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  • WisBar News
    June 20, 2024

    Into the Breach: Ryan Billings Sworn in as 69th State Bar President

    Taking the gavel one year sooner than expected, incoming State Bar President Ryan Billings plans to emphasize attorney well-being and the shortage of attorneys in parts of Wisconsin.
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    Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Annette Ziegler administers the oath of office to Ryan Billings, who becomes the 69th president of the State Bar of Wisconsin on July 1.

    June 20, 2024 – Ryan Billings set his sights on a legal career after excelling in mock trial competition as a Sheboygan South High School student.

    Along the way, Billings obtained a law degree from Harvard Law School and learned the ropes of business litigation at the white-shoe law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York City before coming home to work as a partner at Kohner, Mann & Kailas, S.C.

    Billings will face another challenge when he becomes State Bar president for FY 2025 (July 1, 2024 to June 30, 2025). He was sworn in last night as the State Bar’s 69th president.

    Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Anette Ziegler gave remarks before administering the oath o​f office. Chris Shattuck, director of the paralegal program at Madison College, emceed the event.

    Erin Block, an intellectual property attorney at DeWitt and a friend and colleague, introduced Billings. Block and her husband, who is Billings’ best friend, asked Billings to officiate at their wedding.

    “We were truly honored,” Block said. “The qualities that make Ryan such a good friend are also the qualities that make him a committed attorney and State Bar member.”

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    Attorney Erin Block, a longtime friend and colleague, spoke about Ryan Billings' younger days, his exteme committment to academics and work, and his readiness to lead the State Bar of Wisconsin.

    ‘The Wheel Turned’

    After accepting the gavel from outgoing State Bar President Dean Dietrich, Billings thanked Dietrich for his service over the past year.

    “His commitment has been unwavering,” Billings said. “He has volunteered for everything. He has helped members in ways they may never even know.”

    Billings began his brief remarks thanking his wife Megan, family and friends, and his law firm. Billings said he got involved in State Bar leadership because he’s always been interested in how the legal system functions.

    “I’m always thinking about the system and how we can continue to work to make it better,” Billings said.

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    Incoming State Bar President Ryan Billings with his wife, Megan.

    As an example, he cited the State Bar Board of Governors’ approval, several years ago, of a petition to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to end the practice of juvenile shackling in court proceedings. The board’s approval of the petition occurred during his first meeting as a member of the Board of Governors in 2019.

    “We all pushed together on the wheel of change and the wheel turned,” Billings said.

    One lawyer filing a petition to have his or her client unshackled during court appearances would have been important, Billings said. But it would have affected only that one client.

    “But by changing the rule, we made things better for all children who appear in Wisconsin courts – forever,” Billings said. “That’s the kind of change that can only happen at the level of procedure for the entire system.”

    After that first board meeting, Billings said, “I was hooked.”

    Billings is serving his second full term on the Board of Governors. He also serves as the State Bar’s representative to the Judicial Council.

    Billings has served on the board’s Executive committee and as the vice-chair and chair of the board’s Policy Committee. ​

    ‘Roll With the Punches’

    Later in his remarks, Billings addressed the truncated path that brought him to the presidency.

    Billings was elected president-elect in April and, under the State Bar’s bylaws, was to take office in that position on July 1 and serve one year, becoming president on July 1, 2025.

    But President-elect Jane Bucher was appointed to the Green County Circuit Court in March, which left no one to ascend to the presidency on July 1 unless the board appointed a replacement.

    The board appointed Billings, which means his presidency will begin a year earlier than he planned.

    “It’s the nature of the practice of law that you have to roll with the punches,” Billings said.

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    Atty. Christopher Shattuck, a former law firm colleague and friend, emceed the swearing-in ceremony.

    Points of Emphasis

    Billing said his first point of emphasis during his term would be attorney well-being.

    “When I first started my practice, nobody talked about this stuff,” Billings said. “Even raising the issue of mental health was seen as a sign of weakness.

    “The fact that this is no longer a universal rule owes a lot to the tremendous efforts of many people, including the State Bar and its leaders over many years. But we need to continue these efforts.”

    Another point of emphasis will be the persistent, severe shortage of attorneys in rural Wisconsin and a continued lack of criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors.

    Billing mentioned the Attorney Retention and Recruitment Committee announced by Chief Justice Ziegler earlier this month. He also mentioned a State Bar task force, announced by President Dean Dietrich earlier in the day, that will address the special needs of criminal justice lawyers.

    “The work will be long and hard, but we’re working together to try to make things better,” Billings said.

    Billings said his third point of emphasis will be ensuring the State Bar represents all its 25,000 members.

    “I believe the State Bar has an obligation to provide meaningful value to every member,” Billings said. “If we’re not living up to that obligation in any way, I want to hear about it.”

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    Incoming State Bar president Ryan Billings with his law firm colleagues. 

    Ongoing Obligation

    Billings closed his remarks by noting that June is National Pride Month and June 17 was Wisconsin Women’s Lawyers Day, and by pointing out that he was accepting the gavel on Juneteenth Day.

    “Lawyers have always been at the forefront of civil rights,” Billings said. “It’s a long and difficult struggle. But as officers of the court, who are sworn to uphold the fundamental principles of our legal system, it’s our obligation to ensure that words like freedom, justice, and equality have meaning not just on paper, but in practice.”

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