Vol. 76, No. 7, July
George Burnett believes that lawyers should serve the legal
profession when given the opportunity to do so. When the Bar's
Nominating Committee called, he put that belief into action.
by Dianne Molvig
|"There's a whole culture that's involved in the practice of law -
the unwritten rules. From my memory of 20-plus years ago, those raise
the most anxiety. I can go look up in a book the correct answer to a
legal problem, but I can't look up what the traditions are. We need to
give new lawyers another way to learn about those besides trial and
"It was one of those opportunities that just appeared out of the
blue," says R. George Burnett, the State Bar of Wisconsin's newly
inducted president. He'd never thought about holding this or any other
Bar office. And, while active for years in the Litigation Section, he'd
never been involved in the Bar organization as a whole.
But when the Nominating Committee tapped him as a potential candidate
for president-elect a year and some months ago, "I thought about it and
decided to accept the opportunity to serve our profession," he says.
While president-elect, Burnett sat in on many Board of Governors'
meetings and attended national bar president conferences. He also spent
a lot of hours speaking with State Bar executive director George Brown,
whom Burnett credits for the "wise way he trains incoming leaders." Now
a few weeks into his term, Burnett has a list of 35 projects he hopes to
tackle in his presidential year. "I have them written down," he says.
"I've gone through some of them, and after we resuscitate George Brown,
we're going to get through the rest."
"But seriously," he's quick to add, "this coming year won't be a
frenetic, scattered effort to implement 35 new ideas in 52 weeks." Most
of the items on his list entail following up on projects already in
motion. And weaving through his entire list is a predominant thread: the
desire to foster continuity.
"What I hope to do," Burnett says, "is to make sure that some of the
projects started in the past get completed. And I also want to make sure
that some projects don't get jettisoned, after the Bar has spent time
and money implementing them, simply because I have something else on my
agenda. We have to operate much like a business, in that there has to be
some continuity from administration to administration."
The Mystery Unfolds
Coming into his administration, Burnett brings 22 years' experience
practicing law, the bulk of it as a civil litigator in Green Bay. A
native of Kenosha, the son of a doctor and a full-time homemaker who
managed a household of eight, Burnett earned an economics degree at
Marquette University. He'd not thought about pursuing a law career until
Lawrence, his younger brother by one year and now a Milwaukee attorney,
began talking about law school. The idea sparked George's interest,
"There wasn't a lot of thought that went into it," he says. "It just
seemed natural. And sometimes you go with your gut."
In the eight months between graduating from Marquette in December
1977 and beginning his studies at the University of Wisconsin Law School
the next fall, Burnett worked as a process server for a Milwaukee law
firm. "It was the first contact I'd ever had with the law or a law
firm," he recalls. "And it was fascinating."
Fascinating may seem an inflated adjective for a job that involved
serving subpoenas and summonses and complaints, as well as lugging a
portable photocopy machine from one medical office to another to copy
records related to cases. But, Burnett notes, "It showed me the human
side of the law. When people get served, they want to tell you their
side of the story."
He's since heard many more stories over the years while trying
personal injury, medical malpractice liability defense, worker's
compensation, and commercial litigation cases. His professional focus
eventually led him to become active in the Bar's Litigation Section, for
which he's served on the board and as board chair.
Still, that doesn't qualify him as a Bar "insider," which was one
reason he was surprised by the invitation to run for president. Why the
Nominating Committee came to him "is still a mystery," Burnett notes,
but he does acknowledge that one of his strengths is that "I have, or I
hope I have, a good feel for the pulse of the membership."
That will serve him well in staying attuned to members' needs while
president. At the same time, however, Burnett believes members could get
better acquainted with the Bar. Take the Bar's finances, for example. "I
bet few members know that the Bar spent about the same amount of money
last year as we did five years ago," he points out. "So the Bar's
expenses haven't increased in the last five years. How many businesses
can say that?"
"I also think there are a lot of people who don't understand - and I
was certainly one of them when I came into this job - how complex this
organization is. We have 103 different programs designed to tackle about
every problem facing the profession and many facing the general
Added to that, he says, is the reputation that the State Bar of
Wisconsin enjoys nationwide, a fact Burnett says he's become much more
aware of as he's attended national conferences and met other state bar
presidents. "We're routinely referred to as being among the top five bar
associations in the country," he says. "I don't think many of our
members know that."
Old and New Business
So what appears on Burnett's 35-item to-do list for the coming year?
As one example, he intends to follow through on the public trust and
confidence initiative, launched during Gerry Mowris's term. He'll also
look at the branding effort, implemented under Pat Ballman. "I want to
make sure the effort is evaluated," he says, "and, if it's successful
and well-received by the membership, that it continues."
The multijurisdictional practice (MJP) working group soon will report
its findings. This issue stirs diverse reactions among Bar members, and
Burnett advises moving slowly and deliberately. The working group's
report should land in the hands of all local bars across the state, he
suggests. "I think our governors need to talk to their constituents. We
need to get a read from the members."
"One of the things we should remember is that the Bar is an open
democracy," Burnett emphasizes. "Policy decisions are to be made by the
Board of Governors." Leadership's role, he adds, is to make sure the
Board has what it needs to make informed decisions on proposals and
issues coming before it, and then to usher the Board's decisions into
In addition to keeping existing projects on track, Burnett also hopes
to develop new efforts. One of these is a project, tentatively called
"Bridging the Gap to Practice - What I Wish I Had Known," designed to
focus on the needs of new lawyers. "I think it's a real tragedy," he
says, "when a lawyer three or four or five years out [of law school]
says, 'I made the wrong career choice. I want to leave the
One possible remedy is a program geared to the "nuts and bolts" of
the legal profession, covering such subjects as civility,
professionalism, and the business side of law practice. He's naming this
project in honor of the late Leonard Loeb, a past president who
brainstormed with Burnett to develop it. The two men hadn't met before
then, although Burnett had heard of Loeb's skills as a negotiator.
"Shortly after my election, the word got out that I was interested in
this idea," Burnett says, "and Leonard was interested in the same thing.
So he sought me out, and after a 45-minute meeting, we had this whole
project in mind. Then I understood why Leonard had a reputation for
being a masterful negotiator."
The project will present a one-day seminar, aimed at lawyers in their
first one to five years in practice, as well as interested law students.
To encourage attendance, the seminar would occur in January, several
months after the newest of the new lawyers have exited law school. "By
January, they know what they don't know," Burnett says.
He emphasizes that this project in no way reflects negatively on what
law schools are doing to prepare new lawyers. "The most valuable talent
one acquires in law school is how to think critically," he notes. "It
takes three years to teach that, and the law schools do a great job. I
don't think they want to turn themselves into trade schools."
But this project can fill a gap, he says. "There's a whole culture
that's involved in the practice of law - the unwritten rules," he notes.
"From my memory of 20-plus years ago, those raise the most anxiety. I
can go look up in a book the correct answer to a legal problem, but I
can't look up what the traditions are. We need to give new lawyers
another way to learn about those besides trial and error."
Older lawyers, too, need to maintain a perspective, he adds. "One of
the most important things for young lawyers is to maintain their
dignity," he notes. "As older lawyers, we tend to forget that and how
deeply young lawyers can perceive slights."
Democracy in Action
Not all of this year's new project ideas, however, will come from
him, Burnett says, as is appropriate in a democratic organization. For
instance, the Senior Lawyers Division has proposed an arbitration and
mediation service within the Bar. Another proposal calls for creation of
a helpline on law office management. Lawyers could call for advice
related to office management dilemmas, much as they call the ethics
hotline when they have questions in that area. The helpline could be
part of a larger program to provide lawyers with business operations and
management tools. And another Bar committee is working on a pro bono
project proposal, modeled after a program in Indiana. "It's a good
example of the State Bar addressing a pressing need in the community at
large," Burnett observes. "And it's a good example of an idea not coming
from leadership" but from others in the Bar.
Finally, Burnett expects the year ahead to "throw a few curve balls,"
he says. Inevitably, other matters will emerge that he hasn't foreseen.
But he says one other item on his list is vital: smoothing the
transition to the administration following his. "The final thing
important to me," Burnett says, "is that president-elect Michelle Behnke
is involved as much as she wants to be" during his term.
As for the law practice side of his life, Burnett has a full schedule
of trials in upcoming months. "I scheduled this year without regard to
winning or losing the election," he says. What spare time he may have
he'll spend with his wife, Eileen, and their five children aged eight to
21, two of whom still live at home. "I'll throw a football around a
little with the kids," he says. "And I have a garage full of woodworking
tools I don't get to use much."
Those tools aren't likely to see any use in the year ahead, either,
with the added demands of the Bar presidency on his plate. Still,
Burnett knows he made the right choice when he said yes to the
Nominating Committee. "It is a sacrifice, no doubt about it," he says.
"But when you get that call, it brings back all those times - at least
it did for me - when we talk about what a great profession this is and
how it's important that we maintain it. Well, I thought, here's your
chance. It's a question of whether you meant what you said."
Dianne Molvig operates Access Information
Service, a Madison research, writing, and editing service. She is a
frequent contributor to area publications.