Get to Know the Candidates
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Feb. 7, 2024 – The State Bar of Wisconsin’s 2024 president-elect race features two candidates with diverse experiences.
Ryan Billings and Jennifer Johnson of Milwaukee both have experience in State Bar leadership.
The winner of the 2024 election in April will serve a one-year term as president-elect, then serve a subsequent one-year term as president in fiscal year 2026 (July 1, 2025 to June 30, 2026).
The Nomination Committee customarily chooses president-elect candidates from regions in rotation between Madison, Milwaukee, and greater Wisconsin.
In addition to a president-elect, State Bar members in April will elect other officers, including a treasurer, a judicial council representative, and 18 members of the State Bar’s 52-member Board of Governors. Those elected will take office on July 1, the first day of the new fiscal year.
In this article, you’ll learn about each candidate’s background and views on the important issues facing the legal profession and the State Bar.
Ryan Billings: ‘A Philosopher at Heart’
Ryan Billings’ approach to the issues facing the State Bar is informed by a philosophical outlook.
“I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since I was 14,” Billings said. “I’m a philosopher at heart but I’m not an academic. I’ve always considered the law to be ‘field philosophy,’ employing concepts of social discourse in a real-world setting to help people.”
Billings, who grew up in Sheboygan, became interested in a legal career after participating in mock trial at Sheboygan South High School.
“I fell in love with it right away,” Billings said. “The concept of taking a fact pattern and turning it into a narrative and arguing from a persuasive viewpoint and explaining it to a judge jury … it combines things I’m good at and things I like, and ultimately it does something that I think is good. It’s a way of advocating for people, which I think is a beautiful thing.”
Bright Lights, Big City
Billings obtained his undergraduate degree from Princeton and his law degree from Harvard.
After law school, he took a job with Cravath, Swaine & Moore, a large firm in New York City.
Billings spent most of his time at Cravath defending clients against shareholder class lawsuits and government regulatory investigations.
“It was an absolutely fantastic experience,” Billings said. “I had great mentors, I had great cases, and I learned so much.
“But it was an absolute grind. I was billing 3,000 hours a year and not sleeping very much, I was doing nothing but working.”
After six years, Billings had had enough. He moved back to Wisconsin and ended up at the Glendale office of Kohner, Mann & Kailas, S.C.
“When I came back to Wisconsin, my practice became much broader,” Billings said. “I worked on everything from reviewing contracts to, on the plaintiff’s side, large antitrust shareholder class actions.”
State Bar Service
Billings is serving his second full term on the State Bar’s Board of Governors. He also serves as the State Bar’s representative to the Judicial Council.
Jeff M. Brown, Willamette Univ. School of Law 1997, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6126.
He has served on the Board’s executive committee and as the vice-chair and the chair of the Board’s policy committee.
Billings said he hadn’t considered running for president-elect but was honored to be nominated.
“I asked myself, ‘Do I have the skill set, do I have the fortitude, do I have the time, do I have the support of my wife and my colleagues to do this and serve the greater good?’” Billings said.
“I did a lot of soul searching and I came to the conclusion that I’d be good at it, and it’s a good cause. And I got everyone’s buy-in.”
Mental Health; Pro Bono
One area Billings would focus on if elected is attorneys’ mental health.
“I think the practice of law is becoming increasingly harder on our bodies and our minds,” Billings said. “We need to promote good mental health and help people who are facing burnout and stress and other issues.”
“I really want to de-stigmatize the discussion of mental health. I want to encourage the bar to offer resources, dialogue, and someday even CLE courses on how to maintain mental health because I know so many attorneys who have really suffered some serious damage from practicing law, and that shouldn’t be the case.”
Billings said he would also continue efforts by the State Bar to address the shrinking number of attorneys practicing in Greater Wisconsin, and to encourage pro bono work.
“It’s incredibly valuable, it’s incredibly rewarding,” Billings said. “I think it’s good for the soul.”
A third priority for Billings would be improving society’s attitude toward the legal profession.
“Lawyers have a bad reputation in our society, and I think it’s undeserved,” Billings said.
Billings and his wife relax by camping and fishing.
“My wife enjoys fishing; I love being outdoors in nature,” Billings said. “I was in scouting when I was growing up.”
Billings also reads a lot of fiction – books he describes as “divorced from the hard, analytical side and more ‘What-if’ scenarios and fable-making.”
Jennifer L. Johnson: ‘A Unique Voice’
Jennifer Johnson brings a unique voice to her campaign for president-elect.
“I’d never really considered an executive role,” Johnson said. “But, when I got the call about the nomination, I decided that I have a unique voice and that I’m qualified to lead the bar.”
“We all experience the stresses of being an attorney, but I’m a woman of color, specifically a Black woman, and in a way I’m an out-of-state attorney, because I didn’t have a network here when I graduated law school.”
Johnson grew up in Milwaukee, where her family owns a trucking business.
She obtained her undergraduate degree from Marian University in Fond du Lac. She earned her law degree from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, after deciding to go back to school when she was in her late 20s.
“It was revisiting a childhood dream of mine that I’d kind of let go,” Johnson said.
Removing Barriers for Clients
After obtaining her law degree, Johnson took a staff attorney position in Milwaukee with Legal Action of Wisconsin.
She worked in the firm’s Road to Opportunity Project, appearing in various municipal courts to help clients regain their driver’s licenses and surmount other barriers to employment.
“A lot of the times, it was somebody whose driver’s license had been suspended because they’d failed to pay a ticket, and nine times out of ten the reason they’d failed to pay the ticket was poverty.”
She also helped clients obtain expungements and correct inaccurate information regarding clients’ criminal histories.
“One client I had, the paperwork said he had to be a registered sex offender for life and that was inaccurate,” Johnson said. “It took a lot of back-and-forth to get him taken off the sex offender registry.”
Mental Health, DEI
Johnson currently serves as director of diversity and inclusion for Legal Action of Wisconsin. She currently serves on the Board of Governors, as well as the Board’s Diversity and Inclusion Oversight Committee and the State Bar’s Communications Committee.
Johnson has also served on the board of the Wisconsin Association of African American Lawyers.
If elected, Johnson’s three priorities would be mental health, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and supporting all attorneys.
One issue that involves both those priorities is the shortage of attorneys in Greater Wisconsin.
“Clearly, that’s a diverse population,” Johnson said of rural attorneys. “We need to hear their voices.”
Johnson also said she would work to bring more attention to the issue of attorneys’ mental health.
“I think younger people are more willing and open to discussing mental health than some older attorneys,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that attorneys’ mental health issues are often caused by poor stress management, secondary trauma, and an inability to set boundaries.
“Mental health is an issue and we need to address it, especially for a profession that has so much stress and where drinking is such a big issue. We need better coping mechanisms. I think that’s important for all attorneys, no matter where they’re practicing.”
Regarding DEI, Johnson said, “We need to include the voices of people from all different racial backgrounds and genders, as well as intellectual diversity.”
“Providing support for mentors is also really valuable so that new attorneys don’t have to navigate everything on their own, which is what I felt I’ve had to do for a long time,” Johnson said. “I think when we can see more diversity and hear more diversity, it will make us a better profession overall.”
Family takes up much of Johnson’s free time.
“I have a toddler and he dictates a lot of my life,” Johnson said. “I enjoy spending time with him at the zoo and the museum.”
A self-described “gym rat,” Johnson said she likes to work out and do weight training.
She’s also getting back into reading after giving her eyes a long break after law school.
“I read a lot of memoirs and self-help books,” Johnson said.
“I also enjoy bingeing a good series on Netflix,” Johnson said. She cited “Brothers Sun” as a recent favorite.