Vol. 84, No. 7, July 2011
In a conversation with Jim Brennan about what it means to him to be an attorney, the word “service” crops up frequently. “I’m driven to be of service to others,” he says. Now he’s stepping further down that path as the State Bar of Wisconsin’s new president, effective July 1.
The roots of Brennan’s penchant for service go way back, starting with his upbringing. He grew up in Milwaukee, the son of a nurse and a police officer, whose Catholic-faith tradition placed high value on justice and advocacy for the poor. “I’m the second generation involved in justice,” Brennan says. “My Dad was an Irish cop, and I’m an Irish lawyer.”
As a teenager in the 1960s, Brennan had exposure to social justice movements promoting school desegregation and equal housing in Milwaukee. By the time he was an undergraduate student at Marquette University, he knew he wanted his life’s work to be the pursuit of justice. Studying law seemed a good place to start. Since earning his J.D. from Marquette University Law School in 1976, he’s spent the past 35 years working in legal services.
While these events and experiences transpired over decades, an instantaneous, unexpected occurrence also left a deep impression on Brennan’s life view. “On April 15, 2008, I suffered a sudden cardiac arrest,” he says. “My heart stopped, and my wife found me basically dead.”
His wife, Ruth, a nurse, immediately began CPR, but it took more than 12 minutes to resuscitate him. When he arrived at the hospital, “they had low expectations for my survival,” he says. But, after a week in a coma, he did survive, against all odds, and soon began intense rehabilitation to relearn how to speak, write, and read and perform other ordinary daily activities. In September 2008, he went back to work at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, where he was then deputy director.
“I came out of that experience with enormous gratitude and a sense that things happen for a reason,” he says. “Service is the reason I’m here. So when the opportunity came up to run for Bar president, I said, ‘I’m in.’ And when the opportunity came up a year ago to serve Catholic Charities as the interim executive director, I again said, ‘I’m in.’”
Migrating to Immigration Law
Brennan has been with Catholic Charities for four years. Before that, he worked at the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, starting there in 1976 right out of law school. “I was sworn into the Bar in the morning,” he recalls, “and I had court cases in the afternoon.”
By the time he left Legal Aid in 2007, he had moved into a top position as the chief staff attorney of the Legal Aid Society’s Civil Division. “I was proud to be a trial lawyer for poor people,” Brennan says. “That was essentially my job description.”
While it was difficult for Brennan to leave that job, new opportunities at Catholic Charities sparked his interest for a couple of reasons. For one, he’d gotten to a point in his professional life when he wondered what else was out there. “I felt 30 years in trial practice was plenty,” he says, “and I thought I was getting a little stale.”
But a bigger motivation for switching jobs stemmed from his background. “I am the son of an immigrant,” he says, explaining that his father left Ireland after the 1916 Easter Rising, an insurrection aiming to gain Ireland’s independence from Britain. Brennan sees a huge, unmet need for legal services among today’s immigrants who are trying to make a new start in Milwaukee.
“Some people don’t like to hear this,” he says, “but we have hundreds of thousands of folks who have immigration problems that could be solved if they could find an attorney who is competent in this complicated area of the law and is willing to take their cases.” At Catholic Charities, Brennan has built an immigration law office comprised of three full-time attorneys, paralegals, Marquette law students, and some 70 private-practice attorney volunteers.
“We do family-based immigration law,” Brennan says. “Immigrant families typically include a mixture of lawful citizens, citizens by birth, and some undocumented members. In our work, we try to maintain the integrity of the family.” Each year, some 1,000 families with immigration issues benefit from Catholic Charities’ legal help.
Working for Broader Change
Helping individuals and families is and always has been a major part of what Brennan likes about being an attorney. “But as a legal aid lawyer, you also can and should consider broader impacts that bring positive changes for your entire client community,” he says.
That’s why Brennan has long been extremely active in the State Bar. His resumé sports a lengthy list of involvement in committees and boards for both the State Bar and the Milwaukee Bar Association. “I’ve always felt it’s important to bring the voice of the legal assistance client community to the Bar, at the committee level and the governance level,” he says.
Dianne Molvig is a frequent contributor to area and national publications.
Now he brings that voice to the position of Bar president. As far as Brennan knows, the election to president of someone with his type of legal experience is at least rare, perhaps even unprecedented, not only in Wisconsin but also in state bar associations nationwide.
Still, Brennan acknowledges that some may wonder, given his legal services background, if he can relate to the concerns of private-practice attorneys, who make up the vast majority of the Bar’s membership he’s now leading. As Brennan sees it, many of the concerns on the business side are much the same, no matter where you practice.
“There is this mistaken belief that public interest law firms exist in some sort of never-never land,” he says. “That’s just not the case. The reality is if you’re running a legal services organization, you have a payroll and human resources issues, just as you do in private practice. The big difference is that on the nonprofit side, instead of the partners deciding how to distribute profits at the end of the year, we have to decide how to plow extra resources, if we’re lucky enough to have any, into funding our existing programs or starting new programs.”
What’s more, he notes, legal services attorneys have the same obligations in terms of CLE requirements, trust account rules, Bar dues, and so on. “In dialogues I’ve had with private practice attorneys,” Brennan says, “I think we come to understand we all share a lot of the same concerns.”
Brennan says his top concern as Bar president is to examine ways to make the justice system work better. “My focus will be on how we support the roles lawyers play in the justice system,” he says, “and how we can assure the public that our commitment to equal justice is real.”
Spotlighting Access to Justice
That brings Brennan to his motivation for deciding to run for Bar president. “I felt the Bar had somewhat lost its way in terms of its mission, which is really a mission of service to its members and to the public. That’s what I’ve always been about, so I thought I would throw my hat in the ring and offer that perspective to Bar members.”
While the integrated-bar question continues to hover, Brennan feels it has overshadowed other important issues in recent years. He compares it to Vince Lombardi’s oft-quoted line: Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. For some Bar members, the subject of a voluntary bar has become “the only thing, to the exclusion of all else,” Brennan observes.
“I think many members, including those on the board of governors, have become fatigued, even I’d say moderately depressed, by their experiences relating to the voluntary bar discussion,” Brennan says. Thus, he wants to redirect attention to the reason the Bar was created in the first place.
“You can’t just sit back and say, ‘I feel I’m being dragooned into joining the State Bar,’” Brennan says. “That’s not the issue at all. The Bar is an association, created by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, that doesn’t just have an array of benefits and activities for its members. It also has a strong commitment to serving the public and protecting the public’s interest in the practice of law and the court system.”
And that’s where Brennan will channel his energies during his tenure as president. “The theme of my presidency will be access to justice,” he says. One such effort got under way while he was president-elect last year, stemming from “a broad concern that many of the functions in the criminal justice system are provided less than they need to discharge their duties,” Brennan says.
He spearheaded convening all the various players in the criminal justice system – prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, court commissioners, court clerks, probation and parole officials, and representatives from the Department of Corrections – to discuss a common vision for the criminal justice system. Their objective is to obtain adequate funding for all parts of the system.
“We think we’ll do better that way than having it presented to our policymakers as some sort of balkanized system with competitive roles within it,” Brennan says. “In the long run, that’s not a good strategy for a fully funded and well-functioning criminal justice system.”
As Brennan embarks on his year as State Bar president, some career-long constants will endure. For one, now as before, “I don’t have a well-defined career path that I’ve followed,” Brennan says. “I’m doing okay without one. I was fortunate to find something I like to do and that gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
After all, a positive outcome has trumped any need for a predetermined plan. “There hasn’t been a day in my career since leaving law school when I haven’t felt I’m doing the right thing,” he says.
Pro bono work also continues to be a part of Brennan’s life as a lawyer. And he still spends one or two nights a week at meal sites or veterans’ centers to reconnect with the client community he served at the Legal Aid Society. “Many weeks, that’s the best part of my week,” he says.
Another constant is the rejuvenation Brennan obtains from his retreats to his cabin up north, near Mellen in Ashland County. He and his wife started building the cabin about 20 years ago, with the help of her brother-in-law, who lives in the area. “We’re on the same sort of time schedule as building the pyramids,” Brennan says. “It’s a fairly primitive place, with octagonal post-and-beam construction and passive solar.”
He and Ruth, who is the Head Start health care coordinator for Milwaukee Public Schools, go to their home-away-from-home to kayak, fish, ride bicycles, split firewood, read by the fireplace, or do whatever they feel moved to do. “To relax and enjoy simple activities in a natural setting has always been a good tonic for us,” he says. The other members of the Brennan family include two adult daughters: Meaghan, the deputy director of budget and finance for the state of Delaware, and Caitlin, a Ph.D. candidate in medical microbiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Going forward, the memory of that April day three years ago will always be there, and it will forever influence how Brennan approaches each day. “The good thing about being dead for 12 minutes,” he says, “is that a lot of the ego stuff gets stripped away – the personal slights, the people you don’t like, and the bad feelings. I’ve lost a good chunk of my ego, and I’m grateful to be able to serve others.”
As for serving as Bar president, “I hope there’s something I do or stand for that fundamentally resonates with my fellow lawyers,” he says. “I’ve been shaped by so many lawyers and by my family. I want them all to know that I’m in good part a product of their impact on me. I hope they see that in what I do as president in the coming year.”