Vol. 81, No. 7, July
Of Detours and Learning Curves
Diane Diel knows that sometimes you
need to change direction, whether in your career path or in your
priorities as the new State Bar president.
by Dianne Molvig
One bit of advice that bar association presidents often pass along to
those who follow
in their footsteps can be condensed to three words: Expect the
At national bar leadership events, "I've heard many
speakers say that when you're
a bar president, you may think you know what you want to do," says
Diane Diel, "but you
may not have the year you had thought you would have."
Diel already is realizing the truth of that piece of
conventional wisdom, she said
in a conversation that took place in mid-May, about a week after the
State Bar of
Wisconsin's Annual Convention, where Diel was sworn in as the new Bar
officially assumed that post on July 1.
In the months before becoming president, Diel had a list of
priorities to focus
on during her tenure. "But my list got a little changed," she
She revealed as much during her speech at the swearing-in
ceremony, in which she
stated that among the concerns she would address in her year as
president would be an
old, recurring one: the question of whether Bar membership ought to be
mandatory or voluntary.
Reactions to her announcement about focusing on this issue have
favorable," Diel says. "Regardless of their point of view
about this topic, I think
lawyers understand that the Bar needs to have the conversation, or else
the conversation force itself on the Bar."
Noting that there hasn't been an open, comprehensive dialogue on
versus voluntary membership question for many years, Diel feels it's
time once again, she
says, "to put it in the light of day."
Setting Sights on the Law
As a State Bar member for 32 years, Diel has been around long enough
to witness and
engage in previous debates on the mandatory/voluntary membership issue.
native, she spent her childhood in Nekoosa, Madison, and Wausau. Her
father was an executive in
a savings and loan institution, and her mother worked in financial
later as a secretary to hospital administrators.
By the end of her freshman year at the University of
Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Diel
knew she wanted to become a lawyer. That was in 1970, and women were
still a fairly
small minority in the legal profession. "I was undaunted by the
fact that there weren't
many women in law school or many women lawyers," she says.
"Once I decided I wanted to go
to law school, I was completely on that path."
Diel admits she had little to go on in deciding that law was the
right career for
her. Her only chance to see lawyers in action was at mortgage closings
at her father's
workplace, where she also worked during high school. "But I knew
that lawyers were
involved and influential at many levels in matters that affected
me," she says. "The law seemed
to offer so many varied opportunities. I thought I could be of help to
She left U.W.-Eau Claire with a degree in English and Spanish,
not the most
common preparation for law school. Diel remembers in her senior year
being one of the few
undergraduates in a graduate-level course on Norwegian playwright Henrik
Ibsen. One day
the professor asked to see her after class, creating the usual
trepidation students have
in such circumstances.
It turned out that the professor had concerns about Diel's
future. She noted that
Diel would soon graduate, but without any education credits. What did
she intend to do with
an English degree? Would Diel consider being her teaching assistant the
Diel informed the professor that she'd already been accepted
into law school. "She
was ecstatic to hear I had a plan," Diel recalls, "even though
it wasn't necessarily
the typical plan of people in the English department."
After graduating from the U.W. Law School in 1976, Diel's first
job was with a
commercial/corporate private practice firm in downtown Milwaukee, which
into the firm known today as Meissner Tierney Fisher & Nichols S.C.
Four years later, Diel decided to veer into a different
to practice family law, mixed with estate planning, probate,
adoption cases. After working in a firm and then launching a couple of
small firms with
partners, all in Milwaukee, she set up a solo practice there in 1997.
"Over the years I became more and more focused on family
law," she says. "I don't
want to use the word `specialization,' but I do virtually nothing else
A Passion for Governance
Eventually, Diel's professional interests took another turn, this
collaborative family law - an approach for settling divorces through
strategies, rather than litigation. "The movement has spread like
wildfire across the
country and now around the world," she notes.
Diel herself has been a leader in advancing this movement. She's
active in the
Wisconsin Collaborative Family Law Council, which she chaired in 2002,
International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACF), for which
she helped write the code
of ethical standards and on whose board she now serves.
Indeed, Diel has found she derives a great deal of personal
being involved in professional associations. "Other people have
hobbies such as golf,"
she notes. "My hobby is association governance."
She's exercised that avocation in the State Bar, as well,
beginning in 1984, when
she began a six-year stint on the Professional Ethics Committee. In 1988
she was elected
as Bar secretary. "I remember to this day," Diel recalls,
"that it was Margadette Demet
who called me and asked if I would run for secretary of the State
At the time, the Bar had few women serving as officers or on the
Board of Governors.
A move was afoot to get more women involved in Bar leadership, and Demet
knew of Diel
from her longtime active participation in the Milwaukee-based
Association of Women Lawyers.
"I had been involved practically from the day I got out of law
school," Diel says.
Her resumé of State Bar activities continued to expand
over the years. She's served
on several committees and two terms on the Board of Governors, from 1990
to 1992 and 2000
"Service on the Board of Governors is one of the best
educations in the world,"
Diel contends. "It gives you an opportunity to stay completely
current on so many legal
topics. And I've always felt drawn to the kind of energy and expertise
that's there" on
Last year, she was contemplating initiating a petition to rejoin
the Board of
Governors when she was asked to run for president-elect of the State
Bar. "I took my time
to think about that," she says.
A Shift in Priorities
Part of her hesitation stemmed from the fact that she was just one
year into a
three-year term on the IACF board. Was she ready to take on an
additional hefty commitment?
Diel decided to grasp the chance while she had it.
"When I was a younger lawyer," she says, "I'd
thought that when my children were
all grown [she has two sons, ages 24 and 26, and a daughter, 21] and if
I had the
opportunity, I'd like to be Bar president someday."
That "someday" arrived when Diel won the election for
Bar president-elect in
April 2007. In her year leading up to taking over the top post, she
focused on two key
issues. The first was improving Wisconsin citizens' access to justice in
civil legal matters.
She chaired the committee that revised the petition that ultimately will
go to the
Wisconsin Supreme Court; the Board of Governors' unanimously approved it
in June. Diel is
pleased to see that progress seems to be under way on that issue.
Another of her primary concerns is "the crisis - and I
think that's the right word
- around elections of judges," she says, "with the low-level
advertising and the
misrepresentations about what the justice system is and the role judges
play in it. I think
the state of the judiciary cries out for active engagement by members of
profession. It's our professional responsibility."
Those two issues remain in the limelight, Diel notes. But when
Douglas Kammer won election this spring as the Bar's new
president-elect, she knew
another topic also demanded immediate attention - the question of
voluntary versus mandatory
Bar membership, which Kammer raised in his campaign.
"My job as president for one year is to do what the Bar
needs done during that
year," Diel says. "I think we will be less able to adequately
address those other more
public-minded issues if we don't close this book."
Her objective in the coming year is to launch a full-scale
discussion of the
"benefits and the burdens," she says, "of voluntary or
mandatory membership, so we can take
an informed direction."
Still, some skeptics may question whether this will be a mere
might doubt whether a full airing and evaluation of both sides of the
question can occur
under a president who's long been active in and passionate about the Bar
- a "Bar insider,"
as some might label her.
"It would be odd to be called a Bar insider," Diel
says. "Even my law practice is
not at all mainstream. Collaborative family law is cutting edge and
flies in the face of
some of the long-standing traditions about what legal advocacy is."
Hard to Peg
Diel has seen both sides of the voluntary/mandatory Bar issue, first
hand. She was a
Bar member when membership was voluntary from 1988 to 1992. She was on
the Board of
Governors when it voted to return to an integrated, or mandatory, Bar in
1992. "I suppose
it's recorded somewhere that my vote was for a voluntary Bar," she
Yet, as her long-time activism attests, Diel is a strong Bar
supporter. "I feel
the Bar has so much of value to offer to members and the public,"
she says, "that I'd
stay involved regardless" of what the membership policy might be.
The upshot is that Diel doesn't have a predetermined position on
voluntary/mandatory question. "I'm not coming at this with any
point of view," she says. "And I think
a lot of lawyers will be hard to peg and categorize in this
She notes, for instance, that the prospect of being able to take
a stance on
social issues may make voluntary membership appealing to some who long
have favored a
mandatory Bar. "And there are people who oppose the mandatory
Bar," she suggests, "who may come
to believe that the strength in numbers, economies of scale, and
services the Bar
renders for a fraction of the cost they'd get elsewhere convinces them
that they should, in
fact, be part of a mandatory Bar."
The amount of Bar dues is another thorny issue that needs
discussion, Diel says.
"Lawyers are confused about what their Bar dues even are," she
notes. "Their dues
aren't $440, they're $224. The rest includes assessments" from the
supreme court to support
the Board of Bar Examiners, the Office of Lawyer Regulation, the
Wisconsin Lawyers' Fund
for Client Protection, and the Public Interest Legal Services Fund.
All of these concerns, positions, confusions, and dilemmas are
what Diel hopes to
see discussed vigorously and openly in the coming year. "I think
people will find this is
a learning curve," she says.
She plans to set up meetings with local bar associations in
the state. Eventually, she hopes the conversation will move to the floor
of Board of
Governors' meetings. She's also considering the creation of a study
of lawyers with diverse viewpoints, and she would ask president-elect
Kammer to cochair
As president, Diel intends to facilitate the discourse. "I
will do everything I
can," she says, "to encourage this to be done professionally
and appropriately, and to make
it as comprehensive and inclusive as possible. I think, whatever
direction this goes,
maybe this is a conversation we have to have every 15 to 20 years on an
level. It's been a long while since we've had
Dianne Molvig operates Access Information Service, a Madison
writing and editing service.