Green Bay native Bob Gagan and family all aboard the Packer bus. The family uses the old school bus for tailgating parties and other events. Photos: Sanderson Photography
Robert Gagan, the new State Bar president, was the first in his family to become an attorney. In recent years, however, two family members in the next generation have followed in his footsteps. And Gagan had at least a little to do with that.
One niece is a public defender in New Mexico, and another has established her own law practice in Minneapolis. In deciding to pursue a law career, “they did it on their own,” Gagan says, “but they had an uncle who encouraged them.”
Talking up a law career to his nieces came naturally to Gagan. “I think law is a great profession,” he says, “because you’re always reading, writing, and talking with people. You learn something every day. And no matter what you do in life, a law degree can take you to a lot of places.”
For Gagan, earning his J.D. has taken him right where he wanted to go: back to his roots in Green Bay. Immediately after finishing Marquette University Law School in 2000, he went to work at his current firm, Calewarts, Duffy, Gagan & Erdman, which has a history in Green Bay dating back to 1895.
“I didn’t interview anywhere else,” Gagan says. “I really wanted to come back to Green Bay.” He readily admits he’s deeply attached to his hometown. “I could never leave,” he says.
A Second Career
Born and raised in Green Bay, Gagan is the youngest of six children. His mom worked as a nurse, and his dad was a railroad engineer for 39 years. Both parents are deceased, but “my siblings are my friends,” Gagan says. “I talk to them all the time. I’ve talked to two of them on the phone already today and it’s only 10 o’clock in the morning.”
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Mike McCarthy, head coach of the Green Bay Packers, served as emcee at the swearing-in ceremony for Robert Gagan during the State Bar Annual Conference in June. McCarthy relayed a humorous story about a trip he and Gagan made to Montana.
After high school, Gagan went to U.W.-Madison to study finance and marketing. At the time, he had his sights set on a career in banking. His first post-college job was with the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland as a bank examiner. A year later, he moved to Minneapolis to do the same type of work for the Federal Reserve Bank there.
Next Gagan landed a job in sales with Shaw Industries, which took him to Milwaukee and later Chicago. Meanwhile, he also earned his M.B.A. by attending night school. But the thought was always in the back of his mind to someday return to live in Green Bay. He also started to consider attending law school and discussed the idea with family friends.
One of them was Kenneth Calewarts, now one of Gagan’s law partners, who’s known Gagan since the latter was about 12 years old. He recognized lawyer potential in Gagan. “He has a high social IQ,” Calewarts observes. “He can relate to anyone, no matter the person’s economic station, age, or gender. He’s just one of those people who is able to find a connection with others.”
At age 31, Gagan enrolled in law school at Marquette. After his first semester, he met over coffee with Calewarts to discuss doing work for the firm. Gagan did clerkships there during all his law school summers, and he took on research projects during the academic year, as well. Whenever he had no Friday classes, he headed up to Green Bay the night before to stay at his dad’s home and work at the firm the next day. After graduation, it was a natural transition to join the firm, where Gagan now practices primarily in the areas of civil litigation and municipal law.
The best part of being an attorney, in Gagan’s view, is helping people. In addition to his primary practice work, he acts as a guardian ad litem in adult protective services matters. He also helped establish a free legal clinic in Green Bay approximately eight years ago, which initially was targeted to serve the area’s growing Hispanic population. The clinic is open, however, to anyone who needs help.
“The clinic was Tim Nixon’s idea,” Gagan says, “and I asked him if I could get involved. We met for lunch to talk about how we would do this, and it went from there.” Ever since the clinic began operating, Gagan has reported for his shift each month to answer people’s questions on diverse legal issues.
Early on in his career, Gagan decided to get active in his local bar, the Brown County Bar Association, because “it was a good way to grow professionally,” he says, “and to meet people.”
It wasn’t long before he was elected as the association’s secretary and then moved up through the officer ranks. By 2004, having practiced law for less than four years, he was the organization’s president. That experience was a good training ground, he notes, for what was to come years later.
Ready to Step Up
Gagan remembers the moment clearly. At 4 o’clock one Friday afternoon, he got a phone call at his office from someone on the State Bar’s Nominating Committee. The caller asked if Gagan would be interested in running for Bar president. He responded without hesitation.
“I said, ‘Sure,’” he recalls. “Opportunities like that don’t come along often. I was honored to be asked.”
For the year ahead, he looks forward to working on the major issues on the Bar’s agenda: equal access to justice, challenges facing young attorneys, diversity, and the future of the legal profession.
When asked what he believes he brings to the job of president, Gagan pauses and then responds, “I think I’m a reasonable person. I can see both sides of an issue and come up with solutions that benefit both parties. We can find common ground.”
Law partner Calewarts identifies a related quality that he believes serves Gagan well as a practicing attorney and as the new Bar president. “Bob always sees the glass half full,” Calewarts says. “I’m more of a pessimist. I look at a situation and see what can go wrong. But Bob has this feeling of serendipity – that everything will work out. I tease him that the reason for the difference is birth order. I’m the oldest of nine; he’s the youngest of six.”
As president, Gagan says, he wants to convey to his colleagues that they ought to take pride in being attorneys. “I want to say to members that we’re all in this together,” he adds. “The Bar has a lot of services for members, and I want to let members know what those are so they can benefit from them.”
Because he’s part of a four-lawyer firm, Gagan feels he can relate well to the vast majority of Bar members. “I know the issues and challenges and benefits of being in a small firm,” he says.
Family is extremely important to Gagan — both his immediate family of wife Jenny and children, Danny and Audrey, and the wider collection of brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and others.
At the time of this late-April conversation with Wisconsin Lawyer, Gagan still was a couple of months away from his June 25 presidential swearing-in ceremony in Lake Geneva. He anticipated that the occasion would be somewhat of a family reunion.
His wife, Jenny, and their 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son would be there. In addition, most, maybe all, of his five siblings planned to attend. Two of them live in Green Bay, one in Madison, one in Minneapolis, and one in Seattle. “Even my brother in Seattle has been talking about coming,” Gagan says.
Clearly, family is extremely important to Gagan – both his immediate family of four and the wider collection of brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, and others.
He met Jenny, also a Green Bay native, soon after he moved back there to practice law. “Actually I met her years before that,” Gagan says, “but she didn’t remember me. I remembered her. I was thrilled to get a date with her.”
For relaxation in his off-work hours, Gagan enjoys family activities with Jenny and the kids. One of their favorites is snow skiing. They make ski trips to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and once a year their foursome and the entire Gagan gang gather at one sister’s Big Sky, Mont., home to go skiing. “We pick a weekend, and everybody makes it,” Gagan says.
Green Bay is, of course, another hub for family gatherings, as it’s the original hometown and also poses the draw of the Green and Gold. “Every year there are one or two Packers’ games that everybody wants to come back for,” Gagan says. “So we all see each other then, too.”
That leads to the subject of the Packer bus, which many of Gagan’s State Bar colleagues already have heard or read about by now. It belongs to the sister who lives in Minneapolis, but the bus lives in a garage in Green Bay. It’s actually her second Packer bus, the first one having met its demise.
Like its predecessor, this one is an old school bus painted Packer colors and outfitted with bench seating, a bar, and stools. The bus makes an appearance for Packer-game tailgating parties, as well as at other events.
Dianne Molvig is a frequent contributor to area and national publications.
For instance, it’s there for the back-to-school party for local school children on the night before the first day of classes. Around Thanksgiving, the Gagan family loads up in it for an excursion to Kroll’s, a popular Green Bay hamburger joint. And when one of Gagan’s nieces had her wedding in his backyard, the bus was parked out in front. It tends to draw attention wherever it goes.
Still, “there are a lot of busses like that around town – probably at least 100 of them,” Gagan says. “I think the owners actually had a convention.”
But no, the bus was not parked outside the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa in Lake Geneva when Gagan was sworn in as Bar president on the evening before the Annual Meeting & Conference commenced in late June.
“The bus doesn’t travel that far,” Gagan explains. “We just use it around town. We joke that someday we’ll take it to the Super Bowl. But I think we’d have to tow it.”