Vol. 85, No. 7, July 2012
Kevin Klein is a solo practitioner with a thriving practice in Phillips, Wis., located approximately 60 miles west of Rhinelander, and he's the village attorney for the nearby town of Butternut. He's a long-time active member of the State Bar, having served on the Board of Governors and several committees during the past 19 years. He's also the husband of a nurse, the father of two grown daughters, and an active participant in his community.
When asked how he manages to strike the right balance in his life, Klein answers with a question of his own. "Have you seen that Chevy truck commercial?" he asks.
He's referring to the television ad that depicts two men making small talk at an outdoor barbecue party. One asks the other, "What do you do?" The man is about to answer, but he pauses as various images flash through his mind. He envisions quick glimpses of himself chopping wood, enjoying a moonlit dinner with his spouse, hauling lumber, diving into a lake, heading off on a road trip with the family, and more. "That guy is me," Klein says. "I have an extremely balanced life."
On one particular Wednesday in May, for instance, he was up at 5:30 a.m. to fertilize his lawn before heading into the office, where he planned to work until about 7:30 that evening. He intended to go fishing off the dock later. He enjoys working with his hands, having learned several trades from his father. And he makes sure there's space in his life for family, vacations, and weekend jaunts to state parks.
Klein feels it all adds up to a healthy mix. "It keeps me sane," he says. "People ask me if at this point I'm tired of law practice [after 31 years]. I'm not. They ask if I'm tired of State Bar issues. I'm not."
That's fortunate because for the coming year, Klein will have before him a full plate of State Bar issues during his term as the organization's new president.
Back to His Roots
In the year ahead, Klein also will have a steady diet of 225-mile drives, usually once a week, from Phillips, where he took his first job right after earning his law degree, to Madison, where he went to law school. He's a native of Elmhurst, Ill., just outside Chicago, where his mom was a homemaker and his father was a painting contractor who decorated churches. "He was more of an artist than a painter, in many ways," Klein says.
When Klein was 14, his parents decided to move back to Butternut, where his father grew up and still owned the old family homestead. His mother originally was from Phillips. As a teenager in Butternut, Klein played sports, excelled in school, and started to think about becoming a lawyer some day. For college, he attended the Illinois Institute of Technology in downtown Chicago on baseball and basketball scholarships. He planned all along that law school would be his next step, which brought him to Madison.
His first job after finishing law school in 1981 took him to Phillips, population 1,600, located just 23 miles south of his old hometown of Butternut. He'd clerked with a Phillips law firm while in law school, so going to work there after graduation "was a seamless transition," Klein says.
By that time, he was married, and he and his wife figured Phillips was a good place to raise a family. While they hadn't decided at the outset that it would be a permanent move, "within a short time," Klein says, "we knew there was no reason to leave."
He's felt that way now for better than three decades. He stayed at the original job until 1999 and then set up his own office. He now revels in having a highly diverse solo practice.
"In an area like this," Klein explains, "your practice is more about what you do for a family or a community group than it is the type of law you do. I might prepare a family's will, do their real estate transactions, represent them if they're sued. It's about developing a loyalty, so they'll come back to you and refer their family and friends to you. That becomes the backbone of your practice." In the process of serving a broad base of clients, he's gained expertise in many different areas of the law, making for "never a dull moment," Klein says.
Besides that, for nearly 30 years he's been the Butternut village attorney. While being a village lawyer for a town of 500 people might seem to be a humdrum gig, Klein says it's anything but. "I do all kinds of interesting things," he says, including contract work for major sewer and water repair, handling evictions, obtaining easements, and much more.
You've probably guessed by now that Klein would recommend the small-town lawyer's life to others, including attorneys just starting out. Sure, you'll earn less money and perhaps struggle with some lifestyle adjustments. "There's no Taco Bell to run out to at midnight," he says.
Learn more about Kevin Klein ...
At his presidential swearing-in ceremony, Klein remarked "To be a leader of an organization such as the State Bar, one must have a feel for what the members want, and must have an opinion about what should be done. The key to successful leadership, as far as I'm concerned, is the balance between those two things." Hear more from Klein in this video, at www.youtube.com/statebarofwi.
Some new attorneys also may find it daunting to jump into so many different areas of law as Klein chose to do in his practice. But as a rookie lawyer in a small community, he was able to learn new areas of the law and gradually grow as an attorney, with people around him to offer support.
"I've done some work for clients in Milwaukee County," he says, "so I know from experience that when you're in that courthouse, there's organized chaos to some extent. But up here, when you run into a situation, a judge will say, 'You need to look at this again. Let's adjourn and make sure everybody is on the right page.' And because you're practicing with basically the same group of attorneys, even if you go over to other communities, everybody knows each other. Nobody is going to take potshots at you. Young attorneys are brought into the fold and helped along that way."
For Klein, living in his old hometown area seems completely natural. In his first few years back there he played in the summer baseball league in Butternut, as he'd done in his youth and during summers when he was home from law school. He quit playing in his early 30s when his second daughter was born because the league played on Sundays and holidays, which didn't fit well with family life. He continued to play basketball in a weeknight league until a couple of years ago – he's now 56 – and quit only because the league disbanded.
These days, he's a spectator when it comes to baseball and basketball, his old college sports. His current primary sports activity is fishing. But fishing off the dock after a long day at the office, as he does regularly, is just dabbling, he says. His true love is trout fishing, which he gets to indulge in much less often.
"I like to get deep into the brush to fish on smaller rivers and streams," he says. "There are probably 50 trout streams within an hour's drive of here."
His background and experiences, professionally and personally, will serve him well in being an effective Bar president, Klein believes. He cites, for instance, the significant role sports have played in his life, in high school, college, and since.
"Athletics teaches you how to win or lose in a sportsmanlike fashion," he says. "So now when I'm faced with an adversarial issue or I'm in a room with people who don't agree, I'm not thrown off stride. I think I can work with anybody and in a way that builds consensus."
He also points to the geographic mix of places he's lived, urban and rural. He's experienced both and enjoyed "the best of both worlds," he says. Added to that is the fact that his work as a Phillips private practitioner covers a large part of Wisconsin.
"I practice in probably at least 20 counties," he says. "It's just the nature of the business, and I'm sure a lot of attorneys in this area would say the same thing. It's nothing for me to go over to Ashland, Rhinelander, Hudson, Superior, or Wausau for a hearing. That geographic diversity is a big plus. It allows me to have a feel for attorneys practicing in different areas of the state, in different types of firms."
One key focus for his term as president will be to build stronger connections between the 30-some local bar groups around the state and the State Bar. Klein hopes to make the rounds to all local bars during his year as Bar president.
The desire to reach out to local bars is something else that stems from Klein's experiences over the years. When he first arrived in Phillips 31 years ago, the local bar association, which comprises Taylor and Price counties, was fairly inactive. Meetings were sporadic and poorly attended. At a meeting years ago – he believes it was in 1987, but complete records don't exist – the subject arose about who should serve as the local bar president.
"I volunteered," Klein says, "and that was the last election we had for something like 24 years" until he resigned from that post last year. By bringing in speakers who could talk about engaging topics, the local bar reenergized. Attendance grew because lawyers started to value the meetings.
It was Klein's work within the local bar that inspired him to become active in the State Bar. He attended the Bar's local bar leader conferences, joined his first Bar committee in 1993, and was elected to the Board of Governors in 2009. Klein's experiences have led him to believe that local bars and the State Bar can do a lot for each other.
"The local bars can be a great conduit for the delivery of CLE services, which benefits the Bar economically," Klein says. "The local bar leaders can give feedback on member benefits and what members want the Bar to do. And it goes the other way, too. Local bar leaders can schedule meetings so that George (Brown) or others from the State Bar can come in to talk to attorneys."
Looking back on his 31 years in practice and ahead to his year as Bar president, Klein feels that he is now and always has been right where he needs to be. "I use my talents and training on a daily basis," he says. "Why do we go to work? We want to help people. We want to give back to the profession and our peers. We want to earn a decent living. And at the end of the day, we want to have satisfaction from what we do. If you add all those things up, every day is a good day."
Dianne Molvig is a frequent contributor to area and national publications.