State Bar presidents gathered at the 2003 Annual Convention
in Milwaukee to celebrate the Bar's 125th anniversary. Front row, from
left: Gerald Mowris (2001-02), James D. Ghiardi (1970-71), Susan R.
Steingass (1998-99), Truman Q. McNulty (1978-79), Patricia K. Ballman
(2002-03), Thomas J. Curran (1972-73), Pamela E. Barker (1993-94). Back
row, from left: Jack R. DeWitt (1975-76), George Burnett (2003-04),
Gerald M. O'Brien (1987-88), John R. Decker (1990-91), Steven R.
Sorenson (1997-98), Franklyn M. Gimbel (1986-87), Patrick T. Sheedy
(1974-75), Donald L. Heaney (1985-86).
Not pictured: Gary L. Bakke (2000-01), John S. Skilton (1995-96),
Gary E. Sherman (1994-95), Thomas S. Sleik (1992-93), Daniel W.
Hildebrand (1991-92), G. Lane Ware (1989-90), John Walsh (1988-89),
Gregory B. Conway (1984-85), Adrian P. Schoone (1983-84), Myron E.
LaRowe (1981-82), Lawrence J. Bugge (1980-81), Richard E. Sommer
(1979-80), George K. Steil (1977-78), Rodney O. Kittelsen (1976-77).
But the debate over integration was far from over. In 1959 Madison
attorney Trayton Lathrop sued the Bar, claiming that compulsory dues
were unconstitutional. Lathrop v. Donohue (Joseph Donohue of
Fond du Lac was Bar treasurer at the time) went all the way to the U.S.
Supreme Court, which upheld integration in 1961.
A second challenge surfaced in 1976, when the state supreme court
appointed a committee, headed by judge Andrew Parnell, to study
integration's pros and cons. The Parnell Committee recommended and the
court approved continued integration the next year.
Then in 1979, integration opponents conducted a poll, finding that 60
percent of Bar members opposed integration. With that ammunition in
hand, opponents petitioned the court to end integration. The court
refused, but did promise close scrutiny of Bar activities, especially
its legislative activities. In 1982, the court left integration intact,
but it demanded that LAWPAC, a political action committee, be completely
separate from the Bar, with no Bar participation whatsoever. That marked
the end of LAWPAC.
On to the next round. Challengers, led by Madison attorney Steve
Levine, rallied again in 1986, this time resulting in the 1988 decision
Levine v. Supreme Court of Wisconsin, in which federal judge
Barbara Crabb ruled that integration violated the First Amendment. The
Bar appealed, with a team of attorneys from the Madison office of Foley
& Lardner representing the Bar pro bono in the Seventh Circuit Court
of Appeals. "The Bar felt, in the end," notes John Skilton, who led the
Bar's legal team, "that despite the costs and the angst of being
challenged, that nevertheless the benefits of having a unified bar
outweighed both the detriments of litigation and of not having an
integrated bar." The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Crabb's
That case, too, seemed destined for the U.S. Supreme Court. But the
Court denied Levine's petition, opting instead to hear Keller v.
State Bar of California, which involved similar issues. In that
case, the Court ruled that an integrated bar could use mandatory dues to
fund activities that were germane to the goals of regulating the legal
profession and providing legal services, but not activities of an
"ideologic nature which fall outside these areas of activity."
The Wisconsin Supreme Court had suspended the enforcement of its
mandatory membership rule in 1988 after the Crabb ruling, effectively
returning the Bar to a voluntary basis, which ultimately lasted for four
years. During that time, the Bar tried to sustain member programs, plus,
notes Wausau attorney Lane Ware, 1989-90 Bar president, "We had to spend
time convincing attorneys why it was important to be members of the
organized Bar. We had a whole new realm of communication that we didn't
After the Keller decision, it was back to the drawing board
on the integration decision. In 1990, the Bar set up two study
committees to make their case for a voluntary or integrated Bar to the
Board of Governors and the membership. Following months of study, the
meeting at which the Board was to decide the issue went on for hours,
recalls Tom Sleik. "I can still remember the debate," he says. "It was
probably one of the most thoughtful, serious debates I've ever heard the
Board engage in. ... There was much respect given to both sides."
Fortunately, perhaps, for the sanity of everyone sitting through the
marathon meeting, there was also a "moment of levity in the discussion
that I'll always remember," Sleik recalls, even though it was at his and
Dean Dietrich's expense. Dietrich commented that he had a strong gut
feeling about what was the right thing to do. Sleik stood up to say he
had that same gut feeling and that coming from the two of them, it ought
to be extra persuasive. "You're talking about a couple of boys who at
that time weighed in at a good 250 pounds apiece," Sleik says. "The joke
was that, gee, if Dean and Tom have this gut feeling, it's not to be
In the end, the Board voted to recommend Bar integration to the state
supreme court, which in turn approved it in 1992. The integrated Bar was
back and has remained uncontested since. Certainly, all the legal
challenges over the decades consumed Bar time and resources. But perhaps
they were necessary, Skilton observes. "My view is that the Bar had to
confront and properly deal with the constitutional issues inherent in a
decision to mandate membership," he says. "So whether it was good in the
sense of policy, it was good for the Bar. It was like taking
Still, even with the Keller decision, or perhaps because of
it, the Bar's role in legislative activity remains a controversial
activity, notes George Brown, a former Bar lobbyist and now its
executive director. Lawyers hold varying opinions on what constitutes
"germane" legislative activity. "When you get 21,000 intelligent,
generally strong-willed individuals involved," Brown points out, "you're
going to have dissension out there. That's why we have the rebate
The latter, commonly known as the "Keller rebate," allows
members to deduct the portion of their dues that pays for the Bar's
legislative activity. A Bar committee devised rules and procedures for
setting rebate amounts and arbitrating disputes, which the supreme court
approved. Port Wing attorney and 1994-95 Bar president Gary Sherman, a
member of that committee, notes that bars across the country reacted
differently to Keller. "Some bars felt they had to get out of
the business of political activity altogether," he says. "Some went to
the other extreme and almost ignored Keller in how they did
dues rebates. We thought we were right on the money in both the letter
and spirit of the Keller decision." That position, and the
rebate process, have been borne out, he adds, by the dearth of
complaints about rebate amounts ever since.
Over the decades, the Bar and its sections have been major forces in
helping to shape laws in marital property, family law, corporate law,
product liability, and many other areas of public interest. "The benefit
to the Legislature," Brown says, "is lawyers' knowledge and experience.
The Bar can go to the Legislature and say, 'If you want to make this
work, here's a better way.' We do that sometimes. Other times we
actually take a position on policy."
One legislative matter struck close to the Bar's heart in 1977. A
group of legislators attempted to shift control of lawyers from the
courts to the Legislature - precisely the situation founder Ryan had
adamantly opposed 99 years earlier. Lawyers would then be vulnerable to
politics, Ryan had argued, rather than subject to the rule of law. "I'm
sure he would have cringed that this was even suggested," observes
Janesville attorney George Steil, 1977-78 Bar president.
But on Friday, Sept. 23, 1977, Bar lobbyist Edgar Lien reported at a
Board of Governors meeting that the bill's supporters had the numbers.
And the vote was only three days away. Steil recalls a rapid
mobilization. "Everyone was assigned to contact legislators over the
weekend," he says. "The Bar got into action. And that was the end of
it." The Legislature defeated the measure, which to date hasn't
A Rising National Reputation
The State Bar of Wisconsin has made a name for itself nationwide
through its track record of devising creative ways of meeting lawyers'
changing needs. A case in point is the founding of the Wisconsin Lawyers
Mutual Insurance Company (WILMIC) in 1986.
The advent of the 1980s brought a growing malpractice insurance
crisis. "Premiums were going out of sight," LaRowe recalls. "The
coverage was shrinking. The number of insurance carriers providing
coverage was shrinking. You could see the handwriting on the wall." The
situation worsened by 1986, and the Bar's Insurance for Members
Committee struck on the idea of forming the Bar's own insurance company.
The committee put the legal paperwork in motion. A massive campaign
swung into gear to raise the necessary $3 million to capitalize WILMIC
to the level required by the state's Insurance Department. Law firms and
individual lawyers across the state bought bonds at $1,000 apiece. And
Since its founding, WILMIC has had to endure softer market cycles
when other insurance carriers resurfaced, eager to offer Wisconsin
lawyers malpractice coverage and slashing rates to compete. "WILMIC hung
in there through that," says Steve Smay, Bar executive director from
1978 to 1999. "The idea was that the next time there would be a hard
insurance market, WILMIC would be there."
Bar members ran WILMIC themselves for the first several years. By the
time Lane Ware became Bar president in 1989, the need for professional
insurance management was clear. WILMIC converted from a volunteer
lawyer-run association to an organization operated by insurance
professionals. Ware views WILMIC's evolution as just one example of the
Bar's growing maturity in recent decades. "There was a crisis," he says.
"The Bar saw it, formed a task force, created the company, funded it
through contributions. And then, when the time was right, we stepped
Fast forward a decade to another challenge: the impact of technology
on legal research. Lawyers were shifting from case law research in
printed digests toward electronic sources, at that time in CD-ROM
format. But the old case citation system tied to books and page numbers
didn't fit well with electronic sources. After several years of study in
the early 1990s, the Bar's Technology Resource Committee devised a new
system of case citation that would be medium-neutral, involving
numbering paragraphs, rather than pages. "When we went before the
[state] supreme court to argue for the new citation system," Sherman
recalls, "we were leading the entire United States in dealing with this
issue." The Bar also faced legal challenges from West Publishing, but in
the end the Bar prevailed. And the new case citation system caught on
Another project aimed to help lawyers conduct their legal research
more efficiently. The Bar envisioned a CD-ROM source that would include
Bar publications and links within those publications to primary sources.
The Bar sought proposals from four vendors, one of which was a start-up
company called Law Office Information Systems (LOIS). "We had demands,"
Sherman says, "and nobody was willing to meet all of them as well as
LOIS was. They were new, and they were taking a risk."
Through the joint venture, the first of its kind in the country, the
Bar got the research tool it wanted for members. And, compared to
competitors' products, it also came with a much smaller price tag. That
ultimately drove competitors' prices down, making electronic legal
research generally more affordable.
Looking back on those years in the mid-1990s, Sherman describes them
as "a time when a lot of things came together. A lot of extremely
creative people put a tremendous amount of energy into [these projects].
I think you can't give enough credit to the leadership of [Bar executive
director] Steve Smay."
Smay now works for LOIS and travels to bar associations across the
country. He knows firsthand the solid reputation the Bar enjoys outside
its home state. "The number of people I meet," he says, "who know what
the Wisconsin Bar has done - and is still doing - is just amazing."
The Bar, of course, is more than programs; it's also the thousands of
individuals who comprise it. These days that group is much more varied
than it was 125 years ago, or 50 years ago, or even in more recent
times. "What strikes me is the increased role of women in the Bar," says
Joseph Ranney, a Madison attorney and legal historian and author. "The
presence of women in the Bar was minuscule until about 1970, and then it
exploded. It's interesting to see how the role of women in the Bar goes
hand-in-hand with the historical phases of the women's movement."
The women's movement of the 1970s followed on the heels of the civil
rights movement of the 1960s, just as the first push for women's rights
sprang up after the abolition of slavery a century earlier. Lavinia
Goodell, a Janesville attorney, was the first woman to attempt to gain
admittance to practice before the state supreme court in 1875. The court
denied her application, with Chief Justice Ryan stating, "There are many
employments in life not unfit for female character. The practice of law
is surely not one of these. ... Womanhood is moulded for gentler and
better things." Goodell finally won admittance to practice before the
supreme court in 1879, over Ryan's objection.
Today, women make up 28 percent of the State Bar and 50 percent of
Wisconsin law schools' classes. The Bar has had three women presidents -
Milwaukee attorney Pam Barker, 1993-94, Madison attorney Susan
Steingass, 1998-99, and Milwaukee attorney Pat Ballman, 2002-03, and a
fourth - Madison attorney Michelle Behnke - will take office in 2004.
Plus, the state has many female judges, and soon four of the seven seats
on the state supreme court will be held by women. Certainly, Ryan would
be aghast at such developments, but, as Chief Justice Abrahamson
recently noted, "Lavinia Goodell, I am sure, is beaming."
The racial and ethnic composition of the Bar also has diversified
dramatically in recent decades. Here "firsts" are more difficult to
document because the Bar has not kept racial or ethnic data on its
members. One first, however, is extremely recent history. In April,
Michelle Behnke became the Bar's first African-American president-elect;
she will take office as president on July 1, 2004.
Expanding diversity in the Bar now stands as a key objective, as
exemplified by one of the Bar's stated values: We will be inclusive.
"Diversity is not about just race and gender," notes Pat Ballman, Bar
president. "It goes beyond that to cover all kinds of differences - age,
geography, cultural backgrounds."
Diversity also is more than a question of political correctness. In
the broader picture, Ballman says, justice will be better served if
there are more lawyers and judges who look like and understand the
cultural backgrounds of the people going through the justice system.
As for the Bar association itself, diversity has practical
advantages, Ballman points out. "People with varied backgrounds bring
different creativities to the table and different solutions to problems.
We need to look at that as an asset to the Bar."
Thus, 125 years after its founding, the Bar continues to serve one of
its original purposes: to advance the profession and legal services by
speaking "with one voice," as Ryan put it. But today, that voice is - or
is at least striving to be - a richer blend than ever before in the
Dianne Molvig operates Access
Information Service, a Madison research, writing, and editing service.
She is a frequent contributor to area publications.