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  • January 19, 2022

    Greater Wisconsin Race: Danner and Dietrich Vie for State Bar's Top Leadership Spot

    The State Bar of Wisconsin's 2022 president-elect race features two candidates with a keen understanding of what it means to practice law outside Madison and Milwaukee.

    Jeff M. Brown

    Jan 19, 2022 – The State Bar of Wisconsin’s 2022 president-elect race features two candidates with a keen understanding of what it means to practice law outside Madison and Milwaukee.

    John Danner of Minocqua and Dean Dietrich of Wausau are both veteran attorneys with a long history in State Bar leadership.

    The winner of the 2022 election in April will serve a one-year term as president-elect, then serve a subsequent one-year term as present in FY 2024 (July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024).

    The Nomination Committee customarily chooses president-elect candidates from regions in a rotation between Madison, Milwaukee, and greater Wisconsin. Margaret Hickey, the current president-elect, is from Milwaukee.

    In addition to a president-elect, State Bar members in April will elect other officers, including a secretary, a member of the Judicial Council, and 17 representatives of State Bar’s 52-member Board of Bar Governors. Those elected will take office on July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year.

    In this article, you’ll learn about the candidate’s backgrounds and their views on the important issues facing the legal profession and the State Bar.

    John Danner: The Communicator

    John Danner

    A graduate degree in communications and 43 years of practicing family law in the Northwoods have taught John Danner a thing or two about the stressors clients routinely face.

    His service on various State Bar committees and the Greater Wisconsin Initiative Task Force have also given Danner insight into the pressures bearing down on lawyers and law firms, especially those located in rural Wisconsin.

    Chance Meeting Led Him North

    Danner grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, the son of a newspaper printer who also served as a wrestling coach. After an eye exam scotched Danner’s dream of attending the Air Force Academy, he enrolled at Loras College, a private liberal arts school in Dubuque.

    At Loras, Danner majored in speech and competed on the school’s debate team.

    Danner’s oratorical skills didn’t push him toward a career in law, however. Instead, after college he went into broadcast journalism.

    Danner worked in the Quad Cities for WOC-TV. When he watched the national nightly news, Danner saw lawyers working as legal correspondents on NBC and CBS. He decided to get a law degree and follow their example.

    A chance meeting during law school upended those plans.

    Danner ran into Gregory Harrold, a friend from his college debate team. Harrold had just quit his job with a Milwaukee firm and moved to Minocqua.

    When Harrold asked Danner to come clerk for his firm in Minocqua, Danner said yes. His love of skiing was the main motivator. More than 40 years later, he’s still in Minocqua. 

    “It’s a great place to practice law and raise a family,” Danner said in a 2016 interview with InsideTrack™​.

    Small-firm Practice

    Danner’s firm, Harrold, Scrobell & Danner S.C. has never had more than four attorneys. The bulk of his practice is family law, bankruptcy, and insurance defense.

    Jeff M. Brown Jeff M. Brown is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6126.

    Danner also handles legal malpractice cases and has built a successful mediation practice using his communications training, particularly his perception of non-verbal cues.

    Danner has been involved in numerous bar activities during his career.

    He joined the Bench and Bar Committee in the 1980s and later served as its chair. Since 1998 he has served on the board of the Wisconsin Lawyers Mutual Cooperative.

    Danner has also served on the State Bar Board of Governor’s Finance Committee and did a stint as treasurer.

    In 2019-2020, Danner chaired the President’s Task Force on the Greater Wisconsin Initiative, an effort by the State Bar to address the decreasing number of lawyers willing to practice in rural Wisconsin.

    Urban Attitudes

    The task force report found that one factor that makes young lawyers less attracted to practice in rural areas is the perception of social isolation.

    That tracks Danner’s own experience at his three-lawyer firm. Several years ago the firm had grown to four lawyers, but Danner said the fourth lawyer left because of lifestyle concerns.

    “It had nothing to do with the firm, it had nothing to do with the practice. It had everything to do with the desire to be living in a more urban area.”

    The issue was on Danner’s radar when he ran for president-elect in 2016 (he lost to Paul Swanson). It’s only become more salient since then, he said.

    According to Danner, the issue isn’t pay – outside of big firms, lawyers do just as well in rural areas as they do in cities.

    “It’s all attitudinal,” Danner said. “We have to figure out a way to reduce that trend.”

    Failure to do so means the creation of more “legal deserts” across the state, Danner said.

    “There may be counties where the only lawyers are a judge, a corporation counsel, a district attorney, and public defender. There will not be lawyers in private practice.”

    Competing Pressures

    Danner is running because he wants to build on his previous State Bar involvement.

    “That experience was highly satisfying,” Danner said. “I’ve grown to the point where it’s important for the bar to have leadership from someone who’s been involved in bar activities, who understands the competition between the various pressures the bar faces.”

    He was referring to the ongoing debate over whether State Bar membership should be mandatory or voluntary. His approach to the question, Danner said, is largely unchanged from 2016.

    “I thought the challenge at that time was trying to instill in the membership the desire to belong to the bar, as opposed to it being forced upon them.”

    Better Quality of Life?

    Danner said he believes that the two most important issues facing the State Bar are the dearth of lawyers in rural Wisconsin and the public’s perception of the profession.

    “We need to figure out ways to instill a desire in young lawyers to work in other than urban areas,” Danner said. “Certainly the quality of life differs – I think it’s better.”

    Danner said the answers to those two problems won’t come overnight.

    “It will take a commitment to a long-term effort to improve the perception of the legal profession among the community, certainly among the legislature. And we can only do that, I think, by getting more lawyers out into the rural parts of the state.”

    Money Talk

    Danner also believes that the State Bar must maintain its fiscal responsibility to its members, something he said State Bar administrators have done by trimming the organization’s budget.

    Danner said communicating that reality and others related to State Bar finance – such as dues increases – is crucial.

    “When the Board of Governors is communicated with on an issue like dues and budgets – not at a one-time meeting but over the course of a fiscal planning process – the Board of Governors is more receptive to recognize the needs that are being satisfied by those modest increases.”

    Danner said that increasing dues merely for the sake of increasing dues would be inappropriate, “but at the same time there needs to be recognition that fiscal responsibility requires an analysis of what it is the bar does and what it does well and what it needs to do better.”

    Former Ref Now Enjoys Fishing

    For many years, Danner’s escape from the practice of law was refereeing high school and college sports, including wrestling, girls basketball, and girls volleyball.

    Danner “put down the whistle” and retired from refereeing n 2020, after a three-year stint evaluating wrestling referees for the Big Ten.

    These days, Danner said, when he’s not in the office he’s often on the water fishing, a sport he took up in 1979 when he moved to Minocqua. On opening day last year, Danner said, he landed a muskie while jigging for walleye.

    Dean Dietrich: Experienced Ethics Lawyer

    Dean Dietrich

    Dean Dietrich has spent 45 years traveling across the state representing local governments and advising lawyers on ethics issues. That experience has given him a good look at the state of the profession and the state of the State Bar organization, a look that informs his campaign for president-elect.

    Law Not Politics

    Dietrich grew up in Milwaukee. His father worked as the director of public safety for the suburb of Fox Point, serving as both police and fire chief.

    Dietrich attended Marquette University, where he studied political science and sociology.

    After college, Dietrich realized he had an interest in the law but didn’t want to be a politician. So he applied and was accepted to Marquette Law School.

    As a newly minted J.D., Dietrich accepted a job with a small firm in Fennimore, a city of 2,200 located in Grant County in southwest Wisconsin. The attraction for Dietrich was the firm’s thriving municipal law practice.

    Dietrich worked at the firm for two years, then left for a job with a firm in Wausau.

    “I’ve been in Wausau since 1979,” Dietrich said. “It’s really home now.”

    Multiple Firms

    Dietrich continued to practice municipal law in Wausau.

    “I was pretty much all over the state, doing that kind of work,” Dietrich said.

    During that time, Dietrich worked for several firms – one of which dissolved – and started his own firm several years ago.

    “So now when I represent lawyers who are thinking of leaving a firm or forming a new firm, I have the background to provide some assistance to them,” Dietrich said.

    Service on Ethics Committee

    In addition to municipal law, Dietrich’s practice focuses upon employment law and lawyer professional responsibility.

    Dietrich has devoted his time to various bar activities.

    He’s served on the Professional Ethics Committee for three decades, including serving as chair. Much of his time on the committee has been spent working on CLE training and teaching.

    Dietrich has also served on the State Bar’s Board of Bar Governors and the finance committee, including serving as treasurer. He may be one of the few lawyers to serve as president of both the Young Lawyers Division and the Senior Lawyers Division.

    “I’ve been involved on both ends of the spectrum,” Dietrich said wryly.

    Practice-Business Tension

    Dietrich’s service to the State Bar and his work representing lawyers have impressed upon him the tension between the practice of law as a profession and the conduct of that profession as a business.

    “The practice of law envisions both of those, and it is sometimes hard to find a good balance between the business side of a practice and the professional side of a practice,” Dietrich said.

    Another tension tugging at lawyers, Dietrich said, is the gap between aspirational professional standards and actual conduct.

    “I think there are a lot of concerns about the manner in which lawyers deal with each other.”

    But professionalism is about more than lawyer interaction, Dietrich said.

    “It also means giving back to the communities that we work in … lawyers need to be giving back to the communities – giving back to the law, so to speak – as part of their professional responsibilities.”

    Dietrich said the State Bar is in a position to help lawyers balance the competing interest of the profession and the business.

    “But it certainly takes a lot of hard work, and my belief is that the State Bar of Wisconsin needs to be doing everything it can to help lawyers be successful in both of those areas.”

    Cost Increases; Pandemic

    Like Danner, Dietrich cites the increasing paucity of lawyers in rural Wisconsin – and the effect it has on the public – as a major issue he’ll attempt to address if elected.

    “We certainly see a lot of challenges in making sure that legal services are available to those who need legal services around the state,” Dietrich said. “As I look to the west and the north, there’s a lot of challenges with not a lot of lawyers available to meet the need.”

    Dietrich has also noticed lawyers grappling with increases in the cost of doing business.

    “A large complement of lawyers are really concerned about the law as a profession,” Dietrich said. “They are certainly struggling with the cost of doing business and the challenges of finding new lawyers to come in and work with them.”

    The pandemic has only added to those struggles, Dietrich said.

    “I think lawyers are struggling with the newness of the technology and the pandemic restrictions, and I think it isn’t that it’s stopping them from being able to meet the needs of clients . . . it’s just trying to come up with the best way to provide those services at a time when we’re all concerned about everyone’s health.”

    Continued Service

    Like Danner, Dietrich is running because he wants to continue his work to serve and improve the bar.

    “Moving to the stage of being bar president is part of my committing to being helpful to bar members and, frankly, to provide my level of contribution to the bar association and the profession.”

    Dietrich said he’s more focused than he was when he ran in 2005 (he lost in a three-way race to Steven Levine).

    “I think I have a higher appreciation of the role of the president of the bar – maybe a little more recognition that the presidents for many years have tried very hard to make things better for lawyers and for the public.”

    In addition to addressing the shortage of lawyers in rural areas, Dietrich said he would focus on diversity and inclusion and professionalism if elected.

    On diversity and inclusion, Dietrich said, “the bar should reflect its membership in its governance.”

    On professionalism, Dietrich says the bar can play a leading role in supporting lawyer wellness.

    “All of those things are important issues that the bar needs to tackle in some fashion. We need to try and focus on the things that are going to have the longest impact and the most effectiveness.”

    Golf, Hockey are Hobbies

    Away from the office, Dietrich is passionate about golf, although he doesn’t get out on the links as often as he’d like.

    “So what I end up doing mostly is buying golf clubs,” Dietrich said with a chuckle.

    He also stays busy providing legal advice to the Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association. Dietrich learned the sport as a boy and played as a defenseman for the Marquette University club hockey team.

    “I serve in a pro bono capacity as legal counsel to the association,” Dietrich said. “It’s a way to give back to the sport by helping the youth hockey programs be successful.”


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