March 2, 2022 – The two candidates for the post of State Bar of Wisconsin’s president-elect have been making their cases ahead of the April election. In this Q&A, John Danner and Dean R. Dietrich discuss their ideas for meeting the challenges facing the State Bar, if elected.
Both candidates practice in Greater Wisconsin.
Dietrich is a shareholder in the Wausau firm of Weld Riley, S.C. He represents lawyers on professional responsibility matters and also practices employment law and municipal law.
Danner is a shareholder in the Minocqua firm of Harrold, Scrobell & Danner, S.C. The bulk of his practice is made up of family law, bankruptcy, and insurance defense.
You can learn more about the candidates in this profile article, published in January.
The president elect serves a one-year term, then serves a one-year term as president.
Ballots for State Bar elections will be mailed to members without email addresses on Wednesday, April 6. For members with email addresses, ballots will be emailed on Thursday, April 7. The election closes on Friday, April 22 at noon Central Time.
Those elected will take office on July 1, 2022.
The State Bar has about 25,000 members (15,000 active in Wisconsin), 24 sections, and 4 divisions – sometimes with competing interests. How can the State Bar best serve a membership with such diverse needs and different challenges?
John Danner: The members of the State Bar of Wisconsin come from widely varied practice backgrounds. Those various professional backgrounds bring with them a variety of professional needs and interests. We must remain acutely aware of the changing landscape of our profession, noting that the business of practicing law today is significantly different from the profession of the practice of law itself twenty or more years ago. The financial demands upon lawyers just to practice in Wisconsin vary from private practice to government practice to non-resident practice. The State Bar must remain an association for all of its members, regardless of practice area or state of residence. The State Bar must remain cognizant of the access to justice needs of the state’s rural areas and seek out programs to assist in solving those issues. Governance can best serve the needs of the diverse membership by maintaining high quality programs at affordable prices.
Dean Dietrich: The State Bar has a large membership with many diverse needs and different challenges. For me, the primary example of that is remembering the challenges that were faced by young lawyers when I served as president of the Young Lawyers Division and the challenges that are faced by senior lawyers today that I learned about when serving as president of the Senior Lawyers Division. Those challenges may have changed in context over the years but are really very similar to those of many years ago. The State Bar and the State Bar president do not have a “magic bullet” to fix all those challenges, but the president must be aware of the different challenges and help direct initiatives to address those concerns. The bar needs to recognize what the diverse needs are for its many constituencies and then coordinate resources to help address those different challenges. This may involve coordinating efforts with other bar associations or other entities. This may also involve “borrowing” successful programs from other bar associations to bring to our Wisconsin members. The president must work closely with staff to gather these resources and make sure they are implemented successfully in Wisconsin.
There is a documented attorney shortage in rural Wisconsin, and concern that fewer younger attorneys will step in to take over for senior lawyers in those areas. How can the State Bar play a role in assuring rural communities have adequate legal resources?
Dean Dietrich: The State Bar has begun to address the shortage with a task force study. Finding solutions has been very challenging because of attitudes held by new lawyers, the amount of student debt experienced by new lawyers, and the perceptions that rural lawyers are not performing “real” legal work for their clients. Solutions to these perceptions and problems will take time and a lot of effort. More connection must be made with the law schools to interact with new lawyers about the merits of rural community practice. I have practiced in a small rural community and know the different perceptions that exist. I also have practiced in a very small law firm and recognize the challenges of operating a business in a small firm setting. Many of the perceptions about practicing in a rural community must be debunked but we also must look at the financial realities that new lawyers face when coming out of law school. There is no simple answer, but we must continue to focus on this issue. Other bar associations are facing the same challenge and are trying to explain the benefits of small-town practice. We need to join in that effort and make it an ongoing responsibility of the State Bar.
John Danner: The Greater Wisconsin Initiative study report presented to the Board of Governors last summer and fall cannot be ignored. We must find ways to recruit attorneys to practice in our non-metropolitan areas. That could involve the creation of a program to assist attorneys practicing in rural areas by providing contract services on the same platform as the State Bar’s Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS). That could involve engaging the law schools to provide funds for housing or other needs to assist law students in finding clerkships in rural areas. Facing similar problems with rural practice, other states have already begun to work on these issues, and the State Bar should look to associations in neighboring states and around the country for other possible solutions. Time is of the essence, or we may have counties where the only attorneys are judges, district attorneys, public defenders and corporation counsels.
Two of the State Bar’s major priorities include a commitment to diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, and sustainable gains toward increased access to justice – including addressing racial inequality in the criminal justice system. As president, what would be your strategy for addressing these major issues?
John Danner: Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) has been a focus issue of the State Bar and its governance for a number of years. We need to continue that focus, and seek out ways to educate our membership on the need to achieve and better our understanding of these issues. There has been much discussion about providing CLE in these areas and whether there should be mandatory DEI hours in our CLE requirements. Other states have chosen that route as one way to improve their DEI standing and commitment, and at a minimum our governance should investigate the success or failure of that approach.
In the past, the State Bar has endorsed efforts to address racial injustice in our criminal justice system, and the proposals adopted by the Board of Governors just last year need to be pursued without delay. These include support for reforms in the police system, citizen engagement with law enforcement, education on the appropriate use of force when necessary, and uniform policing standards in these areas. What the State Bar cannot do is see its efforts in these areas be shelved by default as the result of the annual turnover on the Board of Governors when terms end. There should be an annual summary of actions taken by BOG, and proposed actions which will be the subject of further review by BOG in the coming fiscal year such that there is a continuity of policy pursuits.
Dean Dietrich: The State Bar has made good first steps to address diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. Efforts to address diversity and inclusion in the governance of the State Bar has been a very important first step. Continued focus and improved participation at all levels especially in the area of leadership development must happen.
I think there are two additional steps that need to be taken – better understand and educate State Bar members about the challenges faced by lawyers that struggle with implicit bias; and continue to speak out against inappropriate behavior in the profession leading by example in dealing with inappropriate implicit biases. Education is an important next step along with efforts to address negative behavior.
Racial inequity in the criminal justice system is an important and daunting priority as is dealing with diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. The State Bar must be a player with other segments of society to address this issue from judges to prosecutors to law enforcement to the Legislature. The bar has embarked on educational programming efforts but must push for improvement. The State Bar president must be a leader in asking the questions and coordinating the efforts with other organizations. Developing lawyer awareness of the problem is just as important as finding solutions for the problem.
What, if anything, should the State Bar be doing differently to ensure the organization is providing significant value for all members?
Dean Dietrich: I have heard many candidates talk about providing significant value to all State Bar members. The State Bar must continue to monitor the needs of members and address those needs with helpful services and programs.
The State Bar strives to provide educational programming and training for lawyers to be successful and effectively run their law practice. The State Bar is addressing diversity and inclusion within its governance structure and finding successors for future leadership of the Bar. Many bar members believe these efforts are not helping them directly. Bar members want help improving the law business that they run and want the State Bar to provide cheap but quality continuing education programs. We must also focus on influencing our communities and government to make the right decisions for the betterment of society and continue to maintain focus on the profession of lawyering. The State Bar, through its leadership, must make sure that it is continuing to chart a path to address all these needs for its members.
John Danner:When I served on Board of Governors, the finance committee and the strategic planning committee began a joint program to undertake cost/benefit analyses of the various programs then being offered. Today, prior to the presentation of the annual budget by the finance committee to the Executive Committee and Board of Governors, that annually appointed joint committee reviews budget requests from the various divisions and committees to determine if proposed expenditures fit within the parameters of the State Bar’s mission. This effort has been effective. The annual review needs to continue and perhaps be refined as the membership in the State Bar continues to decline through retirements and fewer lawyers choosing to practice in Wisconsin.
Bonus Question: Finish this sentence in 30 words or less: I am the best person to lead the State Bar because…
Dean Dietrich: I have dedicated significant time helping lawyers be successful in addressing professional responsibility concerns and I would have that same level of dedication helping meet the needs of our membership.
John Danner: In addition to my stated goals, my commitment to active involvement in the State bar is unwavering and I will seek to instill that attitude among less involved members.