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  • May 01, 2024

    Iris Christenson: This Diversity Champion Is Not Slowing Down

    Iris Christenson is the 2024 recipient of the Diversity & Inclusion Trailblazer Award from the State Bar of Wisconsin Diversity & Inclusion Oversight Committee. Find out why she feels this is not the time to slow down.

    Shannon Green

    Iris Christenson

    Iris Christenson is the 2024 recipient of the Diversity & Inclusion Trailblazer Award from the State Bar of Wisconsin's Diversity & Inclusion Oversight Committee. Find out why she feels this is not the time to slow down.

    May 1, 2024 – Retirement is no time to slow down, says Iris M. Christenson.

    Christenson is the 2024 recipient of the Diversity & Inclusion Trailblazer Award from the State Bar of Wisconsin's Diversity & Inclusion Oversight Committee. The award celebrates an individual who contributes to and enhances diversity and inclusion within the Wisconsin legal profession.

    The State Bar celebrates this award and others annually at the Member Recognition Celebration (MRC), part of the State Bar’s Annual Meeting & Conference (June 19-21 this year). The 2024 MRC event is June 20 at the KI Center in Green Bay. Find out more on

    An active emeritus member of the State Bar, Christenson’s 34-plus year legal career includes serving and representing hundreds of clients in her elder law and special needs practice, many of whom were from underrepresented populations, such as racial minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants, and individuals who are elderly or disabled.

    In numerous ways throughout her career, Christenson has modeled an inclusive practice and promoted diversity and inclusion among her peers and the State Bar of Wisconsin.

    “Iris champions clients who need a voice in a society that often marginalizes them,” says her nominator, Mark T. Johnson, Christenson’s former law partner, of Johnson Teigen LLC, Fitchburg.

    Christenson grew up in Madison and began her professional career as an occupational therapist (OT). It was her experience as an OT that drew her into law. Here’s more about her, in her own words.

    What was your family life growing up?

    I was one of six children in a low-income family. By “low-income” I mean that everything we owned had been used by someone else first. Our home, our furniture, my clothes, and every car our family owned were all second hand. Even though our big family sometimes struggled to get by on the paycheck of one wage earner, a factory worker, we learned to value education over material possessions.

    My siblings and I were all encouraged to take music lessons, join sports teams, join Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, attend church, and get good grades. As a result, all of us have advanced degrees. Some of us even have multiple advanced degrees.

    You graduated from U.W. Law School in 1990. What was your path to law?

    My first career out of college was as an occupational therapist. I worked for almost a decade in nursing homes. My work with people with disabilities was rewarding but frustrating. I was frustrated by the fact that the patients I was trying to help couldn’t afford the services they needed, and the Medicaid program didn’t cover equipment or services that would help them become as independent as possible. I decided that I needed to go back to school.

    I began by taking courses in public administration with the idea that I’d find a way to work on policy changes within the Medicaid system. After I had taken about half of the courses I needed to complete a master’s degree in public administration, I learned that I could obtain a law degree at the same time. So that’s what I did. I graduated from both programs in May 1990.

    Iris Christenson traveled to Guatemala with Outreach for World Hope

    In 2010 and again in 2020, Iris Christenson traveled to Guatemala with Outreach for World Hope, which helps children in Guatemala​. Pictured here in 2010, she participated in a clothing distribution program in a village near Jocotan, Guatemala. “Our mission trips involved traveling to remote villages to provide medicine, garden irrigation kits, water filter kits, and other items (clothing and blankets). Our teams also built latrines, installed stoves, and repaired leaking rooftops,” she said.

    Your passion for championing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) began by getting to know your patients as an occupational therapist, is that right?

    That’s what made me passionate about DEI – as soon as I met the person and read their file, issues of diversity shifted to the forefront of what I needed to know to provide services that met the person’s needs. It was true for the patients I served as a therapist and was just as true for the clients I represented as an attorney. I had to incorporate everything I knew about the person into the work I did. I can’t separate the two. I have to know how their race, ethnicity and gender identity affected their estate planning goals and their relationships to their family.

    As I became more experienced in the practice of elder law and estate planning, I found a way to help persons with disabilities by using my skills as an attorney to apply for Medicaid benefits and create trusts to fund the services that Medicaid did not cover. It was a work-around that accomplished the goal of making sure individuals with disabilities were empowered to become as independent as possible and their families were able to maintain financial stability. I found my niche in elder and special needs practice during the last 15 years of my law career.

    Tell us about your practice.

    I began my law career as a patient rights advocate in the Patient Rights Office in the Wisconsin Department of Care and Treatment Services (DCTS). At the same time, I opened a tiny office across from the jail and started a general practice. I took on any client who called me or walked into my office. I handled basic estate planning matters, divorces, restraining orders, guardianships, and public defender cases.

    Fortunately, I shared office space with a brilliant attorney, T. Christopher Kelly. I’ll never know why but he was willing to mentor me in all areas of law that involved any type of litigation or possible litigation. Although I was petrified to appear before a judge (I never got over that feeling), I learned from him how to file complex motions, select juries, and write appellate briefs.

    I could never repay him for his kindness and wise counsel, so I paid it forward by mentoring new estate planning attorneys when I became an experienced attorney. I’m excited about mentoring a Hmong attorney who hopes to provide estate planning advice to the Hmong community in the near future.

    During the first 15 years of my law career, I was a solo practitioner with the firm name Christenson Law Office. I entered into various office-​sharing arrangements in Dane County. Soon after moving to an office space in Fitchburg, I partnered with another ​attorney, Johanna Allex, who handled complex business transaction work and wanted to be part of a small firm (Christenson & Allex, LLC). In 2015, I formed a new partnership with Mark Johnson (the person who tricked me into writing my bio so he could nominate me for this award). Our firm, Christenson, Johnson, LLC, continued until 2019 when I retired, and is now Johnson Teigen, LLC.

    Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of?

    I am proud of the style of my lawyering. I made it an essential part of my practice to make my documents understandable to my clients. I changed how I wrote them and tried not to use too much legalese. I heard from my clients: “You’re not like other lawyers I've met – I can actually understand you. You listen to me.”

    What are you doing in retirement?

    I volunteer with the immigration law program. And I also volunteer at my grandson’s school and do substitute teaching. It doesn’t feel like retirement, like I’ve slowed down at all.

    What does this award mean to you?

    I am honored to receive this award, especially now. I don’t feel like I am a “trailblazer,” because much of what I’ve done was someone else’s idea, although I was the person who perhaps kept it going.

    This award has come at a time in my life when, by all accounts, my age (74) and the fact that I’m officially retired, I should be slowing down.

    It also comes at a time when there is a backlash happening across the country against DEI efforts. I know that some of the progress that has been made during my legal career is now being erased, so I can’t slow down or assume that someone else will carry on the DEI work. This award tells me that some of what I’ve done has been noticed and perhaps made a difference.

    The award also reminds me that making progress in achieving DEI goals is fragile. I plan to continue DEI work as long as I can speak up for underrepresented people.

    What do you hope for the future of DEI efforts?

    I hope every attorney strives to look through the DEI lens in every aspect of their work. I hope this outlook changes how lawyering is done.

    I don’t see how you can represent the whole person without understanding the DEI issues that affect the whole person. I wrote a blog article for the Elder Law and Special Needs Section on running a multicultural practice and why this DEI lens is important in terms of our duty to serve our clients.

    Also, because of the recent backlash, my favorite word in the English language right now is “diversity,” and I’m going to use it a lot. “Diversity” is being erased from things in a way that suppresses our efforts. For so long, we’ve worked to get words like “diversity” and “race” into our normal way of seeing and talking, and now it is being erased. As much as possible, people need to push back.

    Celebrate these 15 Leaders in the Law

    Member Recognition Celebration collage

    They are members of the legal community who make a difference – by living a lifetime of service, mentoring others, offering their pro bono services, and going the extra mile. Congratulations to these 15 award recipients, all leaders in the law.

    Join Us at the Annual Meeting & Conference in June in Milwaukee

    Want to celebrate a friend, family member, or colleague being honored at the Member Recognition Celebration? Join us for this free event 5:45 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 20, at the KI Center in Green Bay.

    The celebration takes place at the State Bar Annual Meeting & Conference, June 19-21. Register now to choose from more than 26 CLE sessions covering top trends, hot topics, and enduring advice for today’s lawyers.

    In addition, featured plenary speakers, the Legal Expo, networking luncheons, the Presidential Swearing-in Ceremony, and the Lawyers at Lambeau All-Conference Bash will help you connect, learn, and relax.

    Reserve your spot today!

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