What’s the best career advice you ever received?
The best career advice I ever received was from a well-respected litigation attorney who said the day that you stop feeling, just before going into court, that pit-in-the stomach nervousness over whether you did everything you could for your client is the day that you should quit practicing law.
What kind of legal matter do you find most rewarding/personally satisfying?
I have spent a substantial amount of my professional career working on land conservation policy and projects. I was a founder of the Gathering Waters Conservancy and helped organize many of the state’s conservation land trusts. I have worked with several land trusts and dozens of owners of conservation land and historic properties to preserve special features for future generations. I rate this work to be at the pinnacle of my professional life.
It delights me to think about the many places in Wisconsin where I have had a meaningful role in preserving natural spaces.
What are the top two or three unconventional lessons you’ve learned about law practice (so far)?
gov Thomas.Walsh wicourts Thomas J. Walsh, Brown County Circuit Court, Green Bay.
Upon taking the bench, I was expecting a situation in which attorneys would come before the bench, argue their case, and await a decision from me. Experience has taught me, however, that a very large portion of cases in circuit court actually involve pro se litigants, that is, litigants who represent themselves. Learning to work with pro se litigants was probably the most important skill I learned after arriving on the bench. Although this issue is most common in family court cases, it can also appear in other matters.
Dealing with pro se litigants presents difficult issues for judges. A judge needs to explain the process itself to the pro se litigant and then, after the information is imparted, stand back and let the litigants work their way through it. The issue, of course, is balancing the need to inform the litigant with the need to avoid giving legal advice.
The process of contested litigation, particularly with family court cases, can be traumatic for participants. Most litigants have never been involved in litigation before and simply do not realize the physical and mental strains it puts on a person. The desire to jump in and “help” by making very strong suggestions for settlement is difficult for a good judge to resist. Yet, giving in to the desire and getting involved with settlement can often give litigants the sense that the judge has already made up his or her mind and that a fair trial is not possible.
The above circumstances have taught me that balancing a desire to help with the need to stay above the fray is an everyday challenge for a judge.
You’re a native Spanish-speaker but you also speak English and French. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in languages?
From my father. I’m from Puerto Rico, where Spanish is the native language of the island and therefore I was exposed to it every day. I began to learn English at an early age at school as it is mandatory for all schools in Puerto Rico to teach English. I was fortunate enough that I attended a private high school in Puerto Rico where the staff was fully bilingual.
My father then enrolled me to learn French in middle school and this continued all the way to college. My father was a polyglot, as he spoke English, Spanish, and Latin. He believed that the road to success in life was through education. My father had a great library in the house that contained books from many famous authors and written in many different languages. He always encouraged me whenever I had a question on a word to seek its origin and its meaning. I remember spending many hours in that library looking for words and reading great novels.
I still enjoy reading books in their original language and have been lucky enough to be able to use my knowledge of these three languages in both my private and professional career. Many people who have met me know that I love crossword puzzles because of the challenge they bring but also for the opportunity for me to learn a new word at every chance.
(Editor’s Note: Micabil Diaz-Martinez’s “Final Thought” column appeared in the February 2014 issue.)
Complete the sentence: I never leave home without ___, because ___.
I never leave home without my coffee mug because I have an unreserved love for caffeine that comes in the form of Colombian coffee and French vanilla coffee creamer. Before I walk out of the door, I go through my internal checklist – cell phone, keys, ID, coffee.
While not a unique obsession, it has two uncommon roots. First, I own the best coffee mug on the planet because it literally keeps my coffee warm for hours. Second, I’ve put work into transporting that coffee, which is only available in a Spanish grocery store in South Florida or in Colombia itself, back to Wisconsin. You can only imagine the analytical, perplexed, and presumably judgmental gazes I’ve received when TSA pulls me aside in the airport, opens my suitcase, and finds pounds of coffee carefully jammed into my bag.
What do you do for fun? What excites you?
This time of year, one of the most exciting things to me is the prospect of a brand new gardening season. Although it’s dreary and colorless outside, the mailbox is flooded with seed catalogs and pictures of bright and beautiful plants.
I’ve been gardening for about a decade in the same backyard and its starting to look like a mature perennial garden back there. But there’s always room to wedge in another plant or move something else around. I dream about dusk on a summer evening, when the flowers release their scents, the moths flit around, and my small dogs stalk vermin in the underbrush.
This year I’m branching out into vegetable gardening, which involves a whole new set of plans, enchanting seed catalog descriptions, and must-have swag like cucumber trellises. The actual physical work of digging, weeding, and patrolling for pests is far off in the future. Just like vacations, the planning and dreaming for next season’s garden is almost as good as when it gets here.