Feb. 15, 2017 – The time has come: the State Bar of Wisconsin’s election season. In addition to other leadership seats, the membership will choose the next president-elect, who serves a one-year term before a one-year term as the organization’s president.
This year, two Madison litigators are vying for the top spot: Jon Axelrod of Dewitt Ross & Stevens S.C., and Christopher Rogers of Habush Habush & Rottier S.C.
This article provides a background on the candidates and gives readers an idea of where they may focus their energy if elected to the State Bar’s top leadership role in April.
Click on their picture to jump to see their statements.
Axelrod Has Ideas
Jon Axelrod knows Wisconsin’s legal community and he has some ideas on how to make it better. The longtime litigator, with about 43 years of practice in Wisconsin, recognizes the challenges facing judges and lawyers and wants to be a problem-solver.
“I want to give back because of the many opportunities that the profession has given to me,” Axelrod said. “I really think the State Bar has two roles. The first is to serve our members. But the second is to improve the profession’s service to the public.”
Axelrod says he’s qualified for this State Bar leadership role because of the many leadership and volunteer positions he has held over the years. Now at the height of his legal career, Axelrod says he’s in a good position to dedicate the necessary time.
“One of the first things that I would do is commission a survey to ask what the State Bar can do to better serve the members,” Axelrod said. “I know what it’s like to be a litigator at a private firm in Madison. But I want to know how the bar can better serve other members: government lawyers, in-house counsel, or the solo lawyer in Hayward.”
“In addition, declining law school enrollment is a crisis in the form of declining membership,” he said. “This should give us the impetus to ensure that we better serve our existing members and show them the dues they pay are a worthwhile investment.”
Axelrod served on the State Bar’s Bench-Bar Committee in the 1990s. He also served on what is now the Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR)’s board from 1995 to 2000. For the last 12 years, he has served on the Friends of the Remington Center Endowment board, which helps fund criminal justice programs through U.W. Law School.
More recently, Axelrod served a three-year term as president of the Wisconsin Law Foundation Fellows, a fundraising group that recognizes high achievement and outstanding contributions to the administration of justice in Wisconsin.
Among Axelrod’s many contributions include a commitment to pro bono service. “Doing pro bono cases has given me great pleasure,” he said. “I feel strongly that every lawyer has an obligation to take pro bono cases, and I’ve tried to do that in my career.”
The Capital City
For Axelrod, it all started in a capital city. But not Madison. He grew up in Albany, New York. His father was a college professor who taught government-related topics. Axelrod said he wanted to commit himself to a profession that would allow him to make a real difference.
He attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. And during spring break one year, he traveled to visit his sister, who was attending U.W.-Madison. He fell in love with Wisconsin and applied to attend U.W. Law School upon graduation from Cornell.
Axelrod graduated from U.W. Law School with honors in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War. “During that time, there were some good things that were happening in Madison and some very bad things. There was high intellectual discourse, but we also had demonstrators who crossed the line from free expression into violence.”
He obtained a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he taught and helped run a clinical program for third-year law students assisting Philadelphia’s public defender’s office. Then he worked as a public defender in Washington, D.C.
“That gave me my early experience with trials,” Axelrod said. “But as fate would have it, I ran into a colleague who was joining the Dewitt firm. He said they needed a trial lawyer in Madison and asked if I’d consider it. Next thing I knew, we were on a plane to Madison.”
In 1974, Axelrod started at what is now Dewitt Ross & Stevens S.C. And he received early guidance from one of the firm’s founding partners: Jack Dewitt, a distinguished war veteran who served as the State Bar of Wisconsin’s president the next year.
“Jack Dewitt almost immediately took me under his wing,” Axelrod said. “So many of the skills that I acquired were the result of Jack’s willingness to give of his time.”
Axelrod’s litigation skills matured quickly, and within four years of starting at his new firm in Madison, he first-chaired a trial involving the Commerce Clause and Wisconsin’s ban on double-bottom semi-trailers. That case eventually landed at the U.S. Supreme Court.
And Axelrod was on the winning side. Since then, he has continued as a civil litigator, leading trials in state and federal court as well as federal and state appeals.
A Vision for Changes
Axelrod remembers the mentorship he received as a young lawyer. But he recognizes that today’s new lawyers may not receive that same level of training. Thus, Axelrod would like to find ways to encourage mentorship by experienced attorneys.
“We learn a lot in law school, but the one thing that we don’t learn is the nuts and bolts of practicing law,” Axelrod said. “One idea that struck me is to award CLE credit for mentorship programs. We award CLE credit for teaching seminars. There’s nothing more important than the one-on-one teaching that a mentor does for a young attorney.”
He would also like to explore ways to give circuit court judges more resources. Circuit court judges in Milwaukee and Dane counties have access to law clerks. Others don’t.
“Because circuit court judges perform such an important role, we should give them every resource that’s available so that their decisions are correct,” said Axelrod, noting that around 90 percent of circuit court decisions are never appealed. “Most judges, in addition to carrying a huge caseload, have to do their own research on their own time.”
Axelrod says he’d also like to explore a way to motivate experienced lawyers, with 25 years or more in practice, to become appointed judges. The election process may deter some qualified candidates from running, he said, and others may view it as a demotion.
“They have to start at the beginning with little seniority which means that some of our most experienced lawyers who become judges have ended up hearing parking tickets and barking dog cases,” he said. “That’s not the best use of that legal experience.”
Axelrod noted that a constitutional amendment could allow distinguished lawyers with 25 or more years of experience to be elevated to the bench by appointment.
The veteran litigator has other ideas, outlined in his platform statement, to help different constituencies of the State Bar. For instance, allowing loan forgiveness for lawyers who practice in rural areas could encourage them to serve underserved areas.
“I have ideas,” Axelrod said. “And I’m in a position where I can afford the financial sacrifice that State Bar presidents make to serve the members. It’s really important to me to try and do for members what I’ve attempted to do for my clients over the years.”
Rogers Eager to Help Fellow Lawyers
As a trial attorney, Christopher Rogers helps people through turbulent times. Now he wants to help fellow lawyers navigate the rapidly changing legal landscape and ensure that State Bar of Wisconsin membership is a value-added association.
“Across the country, the State Bar of Wisconsin is highly respected,” Rogers said. “But that doesn’t matter at all if our members don’t believe the State Bar adds any value for them. What matters is that members see the State Bar as a partner that understands their needs and supports them while being fiscally responsible with their member dues.”
“The State Bar must do a better job of communicating with members and showing them, through programs and services, that the organization is there to support them, advocate for them, and help create a competitive advantage for them when possible,” he said.
Rogers says he’s uniquely situated to lead the State Bar as president-elect, and eventual president. Recent leadership roles have given him exposure to issues and priorities facing lawyers in Wisconsin, as well as lawyers across the country.
A member of the State Bar’s Board of Governors since 2012, Rogers has served on numerous committees, including the board’s Executive Committee. He also chaired the committee that led recent efforts to find the organization’s next executive director. Through these roles, Rogers has spoken to lawyers across the state and the country.
“Since getting involved in the State Bar, I now have a better understanding of what the the bar can do and have decided this would be an opportunity for me to advocate for fellow lawyers, including those who may feel disconnected from the organization," Rogers said.
Rogers grew up in both the northwestern and southern parts of Wisconsin, including Whitewater, where his father and grandfather ran a two-person law practice together. Rogers went on to attend U.W.-Madison, majoring in political science.
But he didn’t intend to carry on the family profession. After graduating in 1988, Rogers moved to Boulder, Colorado, and did advocacy work for people with disabilities. He helped clients find employment, get job training, and worked on community integration.
“In a family of lawyers, I was looking to do other things,” Rogers said. “But I could only do so much as an advocate without a law degree. I needed the degree to do more. I went to law school with an open mind but knew I wanted to be an advocate for people.”
After graduating in 1995, Rogers did defense litigation work in Milwaukee. In 1999, he joined Habush Habush & Rottier S.C.’s Lake Geneva office. Back in Walworth County, where he lived as a child, Rogers came full circle. And he joined the local bar.
In 2004, he moved to the firm’s Madison office to work on complex product liability and other cases. Now he’s a shareholder working mainly on product defect, automobile accident, and general negligence cases. And his advocacy work continues.
“I help people whose lives have been turned upside down, often through a traumatic experience. That’s difficult and demanding, but it’s awfully rewarding,” Rogers said.
“To be successful, you have to be able to connect with people and understand them, appreciate what they’ve been through and who they are,” he said. “And you need the courage to take it head on. Those are skills I can bring to this State Bar leadership role.”
Rogers says communication and advocacy will drive efforts to connect the membership to the programs and services that can help them add value to their practices. And he intends to explore the changes that need to take place to move the bar forward.
“The landscape is changing so quickly,” Rogers said. “We need to have boots on the ground going to our members and meeting with the firms, government agencies, and other constituencies. We need to understand what they are facing, communicate the programs and services to help them, and figure out what changes are needed.”
Rogers also says the State Bar must take advantage of advancing technology. “The State Bar should be accessible with the click of your smartphone. If somebody wants to access a State Bar program or CLE, you name it, it should be simple for them to do it.
“The bar must be a value-added service to our members. If they are disenfranchised or certain sections don’t feel that the bar supports them, that’s a problem. The legal profession is crucial to society, so it’s crucial that lawyers have the support they need.”
Rogers said the State Bar must also address the changing demographics of the membership – as more baby boomer-generation lawyers retire, fewer new lawyers are coming into practice and those that do face significant challenges, such as large student loan debt.
“The bar must be a voice for those groups, and there are so many examples like that,” Rogers said. “The legal landscape is changing fast whether we like it or not. The bar has to be agile enough to handle it, and it has to be fiscally responsible when it does.”
Rogers also wants to make it easier for lawyers to get involved in State Bar activities. “With the demands of practice, where can they fit in volunteerism at the bar? We have to make it easier. Because the more members understand the bar and what it has to offer, the easier it is to see the value and the opportunities that the bar can create.”
The Time is Now
Rogers says he’s ready for the role despite juggling law practice with family, a wife and three teenage children. But he wants to be a top leader and advocate for other lawyers. And he says now is the time to leverage his recent leadership roles at the State Bar.
“I understand the different aspects of the State Bar and the current pressures on our diverse membership,” he said. “I know how the bar operates and I understand the fiscal management, including the importance of fiscal responsibility. I have worked in that system. I know the programs. I feel I’m uniquely situated for this next step.”
In addition to his bar leadership experience, Rogers says he’s a high-energy person who will exercise the dedication and commitment necessary for the job.
“I’m passionate about this and I’m up for the challenge,” Rogers said. “I think anybody who knows me would tell you the same thing. I’m also in the trenches of law practice and I understand the pressures. I want to help our members as we navigate the future.”