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    Vol. 79, No. 7, July 2006

    Open to Debate

    New State Bar President Steve Levine has proven time and again that he's not afraid to stick his neck out on important matters. He's shown, too, that he loves a lively discussion.

    by Dianne Molvig

    Steve LevineSteve Levine's path to the State Bar presidency has been unusual, to say the least.

    Rather than awaiting the nod from the Board of Governor's Nominating Committee to run for president, Levine independently threw his hat in the ring. Upon being elected, he became the first government lawyer ever to hold the State Bar's top office. And he's probably the only State Bar president who once took the Bar to court.

    Long-time members of the State Bar know that Levine has earned a reputation for advocating a few ideas that once were considered "kooky," as he describes them. He points out that some of those ideas eventually won widespread acceptance.

    Take, for instance, the notion that the Wisconsin Supreme Court should hold conferences in public when deciding administrative or rulemaking matters. He proposed the idea to the Bar's Board of Governors back in the early 1980s. "They didn't want anything to do with it," Levine says.

    Fifteen years later, however, the court tried public conferences and decided to make them permanent practice. "I realize some changes take 10 years, 20 years," Levine says. "It took women over 100 years to get the vote in this country. Whether changes can happen in the year I'm president or not, I think it's important to start the discussion."

    Levine has proven time and again that he's not afraid to stick his neck out when he deems a matter to be important. He's shown, too, that he loves a lively discussion.

    Having served on the Board of Governors for two terms and on various Bar committees over the years, Levine has always taken the stance that "the more diverse opinions, the better," he says. "Whether you agree with me or not, don't be afraid to say something. I want diversity, and I want people to come up with new ideas because sometimes an idea thought to be far-out in the beginning becomes legitimate later on."

    In the coming year, Levine hopes to stir a robust discussion about several key topics. In fact, that's why he decided to run for president. "What it came down to is that there are a lot of issues that are important to me that nobody was raising," he says. "I figured if I didn't run to raise those issues, no one would."

    The Right Time to Run

    Levine set his sights on a law career fairly early in his life. He's always had a tendency to "bristle at injustice," he says. "I guess that's the whole reason I got into law."

    He remembers reading many autobiographies and other books written by lawyers as a young boy growing up in Green Bay. Summer reading time was ample when he tagged along with his father, a cattle dealer, as they drove from farm to farm around northeastern Wisconsin.

    By the time he reached high school, Levine was certain he wanted to be a lawyer, a desire that persisted through his college years. He graduated from Georgetown University Law School in 1973 and earned a Masters of Law from the U.W. Law School in 1984.

    After getting his law degree at Georgetown, Levine worked as a Wisconsin Supreme Court law clerk, before serving a stint in the army. He returned to Madison, worked briefly as a state supreme court reporter of decisions, and in 1975 took an attorney position at the Public Service Commission (PSC), where he's worked ever since.

    Now 57, Levine is looking to retire from the PSC later this summer. He'd thought about running for State Bar president during the past five years or so. This year he thought the time was right. "I'm going to put a lot of work into [being Bar president]," he says. "I wanted it to coincide with ramping down my full-time legal work."

    Indeed, Levine has an ambitious plan to bring a host of matters to the forefront during his year in office. He started such efforts during his year as president-elect. "I've been working in the background on a lot of issues," he says. "Whether these issues are finished by the time my year is up, or whether it takes two, three, four, or more years, I'm going to keep working on them."

    The Question of Belonging

    Levine has been a long-time champion of the notion that State Bar membership ought to be voluntary. As many readers are aware, he led an effort in 1986 to sue the Bar over mandatory membership. Ultimately, mandatory membership prevailed in the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

    Some Bar members may be anticipating - or dreading - that Levine will revisit this issue during his term. He will not disappoint.

    He hopes to include in next spring's election a referendum to gauge Bar members' sentiments on the mandatory versus voluntary question. That referendum could occur in two ways. Either the Board of Governors would agree to hold the referendum, or members could petition the Board to do so.

    Levine feels there's a chance the Board of Governors may approve the idea. "Even those who feel Bar membership should be mandatory might be interested in finding out how the membership feels about it," he says.

    Levine is adamant that, contrary to the assumptions of many, "I am not anti-Bar in any way," he says. "I think the Bar is a tremendous professional association. It's very high quality, and the staff is excellent. I just think it's wrong to force people to join any organization."

    He's well aware that others feel strongly that Bar membership is a matter of professionalism, incumbent on anyone who wishes to practice law in Wisconsin. Levine feels it would be healthy to revisit the debate.

    Still, is now the right time for a referendum? In the past couple of years, feelings have run high among Bar members on various controversial issues, such as mandatory pro bono and the compulsory WisTAF assessment. With the controversies has come confusion. The State Bar is equated with being the enforcer of decisions some members don't like, when in fact other entities, not the Bar, are the decision-makers in these matters.

    "An initial reaction might be to strike out against the Bar and vote for a voluntary Bar to show protest," Levine concedes. "But I don't think that will be a danger. I give Bar members more credit than that. I think they'll look at the big picture."

    At any rate, he'd like to delve into member opinion about what form membership should take. "People who believe in a voluntary Bar have been painted as obstructionist or out of the mainstream," he contends. "But I think the fact I got elected shows there is a significant portion of the membership that believes in a voluntary Bar. There ought to be at least some dignity accorded to that position. It shouldn't be marginalized and painted as a fringe position."

    Questions of Fairness

    Another issue that Levine says is dear to his heart is the diploma privilege. "Wisconsin is the only state in the country that has the diploma privilege," he says, "and I feel strongly there ought to be one system of requirements for everybody who graduates from law school who wants to be a lawyer. Either it's the diploma privilege for everybody, or the bar exam for everybody. It's not right to have two different systems. I refer to it as Wisconsin's version of `separate but equal.'"

    Levine plans to appoint a committee, made up of lawyers with law degrees from Wisconsin and from out-of-state law schools, to conduct a study and report their recommendations to the Board of Governors. While the matter has been deliberated before, and often, Levine feels it's time for a fresh look. Sentiments on diploma privilege are changing, he says, as more graduates of out-of-state law schools come to Wisconsin to practice.

    He also has plans to push for a few breaks for nonresident Bar members. One of these is increased representation on the Board of Governors. Of the 47 lawyers on the Board, three are representatives from the Bar's Nonresident Lawyers Division. But roughly 30 percent of the Bar's total membership is made up of nonresident attorneys.

    "I've gone to a couple of meetings of the Nonresident Lawyers Division this year," Levine says. "And this is a big issue. They feel if they are paying equal dues, they should have equal representation."

    In a similar vein of fairness, Levine proposes that nonresident lawyers should be exempt from paying the Wisconsin WisTAF assessment if they pay a similar assessment in their own state.

    "More important," Levine adds, "I would like to see the choice given to all lawyers about where their money goes." Instead of all funds going straight to WisTAF, he proposes that individual lawyers be given the additional option of sending their $50 to a specific legal services agency of their choice - and providing proof to the state supreme court that they have done so.

    A Trio of Changes

    Three of Levine's goals as president stem from his work on the State Bar's Board of Bar Examiners Review Committee. First, he'd like to see progress on adoption of a comity rule pertaining to continuing legal education (CLE) credits.

    Under such a rule, nonresident Bar members would get credit in Wisconsin for CLE they complete in their own states. An attorney would need only to certify completion of that CLE to the Wisconsin Board of Bar Examiners.

    "The last I looked, there are 15 states, which is about a third of the states that require continuing legal education, that have adopted comity rules," Levine reports. He'd like to see Wisconsin follow suit.

    A second matter involving the Board of Bar Examiners is conditional Bar admission. The Board must fulfill its responsibility to assure that no one gains admission to the Bar who someday turns out to be a threat to the public. As it now stands, the Board must make a yes-or-no decision on admission.

    That decision gets tough when it involves people who have had prior problems, such as alcoholism, drug addiction, or a criminal record. For those denied admission, the only recourse is to appeal to the state supreme court - a costly, time-consuming process.

    A conditional admission would be probationary. It would give the Board of Bar Examiners more time and information to assess and monitor applicants with questionable histories. At the same time, those applicants would be able to prove themselves. A conditional admission "is a compromise," Levine says, "that gives the person a chance and still protects the public."

    In a third matter, Levine would like to see progress this year in spurring the Board of Bar Examiners to move to electronic filing of lawyers' CLE reports. This is now a paper process. Electronic filing would save money in printing and postage. Technological costs would be minimal, Levine says, because State Bar staff already have offered to contribute the necessary technical expertise.

    Enjoying the Ride

    By anyone's measure, Levine is putting a lot on his plate for the coming year. Then again, that's why he ran for office. "I ran not just so I could be State Bar president," he says. "These issues are important to me, and I'd like to see some movement on them."

    But these matters don't consume his life. He's a self-confessed sports addict. "Being from Green Bay, I have to be," he says. True to his Wisconsin roots, he's also a Friday night fish-fry fan. He's part of a PSC contingent that conducts weekly research to discover the best fish fry in the Madison area. And he enjoys music, a little gardening, and making a few trips every summer to American Players Theatre.

    Levine also has a few ideas in mind for professional activities to pursue next year, after his presidency has ended and he has retired from full-time legal work. He may return to the PSC part time or get involved in public interest litigation. Or perhaps he'll write a book about administrative law.

    But for this year, he's focusing his energies on the State Bar presidency. He knows he won't see success in just one year on all the changes he'd like to make happen. All he's aiming for is to launch the discussion.

    "The main thing I want to do is to enjoy this - to enjoy the debate," he says. "With all these issues, what's most important to me is to make people's lives better."

    Dianne Molvig operates Access Information Service, a Madison writing and editing service. She is a frequent contributor to area publications.

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