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    Profile: A Friendly Ear

    State Bar President Michelle Behnke has plans to visit local bars statewide. She'll gladly speak about issues facing the Bar, but she'd rather use that time to hear what's on lawyers' minds.

    Dianne Molvig

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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 77, No. 7, July 2004

    A Friendly Ear

    State Bar President Michelle Behnke has plans to visit local bars statewide. She'll gladly speak about issues facing the Bar, but she'd rather use that time to hear what's on lawyers' minds.

    by Dianne Molvig

    Michelle BehnkeThe invitations to speaking engagements at local bar associations have been flowing into Michelle Behnke's Madison law office in recent months. As of late April - when she was still the State Bar's president-elect and only a couple of months away from beginning her term as the new president - she had plans to visit local bars in Barron County, Chippewa Falls, and Washington County, among other places.

    Her first impulse upon receiving such requests from local bars, however, is to reply with a request of her own. "I often say to them," Behnke notes, "'Do you really want me to come to speak to you, or could we do this so that you speak to me?'"

    That response surprises some of her fellow attorneys a bit at first, as an expectation exists that Behnke, as Bar president, will speak about the latest hot issues in the organization. She recognizes that's part of her role, but she also notes that the Bar has several print and electronic communication tools to convey that kind of information.

    She's much more interested in using her local bar visits to listen to what's on lawyers' minds. What's it like to practice law in their community? What do they need from their state association? Which State Bar services are helpful to them, and which are not? "I want them to believe me," she emphasizes, "when I tell them I'm interested in what they have to say."

    Bolstering her credibility in that regard, Behnke hopes, is the fact that she comes to the State Bar presidency with diverse professional and personal experiences. Her natural inclination is to look at issues from multiple perspectives, although she concedes that trait sometimes frustrates people at Bar headquarters.

    When discussing a problem or a pending decision, "I'll say, 'On the one hand ... but then on the other ...'" she reports. "They look at me [as if they're thinking], 'Do you have an opinion?' But to me, there often isn't one right way. I'm interested in looking at issues from lots of different ways. I think that's good, so we don't overlook or ignore how some decision could affect a particular segment of the Bar."

    Behnke herself can identify with various Bar segments. She has practiced in different settings - in a medium-sized firm for five years, as in-house counsel at CUNA Mutual Insurance Society, Madison, for five years, and as a solo practitioner since 1998. She also knows firsthand the challenges facing women attorneys and attorneys of color. "All those experiences," she says, "are part of who I am."

    Early Influences

    Behnke, 43, has lived in Madison since the age of three, when the U.S. Air Force transferred her father from California to Truax Field. Attending Madison's Edgewood High School, a private school, in the 1970s wasn't always easy for Behnke. "I didn't have the designer clothes," she notes. She also had a financial aid package that included an after-school job cleaning classrooms, which added to the social stigma.

    "But even though the social part was hard," she says, "the expectation from teachers was absolutely that I would do as well as anybody else. And that was consistent with what I heard at home."

    Her parents, both adolescents at the time Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954, were products of segregated schools in rural Mississippi. They instilled in their two daughters the belief that education was their key to whatever doors they'd choose to open. "I never had the experience of feeling there were things I couldn't do," Behnke says. That self-confidence, nurtured from early on, has served her well in the decades since.

    A guidance counselor at Edgewood High School was the first to plant the notion that Behnke consider a career as a lawyer. When Behnke conveyed that suggestion to her parents, "I distinctly remember the look on their faces," she recalls. "It was 'Oh wow! This is something!' It was such a positive reaction that even though I knew nothing about what it would take to become a lawyer or what lawyers did, it seemed like a good thing to do."

    True to her goal-oriented nature, she entered the University of Wisconsin-Madison with her sight firmly set on attending law school. But after finishing her economics degree - and reading and hearing horror stories about law school - she began to have doubts.

    "I found myself in a quandary because I'd told people for so long that I was going to go to law school," she says. "I didn't know how I'd go back and tell everyone I'd changed my mind."

    After her December 1983 graduation, she worked as a bookstore manager and took six months to sort out her motivations regarding law school. "That was probably one of the best things that happened to me," she says. "I had the opportunity to think about what I really wanted to do. I wasn't going to law school just to please other people."

    Once she got to law school, she faced a different dilemma. The prevalent assumption there, at least in the mid-1980s, was that if you were a minority law student, you'd pursue a career in civil rights law. But Behnke felt no calling in that direction. "Business was the thing that tripped my trigger," she says. She made up her mind to become a business lawyer.

    But her father pointed out she might be getting ahead of herself. How could she be so sure she wanted to pursue business law when she'd not explored anything else? Why not criminal prosecution, for instance, or criminal defense?

    At the time, such questions seemed an annoying distraction. Today, with hindsight, Behnke realizes her father (who died while she was in law school) was a critical thinker, as she describes him. He was willing to accept whatever career choice his daughter made, but he wanted to hear a solid rationale behind that choice. "And I couldn't give him any reasons why I'd ruled out [other types of law]," she notes.

    Thus, after her first year of law school, she clerked for the summer in the Dane County district attorney's office, where she worked on domestic violence cases, among other matters. Next, as a 2L, she got immersed in business law while clerking at a law firm. There, she clarified the reasons for her personal preferences.

    "I liked putting deals together," Behnke says. "I liked hearing what clients were interested in doing and helping them attain their dreams. I liked the problem solving [and that] people understood the value a lawyer could bring to assist them in what they wanted done. I felt I was a part of a team with the client, as opposed to putting out fires, or getting people at this horrible moment in their lives when the best you could do for them was to make it not so horrible."

    In short, Behnke had convinced herself - and her father - that business law was indeed the right choice for her. It's been her professional focus area ever since.

    Getting Involved, Setting a Precedent

    Behnke's Bar involvement dates back nearly to the beginning of her law career. In her first job, at the Madison firm of Stolper, Koritzinsky, Brewster & Neider (where she'd also done her 2L clerkship), someone suggested she attend a Young Lawyers Division meeting. Soon Behnke was hooked. She liked the group's work on concrete projects, such as producing consumer advocacy booklets or answering consumer questions on Law Day, and the mutual support it provided for young lawyers.

    "You get through law school," she says, "and it's 'Whew, I made it.' Then it's 'Yahoo, I got a job.' But on a daily basis, you sit there thinking, 'So this is what I'll do for the next 60 years?'"

    In the Young Lawyers Division, she found kindred souls having the same misgivings, as well as slightly older young lawyers who'd survived them. "You realized," Behnke says, "you weren't the only one who felt that way. You weren't weird or stupid."

    From her participation in the Young Lawyers Division, one thing led to another in her Bar activities. She ran for a Board of Governors' seat and won, served a term as chair of the Board of Governors, got elected Bar treasurer, served on various committees, and helped launch the Diversity Outreach Committee, which she chaired for several years.

    A few years ago, the Nominating Committee approached Behnke about running for Bar president. She turned down the offer, as she was in the early stages of building her solo practice. "And, quite honestly," she adds, "I'd been involved with the Bar, and I'd realized you could accomplish a lot without being president. I didn't feel any need to be president."

    A couple of years later, she again was asked to consider becoming a presidential candidate. And again her initial reaction was to pass up the offer. She broached the subject with her husband, attorney Darrell Behnke (the two met and married during law school), fully expecting he'd chime in with a litany of logical reasons for declining.

    Instead, he pointed out that she knew the Bar organization well and was interested in policy. Plus, someday years from now she'd probably kick herself, wondering whether she could have made a difference if she'd taken this opportunity.

    She rethought her decision, ran for president, and won - and made history in the process. She's the State Bar's first president of African-American descent, a fact that's won a fair amount of media attention. While her election does represent a milestone, Behnke acknowledges, she puts it in perspective.

    "I was speaking at a dinner the other night," she notes, "and I said that, as much hoopla as has been paid to my being the first person of color to be president, I hope that someday we're celebrating the fifth, the ninth, the 25th ... and/or that someday it's completely irrelevant" what the Bar president's racial or ethnic background may be.

    Involving Others

    Ranking at the top on Behnke's list of priorities as Bar president is to foster member involvement, or diversity. "Member involvement and diversity really are one and the same," she points out. She'd like all Bar members - whatever their gender, race, ethnic background, area of practice, geographic location, or practice setting - to feel a sense of ownership in the Bar. She also realizes that not everyone wishes to hold office or serve on a committee, and that the Bar can't be all things to everyone. Still, Behnke emphasizes that the Bar must strive to meet diverse member needs and to fill whatever service gaps may exist.

    "I don't have a quick fix," she admits, "but I honestly want to listen. I'm not coming in with a specific agenda, and I'm not here to impose Michelle Behnke's view of the world."

    As she sees it, however, if she's prepared to listen to members, then members must reciprocate with a willingness to voice their concerns, rather than griping behind the scenes.

    "What I'm saying to members," she notes, "is that I'm challenging you. If the Bar isn't meeting your needs, then I think you have an obligation to speak up. If you have solutions, I think you need to step up to the plate and at least share those, so that somebody can begin to work on those issues."

    She draws a parallel between her stance now and the one her father took many years ago, when he pushed her to explain why she'd made up her mind to become a business lawyer without considering other possibilities. "It ties back to that experience with my dad," she explains. "I mean, you can tell me you dislike what the Bar is doing, but you have to be able to articulate the why. Then I can respect your viewpoint, even if I disagree. And more importantly, you might have just the nugget of an idea we need to deal with some issue."

    Another of Behnke's objectives for the year ahead is to lend strong support to the Bar's pro bono initiative and its pilot projects now under way. She sees her role as that of "cheerleading and rolling up my sleeves," she says, to do whatever she can to help the pilot projects succeed and eventually expand into a statewide program. Behnke notes that the program aims to remove obstacles. She hears, for instance, of attorneys who sign up to do pro bono work in their communities, but then never get a call. The program will better link attorneys and the organizations needing their help.

    Over the years, Behnke's own pro bono efforts have taken the form of serving on the boards of numerous community organizations, such as Edgewood High School, St. Marys Hospital and Care Center Foundation, Catholic Charities, and Greater Madison Housing Foundation, among others. "I have a high tolerance for meetings," she notes.

    Apparently she also has a high tolerance for juggling a packed schedule. Besides her solo practice and pro bono work, she teaches at the U.W. Law School, mentors minority law students in the U.W. Law School's Legal Education Opportunities program, and mentors students who are serving summer clerkships in other law firms.

    Plus, there's her family life with Darrell and their two teenagers, Derek, 15, and Taylor, 13. When she gets time for herself, Behnke likes to read and do needlepoint. The latter, she notes, offers a much-needed sense of completion, often missing in most lawyers' typical workdays.

    "A successful day at my office is when there are more piles on my desk at the end of the day than at the beginning," she says, "because that means I've brought in new clients and new matters. But when I do counted cross-stitch, I can say, 'This is what I did. I started this, and I finished it.'"

    Diane Molvig operates Access Information Service, a Madison research, writing, and editing service. She is a frequent contributor to area publications.