Inside Track: Judge Michael Dwyer: Improving Family Law, Meeting Needs of Self-Represented Parties:

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  • Judge Michael Dwyer: Improving Family Law, Meeting Needs of Self-Represented Parties

    Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Michael Dwyer is recipient of the 2019 Judge of the Year award from the State Bar of Wisconsin Bench and Bar Committee. Find out more about Judge Dwyer, and how he learned that family law best suited his desire to make a difference.
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    June 5, 2019 – Talk to anyone who has worked with him, and they all say: Judge Michael Dwyer has enhanced the practice of family law in Wisconsin.

    Judge Dwyer is recipient of the Judge of the Year Award from the State Bar of Wisconsin Bench and Bar Committee. The award recognizes an outstanding circuit court judge who has improved the judicial system during the past year by his or her leadership in advancing the quality of justice, judicial education, or innovative programs.

    As a judge assigned to family court, he has dedicated himself to developing programs to assist self-represented parties, improving court services provided to families, and ensuring efficient court processing of cases.

    Judge Michael Dwyer

    From Litigator to the Bench

    Judge Dwyer, born and raised in Milwaukee, got his undergraduate degree at U.W.-Madison in political science, graduating in 1972. In 1975, he returned to Milwaukee after attending Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.

    “It was always my intention to practice in Milwaukee,” he said. Working first in a small firm, then founding his own solo practice in 1977, he got a very broad exposure to all aspects of the law in those first years. “When I started my own practice, I did a little bit of everything,” he said.

    Much of what he did involved litigation. “I learned I didn’t get much satisfaction from litigating,” Judge Dwyer admitted. “I found it to be an inefficient way to resolve disputes.”

    The son of 1960s-era Milwaukee alderman Robert Dwyer, Judge Dwyer always was interested in local politics, and in 1997, he was elected to the Milwaukee County Circuit Court.

    In 2001, and for the first time, Judge Dwyer was assigned to family court. “I had done some family law as a lawyer, but didn’t consider myself to be a family law lawyer at the time,” he said. “With that assignment I found – almost accidentally – that family law suits my temperament and is the kind of work that I love,” Judge Dwyer said.

    He admits he may be different from many other judges, in that he sees the oft-contentious, fraught-with-emotion hearings in family court as an opportunity. “The family court is a place where a judge can do the most to help people solve their problems,” he said, “provided we establish an efficient process.”

    Judges can help the parties reach agreements more quickly and fairly for each side by using the most appropriate process for their particular situation, he said. “The art of a family court judge is to custom-design or refer to an appropriate dispute resolution process for every case.”

    Toward Limited-scope Representation

    In family court, Judge Dwyer became concerned with the challenges of meeting the needs of the increasing number of parties in family court who do not hire lawyers.

    This concern lead him to serve on two Supreme Court subcommittees: One which developed rules promoting the use of limited-scope representation to improve parties’ access to affordable legal assistance. The other allowed lawyers who mediate family law cases to act as a neutral lawyer and draft and file legal pleadings on behalf of both parties, a service desperately needed by litigants, but prohibited by prior ethical rules.

    Susan Hansen, a family lawyer with Hansen and Hildebrand, one of those who nominated Judge Dwyer said: “This rule is a national trend setting approach to help address the needs of the growing numbers of self-represented litigants in family court. It will help families and the courts.”

    Judge Dwyer was also instrumental in revamping the court connected custody and placement mediation program in Milwaukee. He is engaged in a pilot project to demonstrate the value of custody studies in an effort to obtain funding to support them.

    Judge Dwyer also has worked to improve the quality of the work of Guardians ad Litem in family court, says Judge Thomas Walsh of Brown County Circuit Court, who also nominated Judge Dwyer for the award.

    Join in the Celebration at the Annual Meeting & Conference in June in Green Bay

    Judge Dwyer receives his award at the Member Recognition Celebration at the Hyatt Regency Convention Center in downtown Green Bay.

    Join the celebration at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 13, 2019. The celebration takes place at the State Bar Annual Meeting & Conference. Conference registration is not required to attend.

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