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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    July 01, 2003

    President's Profile - George Burnett

    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.

    Dianne Molvig

    Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 76, No. 7, July 2003

    Stepping Up

    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

    R. George Burnett
    "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 error."

    "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, too.

    "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 public."

    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 implementation.

    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 profession.'"

    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.

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