The women leading the charge at the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers (WAAL). From left, current president Kristen Hardy, president-elect Makda Fessahaye, and immediate past president Jessica Butler. Photos: Kevin Harnack
March 6, 2019 – Just before attorney Kristen Hardy came into this world, in the late 1980s, what is now the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers (WAAL) was formed. Now, Hardy is serving as WAAL’s president, flanked by two other women.
Jessica Butler is WAAL’s immediate past president. Makda Fessahaye is president-elect, and will assume the role as WAAL president when Hardy’s one year term ends in September.
Other women have served as WAAL’s president – Celia Jackson was the first to do so in 1991 – but this is the first time in the organization’s 31-year history that three women have served consecutive terms, a reflection of a changing tide in the legal profession.
“Black women lead, but we often lead from behind,” said Hardy, legal counsel at Rockwell Automation in Milwaukee. “And there’s a lot of value in that. But for women to be at the forefront of an organization as prominent as WAAL, it shows our progress.”
Hardy says more women are feeling empowered to step up and lead. “We are seeing this trend in the legal community. We are seeing it in government, in corporations, and among entrepreneurs. WAAL is reacting to this change as well,” Hardy said.
For instance, of the 112 women in Congress (more than ever before), 25 of them are African-American, the most in history, including U.S. House Rep. Gwen Moore.
Fessahaye, who was recently appointed as head administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections' Division of Adult Institutions, says African-American women leaders are bringing new and fresh perspectives into their roles.
“Our goal was to rejuvenate WAAL as an organization, bring more excitement back into it, and be intentional and consistent in everything that we do,” Fessahaye said. “We are doing more programming than probably ever before. We get the job done.”
WAAL, which is dedicated to ensuring diversity in Wisconsin’s legal community, is making it happen through member outreach, education, and community involvement.
They are engaging with partners, including other specialty bars, to hold community forums and education sessions on diversity topics, such as diversifying the bench.
Direct access to justice is another WAAL priority. Last month, for instance, WAAL partnered with the Urban League of Greater Madison, Legal Action of Wisconsin, the State Bar of Wisconsin, and Foley & Larder to host an expungement clinic.
“We have a theme of ‘lift as you climb,’” says president-elect Makda Fessahaye. “We want to help each other succeed in our personal and professional lives while helping our communities at the same time.”
“We are always trying to find ways to collaborate and get more involved,” Fessahaye said. “We have a theme of ‘lift as you climb.’ We want to help each other succeed in our personal and professional lives while helping our communities at the same time.”
With more than 100 members, WAAL continues to build the membership and strives to be a community where members can turn for mentorship and guidance. In addition, the organization is doing more to showcase the good work and talents of its members.
WAAL highlights members with internal awards, such as attorney of the year, and nominates deserving members for awards presented by other organizations.
Hardy, for example, was recently named to the Milwaukee Business Journal’s annual 40 Under 40, a prestigious list of accomplished young business and community leaders.
Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.
Last year, immediate past president Jessica Butler was named to the 40 Under 40 class by the National Trial Lawyers, as was WAAL member Odalo Ohiku, who is the current chair of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s 52-member Board of Governors.
Butler, an attorney at Gruber Law Offices LLC in Milwaukee, says WAAL wants to make African-American lawyers more visible.
“We want the community to see us. We want to inspire young people, just as others inspired us,” said Butler, daughter of former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler Jr., now an attorney at Dewitt LLP.
Butler said her father has always inspired her – she remembers going to work with him when he was a judge on the Milwaukee Municipal Court – but African-American women lawyers and leaders like Vel Phillips and Judge Maxine White instilled the confidence to pursue a career in law.
“They were inspirational, especially as I got older,” Butler said. “Being present in the community is very important. Our visibility allows us to both inspire and help people.”
Fessahaye says visibility also means a seat at the table, in other organizations like the State Bar. “We are very well represented on the Board of Governors, more than ever before,” she said.
“That’s because we as an organization are pushing our membership to make sure they are in these leadership roles and making an impact.”
2019 Diversity Counsel Program
One of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s strategic priorities is to “ensure commitment to diversity and inclusion, aligning with our guiding principle to optimize the potential of all State Bar members as well as the public we serve.”
The State Bar’s Diversity and Inclusion Oversight Committee (DIOC), chaired by Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Carl Ashley, is a driving force behind the State Bar’s diversity and inclusion efforts.
On April 29, 2019, DIOC is hosting the 2019 Diversity Counsel Program at the Italian Conference Center in Milwaukee. This special half-day CLE event will focus on gender diversity in the workplace, and closing the gender leadership gap. Tuition is $35.
Helping Members, Improving Diversity
Fessahaye said WAAL continues to build a community for African-American lawyers while creating opportunities for them to succeed. Striving for a diverse legal profession means Wisconsin must attract and retain a diverse pool of lawyers in the state.
African-American students who attend Wisconsin’s law schools don’t always stay in Wisconsin, for whatever reason. Fessahaye says WAAL is a support network for African-American law students, and for those who choose to stay after graduation.
WAAL offers scholarships, mentoring and job opportunities to law students. “We try to start early so that when people are making the decision on whether to stay, it’s not because they have not found other black lawyers in the community,” she said.
“WAAL gave me the opportunity to meet folks who are already practicing, who offered themselves as mentors,” says current president Kristen Hardy. “That’s why I believe in the organization so strongly.”
Hardy, who is from Detroit, said WAAL has been instrumental in helping her grow and succeed as a law student, and now as an in-house attorney.
“I didn’t know anyone in Milwaukee,” said Hardy, who graduated from Marquette Law School. “WAAL gave me the opportunity to meet folks who are already practicing, who offered themselves as mentors. That’s why I believe in the organization so strongly.”
“I think every legal job that I’ve had in Wisconsin has been through a WAAL connection,” Hardy said.” Not everyone will have the same experience, but WAAL is there to prop our members up for those willing to do the work and the outreach.”
Butler said WAAL is also educating lawyers about important issues of the day, including civil and constitutional rights. “We are trying teach our attorneys how to build profitable practices doing this type of work, because the need is there,” she said.
WAAL is also helping lawyers navigate the challenges in their professional lives. For instance, African American lawyers, men and women, are significantly underrepresented at the ranks of law firm partnership.
Part of the problem, Butler says, is that partnership tracks often depend on partners to open doors for law firm associates along the way. Since many WAAL members are first generation lawyers and do not have established connections and relationships to current partners at law firms in Wisconsin, these opportunities are often missed.
“We are trying to help people establish the connections they need with some of the partners,” Butler said. “We are also trying to connect our members with more people in the African-American community who may be seeking legal representation.”
Some big corporate clients are demanding more diversity from outside legal counsel by requiring diversity on project teams. But Butler says that doesn’t always equate to actual work for minority attorneys who work at the firm or the project teams.
In addition, if a minority attorney is not the one with a relationship to the client, it does not count towards their business production, the lynchpin of partnership.
But Butler says law firm leaders can promote diversity if they are intentional about it. Gruber Law Offices has 24 lawyers. Six are women and four are racial minorities.
“One of the reasons I’m so happy here is because I feel comfortable and confident because of the diversity in the attorneys and staff; not just in race and gender, but also in age,” said Butler, a civil litigator at Gruber Law Offices for about two years.
Other firms, such as MWH Law Group in Milwaukee, are built on diversity. That is, the firm is majority owned by women and minority lawyers.
Butler said WAAL will continue its effort to connect talented African-American lawyers with law firms that understand the value in making diversity and inclusion a priority.
History in the Making
Between Butler, Fessahaye, and Hardy, WAAL is hitting its stride. But Hardy notes that none of it could be done without the groundwork of all those leaders before them.
“Organizations like WAAL exist because at some point in time, the members felt excluded, or they felt that their voices were not being heard. Thirty years ago, the barriers and struggles for African-Americans were very real, and continue to be.
“We have taken baby steps, as a legal community, to change and diversify the legal profession. But there’s a lot of work to be done, and WAAL plays a big role,” Hardy said.
“We are also trying to connect our members with more people in the African-American community who may be seeking legal representation,” says past president Jessica Butler.
As president, Hardy is focused on collaboration with partners, involvement in the community, and career advancement. “We want to forge relationships,” she said.
Involvement in WAAL has helped Hardy forge her own relationships for success. And WAAL’s previous efforts have paved the way for the trio of women leaders at the organization’s helm now. That is not lost on Hardy, and other WAAL leaders.
“This organization would not be what it is today – we could not hold these positions or be the powerhouse we are – if it wasn’t for all the folks that came before us,” Hardy said. “Whether they are involved now, or were heavily involved in the past, without them we would not be talking about the WAAL we are talking about right now.”
She notes people like Celia Jackson, Judge Carl Ashley, Judge Maxine White, and attorney Mark Cameli, who have provided support to WAAL for many years.
Hardy says WAAL’s history is important. “I don’t want that to be lost. I don’t want this to be just three women doing great things,” she said. “We always want to pay homage and show our respect to everyone who helped build this organization to what it is today.”