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    Profile: Of Detours and Learning Curves

    Diane Diel knows that sometimes you need to change direction, whether in your career path or in your priorities as the new State Bar president.

    Dianne Molvig

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 81, No. 7, July 2008


    Of Detours and Learning Curves

    Diane Diel knows that sometimes you need to change direction, whether in your career path or in your priorities as the new State Bar president.
    Diane Diel

    by Dianne Molvig

    One bit of advice that bar association presidents often pass along to those who follow in their footsteps can be condensed to three words: Expect the unexpected.

    At national bar leadership events, "I've heard many speakers say that when you're a bar president, you may think you know what you want to do," says Diane Diel, "but you may not have the year you had thought you would have."

    Diel already is realizing the truth of that piece of conventional wisdom, she said in a conversation that took place in mid-May, about a week after the State Bar of Wisconsin's Annual Convention, where Diel was sworn in as the new Bar president. She officially assumed that post on July 1.

    In the months before becoming president, Diel had a list of priorities to focus on during her tenure. "But my list got a little changed," she says.

    She revealed as much during her speech at the swearing-in ceremony, in which she stated that among the concerns she would address in her year as president would be an old, recurring one: the question of whether Bar membership ought to be mandatory or voluntary.

    Reactions to her announcement about focusing on this issue have been "uniformly favorable," Diel says. "Regardless of their point of view about this topic, I think lawyers understand that the Bar needs to have the conversation, or else continuously have the conversation force itself on the Bar."

    Noting that there hasn't been an open, comprehensive dialogue on the mandatory versus voluntary membership question for many years, Diel feels it's time once again, she says, "to put it in the light of day."

    Setting Sights on the Law

    As a State Bar member for 32 years, Diel has been around long enough to witness and engage in previous debates on the mandatory/voluntary membership issue. A Wisconsin native, she spent her childhood in Nekoosa, Madison, and Wausau. Her father was an executive in a savings and loan institution, and her mother worked in financial institutions and later as a secretary to hospital administrators.

    By the end of her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Diel knew she wanted to become a lawyer. That was in 1970, and women were still a fairly small minority in the legal profession. "I was undaunted by the fact that there weren't many women in law school or many women lawyers," she says. "Once I decided I wanted to go to law school, I was completely on that path."

    Diel admits she had little to go on in deciding that law was the right career for her. Her only chance to see lawyers in action was at mortgage closings at her father's workplace, where she also worked during high school. "But I knew that lawyers were involved and influential at many levels in matters that affected me," she says. "The law seemed to offer so many varied opportunities. I thought I could be of help to people."

    She left U.W.-Eau Claire with a degree in English and Spanish, not the most common preparation for law school. Diel remembers in her senior year being one of the few undergraduates in a graduate-level course on Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. One day the professor asked to see her after class, creating the usual trepidation students have in such circumstances.

    It turned out that the professor had concerns about Diel's future. She noted that Diel would soon graduate, but without any education credits. What did she intend to do with an English degree? Would Diel consider being her teaching assistant the next year?

    Diel informed the professor that she'd already been accepted into law school. "She was ecstatic to hear I had a plan," Diel recalls, "even though it wasn't necessarily the typical plan of people in the English department."

    After graduating from the U.W. Law School in 1976, Diel's first job was with a commercial/corporate private practice firm in downtown Milwaukee, which eventually evolved into the firm known today as Meissner Tierney Fisher & Nichols S.C.

    Four years later, Diel decided to veer into a different professional direction, to practice family law, mixed with estate planning, probate, guardianship, and adoption cases. After working in a firm and then launching a couple of small firms with partners, all in Milwaukee, she set up a solo practice there in 1997.

    "Over the years I became more and more focused on family law," she says. "I don't want to use the word `specialization,' but I do virtually nothing else anymore."

    A Passion for Governance

    Eventually, Diel's professional interests took another turn, this time toward collaborative family law - an approach for settling divorces through dispute resolution strategies, rather than litigation. "The movement has spread like wildfire across the country and now around the world," she notes.

    Diel herself has been a leader in advancing this movement. She's active in the Wisconsin Collaborative Family Law Council, which she chaired in 2002, and the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACF), for which she helped write the code of ethical standards and on whose board she now serves.

    Indeed, Diel has found she derives a great deal of personal satisfaction from being involved in professional associations. "Other people have hobbies such as golf," she notes. "My hobby is association governance."

    She's exercised that avocation in the State Bar, as well, beginning in 1984, when she began a six-year stint on the Professional Ethics Committee. In 1988 she was elected as Bar secretary. "I remember to this day," Diel recalls, "that it was Margadette Demet who called me and asked if I would run for secretary of the State Bar."

    At the time, the Bar had few women serving as officers or on the Board of Governors. A move was afoot to get more women involved in Bar leadership, and Demet knew of Diel from her longtime active participation in the Milwaukee-based Association of Women Lawyers. "I had been involved practically from the day I got out of law school," Diel says.

    Her resumé of State Bar activities continued to expand over the years. She's served on several committees and two terms on the Board of Governors, from 1990 to 1992 and 2000 to 2004.

    "Service on the Board of Governors is one of the best educations in the world," Diel contends. "It gives you an opportunity to stay completely current on so many legal topics. And I've always felt drawn to the kind of energy and expertise that's there" on the board.

    Last year, she was contemplating initiating a petition to rejoin the Board of Governors when she was asked to run for president-elect of the State Bar. "I took my time to think about that," she says.

    A Shift in Priorities

    Part of her hesitation stemmed from the fact that she was just one year into a three-year term on the IACF board. Was she ready to take on an additional hefty commitment? Diel decided to grasp the chance while she had it.

    "When I was a younger lawyer," she says, "I'd thought that when my children were all grown [she has two sons, ages 24 and 26, and a daughter, 21] and if I had the opportunity, I'd like to be Bar president someday."

    That "someday" arrived when Diel won the election for Bar president-elect in April 2007. In her year leading up to taking over the top post, she focused on two key issues. The first was improving Wisconsin citizens' access to justice in civil legal matters. She chaired the committee that revised the petition that ultimately will go to the Wisconsin Supreme Court; the Board of Governors' unanimously approved it in June. Diel is pleased to see that progress seems to be under way on that issue.

    Another of her primary concerns is "the crisis - and I think that's the right word - around elections of judges," she says, "with the low-level advertising and the misrepresentations about what the justice system is and the role judges play in it. I think the state of the judiciary cries out for active engagement by members of the legal profession. It's our professional responsibility."

    Those two issues remain in the limelight, Diel notes. But when Portage attorney Douglas Kammer won election this spring as the Bar's new president-elect, she knew another topic also demanded immediate attention - the question of voluntary versus mandatory Bar membership, which Kammer raised in his campaign.

    "My job as president for one year is to do what the Bar needs done during that year," Diel says. "I think we will be less able to adequately address those other more public-minded issues if we don't close this book."

    Her objective in the coming year is to launch a full-scale discussion of the "benefits and the burdens," she says, "of voluntary or mandatory membership, so we can take an informed direction."

    Still, some skeptics may question whether this will be a mere exercise. They might doubt whether a full airing and evaluation of both sides of the question can occur under a president who's long been active in and passionate about the Bar - a "Bar insider," as some might label her.

    "It would be odd to be called a Bar insider," Diel says. "Even my law practice is not at all mainstream. Collaborative family law is cutting edge and flies in the face of some of the long-standing traditions about what legal advocacy is."

    Hard to Peg

    Diel has seen both sides of the voluntary/mandatory Bar issue, first hand. She was a Bar member when membership was voluntary from 1988 to 1992. She was on the Board of Governors when it voted to return to an integrated, or mandatory, Bar in 1992. "I suppose it's recorded somewhere that my vote was for a voluntary Bar," she notes.

    Yet, as her long-time activism attests, Diel is a strong Bar supporter. "I feel the Bar has so much of value to offer to members and the public," she says, "that I'd stay involved regardless" of what the membership policy might be.

    The upshot is that Diel doesn't have a predetermined position on the voluntary/mandatory question. "I'm not coming at this with any point of view," she says. "And I think a lot of lawyers will be hard to peg and categorize in this conversation."

    She notes, for instance, that the prospect of being able to take a stance on social issues may make voluntary membership appealing to some who long have favored a mandatory Bar. "And there are people who oppose the mandatory Bar," she suggests, "who may come to believe that the strength in numbers, economies of scale, and services the Bar renders for a fraction of the cost they'd get elsewhere convinces them that they should, in fact, be part of a mandatory Bar."

    The amount of Bar dues is another thorny issue that needs discussion, Diel says. "Lawyers are confused about what their Bar dues even are," she notes. "Their dues aren't $440, they're $224. The rest includes assessments" from the supreme court to support the Board of Bar Examiners, the Office of Lawyer Regulation, the Wisconsin Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection, and the Public Interest Legal Services Fund.

    All of these concerns, positions, confusions, and dilemmas are what Diel hopes to see discussed vigorously and openly in the coming year. "I think people will find this is a learning curve," she says.

    She plans to set up meetings with local bar associations in communities across the state. Eventually, she hopes the conversation will move to the floor of Board of Governors' meetings. She's also considering the creation of a study committee, comprised of lawyers with diverse viewpoints, and she would ask president-elect Kammer to cochair the committee.

    As president, Diel intends to facilitate the discourse. "I will do everything I can," she says, "to encourage this to be done professionally and appropriately, and to make it as comprehensive and inclusive as possible. I think, whatever direction this goes, maybe this is a conversation we have to have every 15 to 20 years on an organizational level. It's been a long while since we've had it."

    Dianne Molvig operates Access Information Service, a Madison writing and editing service.