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  • InsideTrack
  • January 20, 2021

    Opening Act: A Discussion with Your President-elect Candidates

    Get to know Margaret Hickey and Odalo Ohiku as they discuss where and how the State Bar of Wisconsin should focus its efforts moving forward.

    Joe Forward

    Jan. 20, 2021 – The State Bar of Wisconsin’s election cycle is in full swing and this year’s president-elect candidates, Odalo Ohiku and Margaret Hickey, are vying for the position, a one-year term before serving 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 treasurer and a Judicial Council representative. Those elected will take office at the start of the fiscal year, July 1, 2021.

    The State Bar’s Nomination Committee has tapped Hickey and Ohiku, both of Milwaukee, as candidates to ultimately lead the organization.

    The Nomination Committee customarily chooses candidates in a rotation between Madison, Milwaukee, and the pool of candidates in greater Wisconsin. Whoever is elected will succeed Cheryl Daniels, who takes over as president on July 1.

    Ohiku, a long-time solo practitioner in criminal defense, is now the full-time deputy city attorney in Milwaukee, as of October 2020. Hickey is a partner and litigator at Becker, Hickey & Poster S.C., which focuses on elder and family law.

    In this article, you’ll learn about the candidates’ background and the issues they view as important to the legal profession and the State Bar.

    Margaret Hickey: Experienced Leader

    Margaret Hickey

    If you’ve been around the State Bar, you know Margaret Hickey. She has served five terms on the Board of Governors since 2005, representing District 2 (Milwaukee). She has also served as board chair (2006-07) and State Bar treasurer (2009-11).

    Hickey, a partner in the five-lawyer firm of Becker, Hickey & Poster S.C. has also served on various committees, including the Executive and Finance committees. In short, Hickey knows the State Bar, and says that would useful in leading the organization.

    “I’ve served in so many capacities in the bar that I’m familiar with how budgeting works and how committees and divisions work,” Hickey said. “I understand some of the challenges that sections face in terms of serving their members. I think I have a lot of different perspectives that would help me without a long learning curve.”

    If elected, Hickey says she would not aim to “reinvent the wheel” but would look at areas of the State Bar that could be improved while focusing on issues of the day.

    “Certainly addressing the racial inequities in our judicial and legal system, promoting diversity and inclusion in our profession, and access to justice – these are things we are already doing. But we need to really stress and focus on these because not only is it a challenging time for attorneys, it’s a challenging time for the public,” said Hickey, who is also a member of the State Bar’s Diversity and Inclusion Oversight Committee.

    Path to Leadership

    Hickey, one of six children, was raised in the small town of Beaver Dam. But she had a worldly view. In high school, she did one-year exchange to South America. As a Marquette University undergraduate, she did an exchange semester in Madrid.

    A double-major in Spanish and psychology at Marquette, she worked in a small law firm as an undergraduate and saw what lawyers actually did every day. In addition, her older brother attended law school, which gave her some inspiration, she said.

    “I looked at what my skill set was and what I might be able to succeed at,” Hickey said. “I like working with people, reading and writing, and I’m very comfortable with public speaking. So those skills seemed to work with being an attorney. So I took the LSAT.”

    Hickey graduated from U.W. Law School in 1986, in the top 10 percent of her class, and joined a 30-lawyer firm in Milwaukee. Her first year, she had the first of four children.

    “As a young woman, it was a challenge. I experienced things that I hope are no longer happening today, in terms of how women are treated in the profession,” she said.

    Hickey ultimately joined Barbara Becker’s firm, which is now called Becker, Hickey & Poster S.C. The firm focuses on family and elder law. Hickey, a litigator, is past board chair of both the State Bar’s Elder Law and Family Law sections.

    More than three decades after joining the legal profession, Hickey wants to use her experience to the lead the State Bar on various fronts, including helping young lawyers.

    “The primary challenge for young lawyers has to be debt,” she said. “It limits their choices in terms of work and it burdens them in a way that many probably don’t have the opportunities that we had in terms of buying a home or career choices.”

    “It’s also pretty horrific to graduate into a recession,” Hickey noted. “Jobs are fewer, choices are fewer, and I think doing a new job remotely is a challenge that must be daunting. As a profession we absolutely have to support them.”

    As the COVID-19 crisis continues and Wisconsin lawyers face new challenges, Hickey says her institutional knowledge of the State Bar makes her a good fit to lead.

    “My background would enable me to start off with so much knowledge of how the bar works and some of its challenges,” Hickey said. “I think it would be a relatively easy transition for me.” But she also says she’ll be looking under the State Bar’s hood.

    “I am passionate about working on issues that improve the practice of law,” Hickey said. “I see leadership and working in the bar as a way to do that.

    “That does not always mean that I agree. I do speak up when I disagree and I believe we need to question whether the system is working the way it should.”

    Serving in leadership roles reflects Hickey’s view that lawyers individually benefit when the bar works collectively to give back to the profession.

    “It benefits us as individual lawyers to be active in what changes that are coming legislatively, what changes that might affect us ethically, or how we can maintain our practice of law with the challenges to our profession from outside areas that attempt to practice law where there is no law license,” Hickey said.

    “Yes, it’s a business. But being a profession and caring about the profession’s progress and the wellbeing of all attorneys is part of a profession.”

    The Next Path Forward

    Hickey said State Bar is already working to address racial inequities in the judicial and legal system, and to promote diversity and inclusion in the profession.

    “But we need to really stress and focus on these issues because not only is it a challenging time for attorneys, it’s a challenging time for the public,” she said.

    Hickey said the State Bar serves the members, but also the public. “I would not try to create a whole lot of new agendas, but I certainly would focus on the work we are doing now and particularly the areas that I mentioned,” she said.

    Hickey has long heard from that segment of the membership that do not view the State Bar as relevant to them. They may ask what the State Bar does for them?

    “My answer would be – what would you like us to do that you think we are not doing,” Hickey said. “It may be that people are not as familiar with State Bar programs because we have so many that people are not even aware of.”

    She noted the State Bar’s ability to access health insurance for small firms, support lawyers in terms of mental health, provide ethics information, practice management consulting, and legal educational opportunities. “I would like to find out if there’s a program that we already have that might address those concerns,” she said.

    Hickey said the changes required because of COVID-19 may actually make State Bar benefits more accessible as the organization provides more online access. That is, benefits such as CLE may be more accessible to lawyers outside urban areas.

    In addition, Hickey says the State Bar can bring the legal profession together for discussions and action on improving the legal system with technology.

    “We have seen changes similar to medicine that have been discussed for years, but that had to be implemented practically overnight because of COVID-19,” Hickey said.

    “For instance, a basic status conference, pretrial, first appearance, these are things that can and should be done remotely. It makes our legal system work more efficiently, and it enables lawyers to be available in courtrooms that are distant and charge clients less.”

    She said COVID-19 has forced many changes, and many of them will be permanent. “I think we have to be thoughtful about how we go forward, but I think that these changes, some of them will be very beneficial to the system as a whole,” Hickey said.

    That’s especially true for those seeking greater access to justice, noted Hickey. She said the State Bar can help facilitate improved access to justice for low-income Wisconsinites through volunteer pro bono programs and by providing legal information.

    As the State Bar and its members navigate the next three years, Hickey says she is in a good position to help set the next course, and identify what needs to improve.

    “Some people consider me a bit of a rabble rouser, because I do speak up when I disagree, and I speak up when I think something is not correct even though we may have done it that way for years,” Hickey said.

    “People may not know that by looking at my resume. But I think it’s important to challenge authority and take a new look at how things are done within the system.”

    If elected, Hickey would be the fourth consecutive woman to serve as president-elect and ultimately president of the State Bar of Wisconsin.

    Off the Grid

    Pre-COVID, Hickey was an avid traveler and spends much travel time visiting her children and grandchildren, and enjoys outdoor activities like kayaking and hiking. She’s also a weaver.

    Odalo Ohiku: Bringing the Profession Together

    Odalo Ohiku

    Odalo Ohiku is ready to lead the State Bar of Wisconsin by bringing the membership and legal community together through a diverse thought and opinion. Ohiku, currently Milwaukee’s deputy city attorney, is running for State Bar president-elect.

    For Ohiku, former chair of the State Bar’s Board of Governors and current District 2 governor (Milwaukee), diversity and inclusion is central to help the State Bar move forward, unify the membership, and address racial inequality in the justice system.

    “It has been a rough year in terms of race relations,” Ohiku said. “I would try to help demonstrate that we can work together to have honest but difficult discussions and try and actually make some change, make progress.”

    But he also wants to focus on helping solo and small firms. For almost 19 years, Ohiku worked as a solo criminal defense lawyer. Thus, he knows the struggles that smaller firms face, and the difficult transition for new attorneys coming into the profession.

    “The State Bar can help solo and small-firm attorneys with the nuts and bolts of running a practice,” Ohiku said. “As a solo, obviously you spend a lot of time wearing many hats.

    “You have to do the legal work for the client, make sure you are performing at a high level. You want your clients to be happy, and to come back to you or refer others. You are always feeling the pressure, and the State Bar can help with that.”

    A Windy City Beginning

    Ohiku was born and raised in Chicago, near Wrigley Field. Diversity and inclusion was ingrained in him at an early age. He attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools. His schools, and his neighborhood, were economically and racially diverse.

    “That’s just how it was, and I think that really shaped me as a person,” Ohiku said. “Diverse Catholic schools and a diverse community was the norm. When I see schools now that are mostly Black, mostly white, mostly Latino, I’m not used to seeing that.”

    As a Black lawyer in a mostly white legal profession, Odalo says he wants to bring more voices to the table and bring greater diversity and inclusion to the bar. He said focusing on diversity and inclusion is extremely important in this racial climate.

    “We need to show that we can come together, despite our differences and ways of thinking,” he said. “We can come together and treat each other with dignity and respect.”

    Ohiku, who attended Marquette University Law School, graduating in 2002, wanted be a medical doctor when he was young. At seven, he was struck by a taxi cab in Chicago and spent more than a week in the hospital. The care he received from his doctors and nurses inspired his medical aspirations. But that changed when he got older.

    He saw the racial profiling among police in Chicago. At the same time, his brother was incarcerated. “It was just eye opening,” he said. “It made me want to become a lawyer. It made me want to do what I could to help people.” He aimed for criminal defense.

    But before he got there, he earned an undergraduate degree at Marquette, majoring in political science and criminology. He went on to earn his J.D., and spent two more years at Marquette to earn a Master’s degree in public service.

    After completing his academics, Ohiku worked for then-Wisconsin U.S. Senator Russ Feingold. As an undergrad interested in politics, Ohiku had interned for Feingold in Washington D.C. through Marquette’s Les Aspin Center for Government.

    For a year, he was steps from Capitol Hill, and the U.S. Supreme Court. His education and experience gave him the confidence to start his own practice, in criminal defense. His firm, Ohiku Law Office, expanded over the years to offer other services.

    The law firm is also an employer through the State Bar’s Diversity Clerkship Program, which provides 10 weeks of paid summer employment for law students with diverse backgrounds. Ohiku participated the Diversity Clerkship Program as a law student.

    Ohiku understands the challenges of solo and small firm lawyers, and he believes the State Bar can continue to be a valued resource.

    “They don’t teach you how to run a business in law school,” he said. “I would focus on what the State Bar can do to help solo and small attorneys succeed, whether that is giving trainings on the legal structure of the law firm, handling the financial aspects of a law firm, planning the future of the law firm, or being prepared for the unexpected.”

    “What do you have in place to make sure that the clients are still being taken care of or the work is still getting done? The State Bar can help a solo or small law firm fill in the gaps in terms of what’s needed to successfully run a law firm.”

    The Next Path Forward

    Recognizing the importance of public service and volunteerism, Ohiku became involved in State Bar leadership activities. He was first elected to the Board of Governors in 2017 and fellow board members appointed him to serve as board chair (2018-19).

    Ohiku continues his service on the board but has his hands in other efforts as well, including the State Bar’s Diversity and Inclusion Oversight Committee. In April 2019, Gov. Tony Evers appointed him to the Judicial Selection Advisory Committee.

    The committee interviews and recommends candidates to fill judicial vacancies, and Ohiku says the judiciary is another institution that will benefit from diversity.

    “Part of the committee’s charge is to make the bench reflect what Wisconsin looks like,” Ohiku said. “It has been an honor and a privilege to sit on this committee and give input on candidates we believe would reflect diverse perspectives.”

    He said he can use this experience to help the State Bar move forward on its own diversity initiatives by facilitating those types of discussions. After all, the reason he jumped into State Bar leadership roles is to effect change where he can.

    “I’m not one to complain about things. It’s my mindset that if you want to see change, you have to take steps to make the change you want to see,” he said.

    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.

    “If you want to effect change and set a path forward for the legal profession, you must become part of the decision-making process.”

    Ohiku says getting involved in State Bar activities gives lawyers a new perspective. “Once you become involved with the bar, you learn about all the different things the bar does to help attorneys and help our profession,” he said.

    Of course, if elected as president-elect, Ohiku and State Bar leadership will still be dealing with COVID-19 and what it means for legal professionals moving forward. But Ohiku says the bar can use this time as an opportunity.

    “The legal profession will come out more resilient, more efficient, and leaner once things go back to normal,” Ohiku said. “For example, I think it has become clear that for a routine type of court appearance, you can accomplish that via Zoom. You don’t need to go in person and have three lawyers in there for a five-minute hearing to get a date.”

    Ohiku says COVID-19 is another opportunity to talk about the State Bar’s policy positions on criminal justice reform, and bail reform in particular.

    “For many people who are incarcerated waiting for a jury trial, if they don’t need to be locked in a county jail, they should be able to be released,” he said.

    “I think it has helped spur the conversation with respect to bail reform. When the pandemic hit, there are all these types of motions trying to figure out who can be released back to society.”

    Above all, Ohiku wants the State Bar membership to know that, if elected, he will be a tireless advocate for all members and a voice for unity.

     “If they decide to elect me, I’m going to put my whole heart and soul into representing the bar at the highest level possible.” Ohiku said. “Despite our differences and given the racial climate, I’m going to do everything I can to show that we can all come together.”

    If elected, Ohiku would be the first African-American man to serve as president-elect and ultimately president of the State Bar of Wisconsin.

    Off the Grid

    When he’s not working or volunteering, Ohiku likes to do cardio and stay in shape, listen to music, and spend time with his family.

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