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  • January 15, 2020

    President-elect Race: Government Lawyers Ready to Lead the State Bar

    Get to know Michael P. May and Cheryl Furstace Daniels as they discuss changes affecting the profession and opportunities for the State Bar and its members.

    Joe Forward

    Jan. 15, 2020 – The State Bar of Wisconsin’s election cycle is in high gear as two government lawyers, Michael May and Cheryl Furstace Daniels, vie for the president-elect position, a one-year term that precedes a one-year term as president.

    In April, the State Bar membership will elect a president-elect, as well as other officer positions, including a State Bar secretary and a Judicial Council representative. Those elected will take office at the start of the fiscal year, on July 1, 2020.

    This year, the State Bar’s Nomination Committee has tapped Daniels and May, both government lawyers from Madison, to vie for the State Bar’s top leadership role.

    The Nomination Committee customarily chooses candidates in a rotation between Madison, Milwaukee, and the pool of candidates in greater Wisconsin. Neenah attorney Kathy Brost, the current president-elect, assumes the presidency on July 1.

    Either Daniels or May will succeed Brost’s one-year term as president in 2021. Both say they are ready to serve the State Bar membership of more than 25,000.

    May is the city attorney for Madison (retiring June 1). Daniels is an assistant legal counsel for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection.

    This article provides background on the candidates and the issues they view as important to the legal profession and the State Bar. The candidates also discuss their plans to help members, if elected, and to move the State Bar organization forward.

    Cheryl Furstace Daniels

    Cheryl Furstace Daniels

    Cheryl Furstace Daniels, a lifelong Girl Scout, lives by a simple motto: “Always try to leave a place better than when you found it.”  And that’s what she will try to do as president-elect and eventual president of the State Bar of Wisconsin, if elected.

    “It’s a challenge, but I hope to make a real difference,” said Daniels, a government lawyer (and former administrative law judge) her entire career in Madison.

    A recent president of the Wisconsin Law Foundation (2016-18), the State Bar’s charitable arm, Daniels has also been very active in State Bar activities since joining the State Bar’s Young Lawyers Division (YLD) after graduating from U.W. Law School in 1985.

    “I got onto the YLD board and never looked back,” said Daniels, who is currently the immediate past-president of the Law Foundation. “For many years, my work has been about bringing people together to find common ground. The State Bar membership is a diverse group, but there is a lot we can do to find common path.”

    Planting Seeds

    Raised in Buffalo, New York, Daniels was a first-generation college and law school graduate, the product of immigrant and working class roots. She attended the State University of New York at Buffalo, majoring in sociology and legal studies.

    Then Daniels set her sights on the U.W.-Madison, which offered a joint degree in law public policy. “I knew I wanted to do government work,” said Daniels. Upon graduation, she worked as counsel for the Legislative Audit Bureau, which analyzes public finances.

    After one budget cycle, she was recruited to what is now the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP). It was the mid-1980s, and Wisconsin farmers were in crisis. Daniels helped start the Wisconsin Farm Center, still running today, which provides information and support to Wisconsin’s farmers and their families.

    At the same time, the YLD was getting involved to assist farmers on farm credit issues and a collaboration produced a farmer’s legal guide, promoted on public television.

    “I worked with a lot of attorneys in the field to get legal information, to put on seminars, and produce informational guides,” Daniels said. “It helped me get settled in Wisconsin, and brought a sense of purpose to my work in helping the agricultural community.”

    After about four years as legal counsel, Agriculture Secretary Howard Richards tapped Daniels to be the department’s administrative law judge, a role she held for 18 years.

    She heard a variety of cases, licensing and other issues in the agricultural sphere, working hard to facilitate settlements. “Most of the cases involved trying to get people into compliance so they could move forward in their operations,” Daniels said.

    The Harvest

    After 18 years as an administrative law judge, hearing approximately 100 contested cases per year, Daniels stepped into her current role as assistant legal counsel for DATCP. She has served in that role for more than a decade, providing legal counsel to various licensing, appeals, and disciplinary boards within the department.

    Now, she’d like to use her experience to lead the State Bar. Through her prior State Bar activities, Daniels is keenly aware of the challenges that await her if elected.

    Her State Bar leadership experience includes the Government Lawyers Division Board (1996-2000), two terms on the Board of Governors, and two terms as president of the Wisconsin Law Foundation, most recently a two-year term from 2016 to 2018.

    She has also participated on numerous State Bar committees over the years. “We have to find common ground among the different groups within the State Bar,” she said. “Reaching consensus is something I have lived and breathed throughout my career.”

    Daniels, as a government lawyer, said government lawyers often view the State Bar as an organization most beneficial to private practitioners. “But there are issues that all of us are facing, whether in private practice, in-house, or in government,” she said.

    “Solo and small firm lawyers are often resource limited. Government lawyers are also resource-strapped,” she said. “We all have to be creative with limited resources.”

    Daniels also said law and technology continue to change rapidly. “We are all facing those changes, regardless of the working environment. We all share those challenges.”

    But what’s the best way to deal with those challenges?

    Daniels said building incrementally is a good start. “I’m a skeptic of blue ribbon commissions on signature issues,” Daniels said. “I’m a practical person. I want to bring the right people together who can work on the issues and find specific solutions.”

    She cites experience with the regulatory rulemaking process as evidence she can get it done. “We bring together committees of interested parties,” she said. “We hammer it out and find practical and specific solutions that can be implemented immediately.”

    For Daniels, listening is key. “The members, the committees, and the other different groups understand the issues we are facing as lawyers and as a profession,” she said. “I want to listen, bring people together, and find solutions. That’s truly the way I work.”

    The Future

    Daniels notes that the legal job market, for jobs requiring a law degree, has not fully recovered and may never return to pre-recession levels. Meanwhile, law students continue to graduate with large student loan debt, and demographics are shifting.

    “You see a younger generation that is somewhat skeptical about whether a law degree is worth it,” Daniels said. “At the same time, we need to ensure that Wisconsin has enough lawyers, especially in rural parts of the state, to provide legal assistance.”

    “Demographic issues are going to hit the legal profession the same way they hit everything else,” she said. “We are seeing that in agriculture, too, with older farmers retiring and no one there to continue the operations. That is going to be a problem.”

    Technology, Daniels said, may provide answers. But the legal profession, and the State Bar organization, must continue to monitor the landscape and work on solutions.

    “It won’t be an easy task, but I’m ready for the challenge,” Daniels said. “I want to help our State Bar organization move in a positive direction in order to help our members.”

    Michael P. May

    Michael May

    Michael May was a private practitioner for 25 years before becoming Madison’s city attorney, a position he has held for the last 16 years. Thus, May has experienced the stresses and pressures of practicing law in both environments.

    “In private practice, there’s the stress of keeping clients happy, bringing in new clients and making sure the firm is profitable,” May said.

    “As city attorney, you have just one client. It’s a different kind of stress. It’s what you’d call political stress. You’re in the public eye, and you are dealing with elected officials.”

    May, who recently announced his retirement, effective June, 1, 2020, says he’d like to lead the State Bar organization as a way to give back to the legal community.

    “As I move towards the end of my real active practice, I want to give something back. I have the time to commit, and I think I have the experience and skillset to be helpful.”

    Rising Up

    May grew up in the Madison area, and attended U.W-Madison to obtain his undergraduate degree in journalism. In 1975, May graduated from U.W. Law School, and joined Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field LLP, now Boardman & Clark LLP.

    “It was a different time,” May recalls. “A lot of firms let you try different areas of law until funneling you into one or the other. You learned by trying and discovered what you liked to do. I did some transactional work but ultimately decided on litigation.”

    May had the benefit of mentors like firm co-founder Wade Boardman as he developed a niche practice in municipal law and administrative litigation, representing clients in hearings before administrative agencies such as the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.

    “You didn’t have a jury but you had to put a case together and do cross-examination,” May said. “It was pretty technical stuff the more you got into it.”

    After 25 years, May became a managing partner as chair of the firm’s executive committee. But in 2004, a second career came calling: government lawyer.

    May was appointed as head attorney for the City of Madison. Since then, he has advised mayors, elected officials, and city employees.

    He also manages a team of 16 attorneys that prosecutes ordinance violations and represents the city in litigation and contract negotiations.

    “I always loved municipal work and the idea of being a city attorney really appealed to me as a way to give something back to the community,” said May of his decision to leave private practice, as a managing partner, to become a government lawyer.

    Throughout his career, May has served on various State Bar section boards, including the Administrative and Local Government Law Section. Currently, he’s on the boards of the Government Lawyers Division and the Senior Lawyers Division.

    New Adventures

    May recently announced that he will retire as Madison’s city attorney on June 1, 2020. If elected State Bar president-elect, May says he will be committed to addressing the issues facing the legal profession, the membership, and the State Bar organization.

    That includes addressing issues impacting government lawyers. “For many government lawyers, their employer does not pay their bar dues,” May said.

    “That’s true for small firm practitioners. Bar dues are coming out of their own pockets, which may influence the way they view the State Bar as an organization.”

    May says the State Bar could do more to make the organization relevant and valuable to government lawyers and other groups like partnering with other entities – such as the League of Wisconsin Municipalities – to offer programs of specific interest.

    May said exploring the possibility of discounts on CLE for government lawyers is another way to attract government lawyers to the State Bar’s offerings.

    “Obviously, there are issues of fairness in terms of what people pay for CLE, but these are just some of the ideas that have crossed my mind,” May said.

    May says increasing diversity in the legal profession is important. As city attorney, May has participated in the State Bar’s Diversity Clerkship Program for many years. He understands that increasing diversity and inclusion takes action to get results.

    “I used to do the interviews, but one year I asked two of our younger associates to do the interviews, a woman and person of color,” May said. “They got the top candidate. So I sent them again the next year, and they got the top candidate again.”

    May said he recognized that law students seeking diversity in employment would have a better connection with his younger associates than him, the older white male.

    “I think I do a pretty good job on diversity but sometimes you just have to realize that people will react better to those they feel a connection with,” May said.

    The Future

    May says the legal profession will continue to face major challenges in the decade ahead, and the State Bar organization is well positioned to address them.

    Joe ForwardJoe 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.

    “There are still quite a few organizations that are essentially providing legal services without being lawyers,” May said. “I think that’s a challenge in terms of maintaining the integrity of the legal profession. The second challenge I see is demographics.”

    May said as more lawyers retire, fewer new lawyers are coming in to replace them. “That puts pressure on bar associations to maintain programs and services. But it also impacts the ability to provide legal services, especially in rural counties,” he said.

    These days, it’s much harder for younger lawyers to practice law outside urban areas and try to make a living. He said the State Bar must continue its work on that issue.

    May says his experience as both a lawyer in private practice and a government lawyer have helped him develop a skill set that could be very useful in State Bar leadership.

    “When you are the attorney for the Madison Common Council and the mayor, and one of the managing lawyers for a large law firm, you learn how to deal with wide-ranging issues and to get different groups of people to reach reasonable conclusions,” he said.

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