D. Michael Guerin, former president of the State Bar of Wisconsin and a partner at Gimbel Reilly Guerin & Brown LLP, Milwaukee, passed away May 31, 2022, at the age of 82.
June 2, 2022 – According to his colleagues, Mike Guerin’s ability to relate to regular people and his enthusiasm for the law set him apart from other lawyers.
Outside the courtroom, Guerin’s warm heart and caring nature made him lifelong friends in the profession.
Guerin, 81, a former president of the State Bar of Wisconsin and a Milwaukee lawyer, died on June 1, 2022 after a long illness.
“For those of us who knew Mike, he was a great leader, lawyer, and most importantly friend,” said State Bar Executive Director Larry Martin. “He had a wonderful heart and will be dearly missed.”
Guerin served as State Bar president in 2005-06. His dedication to the legal profession was evident in his first president’s column for
“We are all members of the same great profession. I am confident we can find and promote issues of common interest,” wrote Guerin in the September 2005 issue of the magazine.
“I really do not think there is any issue more important to all of us than ensuring that all Wisconsin lawyers realize that they have the support of their fellow lawyers, the State Bar, and the community.”
From Truck Driver to Trial Lawyer
Guerin grew up one of seven children on Milwaukee’s South Side.
According to a profile published in the July 2005 issue of
Wisconsin Lawyer, Guerin enrolled at U.W.-Milwaukee after high school, but dropped out after only two months.
Mike Guerin is sworn in as State Bar president in 2005, then-Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson administering the oath of office.
He took a job driving a Pepsi truck. A co-worker who was keen to join the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) talked Guerin into applying to the force with him. Guerin was accepted but his co-worker wasn’t.
When he wasn’t walking the beat, Guerin took classes at Marquette University. After obtaining his degree from Marquette, Guerin worked as a special agent investigator with the Wisconsin Department of Justice. He quit his investigator job to attend Marquette University Law School.
While working as a law clerk for trial lawyer Gerry Boyle, Guerin met Frank Gimbel and his brother, who were sharing office space with Boyle. The Gimbels took a shine to Guerin and hired him at their Milwaukee firm upon his admission to the State Bar in 1974.
In the mid-1980s Guerin, whose practice focused on criminal defense, civil litigation, and personal injury, became a partner in the firm, which today is named Gimbel Reilly Guerin & Brown LLP.
Not a TV Lawyer
Frank Gimbel, himself a Past President (1986-87), said Guerin had a special way with clients.
“He was the kind of guy who – without bravado, without ego – would make you feel like your problems were the only ones that existed in the world, and that he was going to invest all his clout and talent to help you out.”
What set Guerin apart as a lawyer, Gimbel said, was his rapport with average people, the residue of his upbringing and his experience as a cop.
“He had an ability to talk to people on the street with a kind of vocabulary and behavior that made him trustworthy,” Gimbel said.
“He tried and won cases that Tom Brown and Richard Reilly and I couldn’t win, because we looked like lawyers, we behaved like lawyers. Our job was to carve up the other side. And Mike’s approach was to be indifferent to the other side, and say ‘Look at my side – look at what a terrible situation my client is in.’
Mike and his wife, Carol, at his swearing-in ceremony in 2005.
“They didn’t look at him like a TV lawyer,” Gimbel said. “They looked at him like the guy who happens to be a lawyer and lives down the street from you and stops and helps you cut the lawn or shovel your snow.”
‘He Behaved Like a Regular Guy’
Guerin served on the MPD’s original tactical enforcement unit, a heavily armed 50-man squad that patrolled the city in unmarked vehicles and was formed to respond to the civil unrest that erupted in the 1960s.
“He had some pretty good action on the street and got pounded up pretty good,” Gimbel said. “But he didn’t show that in his dealings with human beings.”
Gimbel said Guerin’s courtroom style – one marked by empathy, a lack of affectation, and plain speech – made him an effective litigator.
“He believed in his client … his style and personality were like the guy next door. Some of us perform in the courtroom. He didn’t perform. He behaved – he behaved like a regular guy.
Gimbel said that Guerin’s rapport reached beyond his clients to members of the bench.
“The judges loved him because he was sincere – he wasn’t putting on a game.”
State Bar Presidency: Trust Fund Surcharge, Strategic Plan
Guerin became State Bar president on the heels of a decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court to approve a rules petition imposing a $50 trust fund surcharge on State Bar members to fund civil legal services for the poor.
The State Bar’s Board of Governors opposed the petition, but under Guerin’s leadership, voted against suing the supreme court over the approval of the petition.
In his column in the April 2006 issue of
Wisconsin Lawyer, Guerin said he thought it was more appropriate to bring concerns about the petition to the chief justice than to file a lawsuit.
He also cited lawyers “traditional willingness to participate in solutions rather than creating additional problems” in pointing out that the lawyers he’d talked to in his travels around the state had accepted the imposition of the surcharge.
During his term, Guerin also helped shepherd State Bar committees, sections, and divisions through strategic planning in the wake of the board’s approval of an updated version of the State Bar’s 2003 strategic plan.
“In an organization as large and diverse as the State Bar, it is easy to lose our way on the road to success by getting bogged down in parochial matters,” Guerin wrote in his December 2005 president’s column. “We must take a step back and look at what is truly important to the State Bar as an organization.”
Mike Guerin (right) with former State Bar presidents Frank Gimbel (left) and Gerald O'Brien at the State Bar's 2007 Convention in Milwaukee. Frank Gimbel was one of Guerin's longtime law partners.
A Man Who Wouldn’t Take ‘No’ For an Answer
Past State Bar President Tom Basting (2007-08) said his long friendship with Guerin began when Guerin persuaded him to run for State Bar president.
“It was Mike who called and asked me to consider running for State Bar president. It was impossible to say no to Mike, and when I said I would think about it, he said ‘Sure, take a minute before you say 'Yes.'”
In addition to serving as State Bar president 2005-06, Guerin served on the Finance, Strategic Planning, and Executive committees. He was a member of the Criminal Law Section Board and became a Wisconsin Law Foundation Fellow in 2009.
Guerin also served as the Milwaukee Bar Association President from 2000-01.
Myron LaRowe, who served on the State Bar Board of Governors and the Executive Committee during Guerin’s presidency, described Guerin as “a good friend and a great lawyer.”
“Mike was a wonderful person as well as an excellent leader. We will all miss his presence at bar functions and in our personal relationships. While this is a sad day for the bar, we celebrate the times we had with Mike when he was with us.”
“Mike was the real deal as a lawyer and a bar leader, and as a genuine human being,” said Tom Sleik, who served as State Bar president in 1992-93.
‘One of the Naturals’
Gimbel said Guerin’s humanity made him memorable to his clients.
“I don’t think there’s a former client in his almost fifty years of practice who wouldn’t say that Mike Guerin is a caring human being, because he was,” Gimbel said.
Basting seconded that sentiment.
“As soon as Mike discovered that Sally and I had moved to a senior community in Milwaukee, he called and invited me to join his monthly lunches at the Wisconsin Club with, as he put it, ‘a bunch of old guys.’ He will be dearly missed.”
Past State Bar President Diane Diel (2008-09) called Guerin “one of the naturals – a lawyer’s lawyer and an amazing connector of people.”
“Mike was someone who loved being a lawyer and appreciated the positive good he could do as a lawyer,” Diel said. “He had a joy of life that is rare. We are poorer without him.”