Q: You are known for funny anecdotes in your legal writing and CLE presentations, and for other humor writing that is unrelated to your practice. What is the biggest challenge to writing on a serious topic and finding a way to make it entertaining?
The hardest part about humor in legal writing is that the entertaining lines have to complement the theme. I can’t focus the article on my crazy family stories, for instance, but have to find a way to work them in. It helps having a family that at times seems absolutely wacky, yet has found a way to get through life relatively unmedicated so there is enough outrageous conduct to fit most topics. Unfortunately, the best anecdotes are largely unmentionable in any formal forum.
I tailor those ideas for pure humor articles where I can explain, for example, why my father sat in the backseat in the garage for 20 minutes because he assumed the rest of us would know he wanted to go to the bowling alley; or how my mother shocked me speechless for 10 minutes when telling how she gave an elderly gentlemen the crabs before I was able to cross examine her and realize she was talking about giving away her grandson’s hermit crabs and was merely omitting some key words from her explanation. There is great comfort in the casualness of humor writing, unlike legal writing, because I can be far less reserved.
Still, it would be satisfying to start a brief with a sentence that says, “Let me tell you how wacky the attorneys/parties are in this case.” I have spoken to several judges who I know would like to write their legal opinions the same way.
Q: How did earning your undergraduate degree in Wyoming affect your life as a lawyer? Does that tie to the best career advice you ever received?
I went to Laramie, Wyo., just barely 18, without knowing anyone there and never having set foot in the state. Looking back, that dogged determination to go someplace on my own and make my own path has persisted and served me well, even though to the outside world I look quite conventional.
Later, as a 1L at U.W. Law School, Professor Stuart Gullickson took me aside in his Civil Procedure 1 class and suggested that I might consider changing my career focus from “constitutional law scholar” to “practicing lawyer.” He was so right! I have loved practicing law. That’s the advice that started me on this wonderful trajectory.
Tied for best career advice was what I gleaned from various sources but is most eloquently summed up in a quotation from Fred Craddock: “Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with the queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat.”
Or, in the case of a lawyer and teacher, do good work with the tools we have and the care we can muster. When law practice becomes nothing more than a business designed to earn money, we have lost sight of what sustains us.
Q: Your practice focuses on environmental law. What drew you to that practice area?
Growing up, I was always interested in science. My telescope, microscope, and rock collection were among my most prized possessions, and I enjoyed time exploring outdoors. When my family traveled on vacations, I especially liked the national parks and the ranger programs.
When I came to U.W.-Madison in the early 1970s, I initially thought about a career in microbiology. Times being what they were, however, I was soon drawn toward the emerging environmental issues and ended up with undergraduate and graduate degrees in environmental policy. Interdisciplinary study in environmental policy was interesting, but it did not quite add up to a skill set.
As a graduate student, I took water law from Professor MacDonald, and thought that law might provide me with the tools that could help address environmental policy issues. With that in mind, I entered law school in 1978 and looked for environmental law positions upon graduation. I still think of the law as a means to solve environmental problems. Especially today, when environmental problems do not lend themselves to quick and easy solutions, the law can provide balanced and creative options for problem solving. It’s what makes this practice interesting and exciting even after all these years.
Q: Who has most inspired you in your legal career?
When I first graduated from law school and started practicing law at DeWitt Ross & Stevens, Jack DeWitt, one of the founders of our firm, would go out of his way to meet with me as I was finding my way in the firm and in practice. He would leave articles that he thought would interest me on my desk, and he was readily available to answer a question or point me in the right direction to find an answer on my own. Jack was a man who led our firm by example. He showed us how to always show respect for our clients, for opposing counsel, and for ourselves. He was a zealous advocate, but also always a gentleman. As a result, he was a great mentor and provided an inspiring example to me early in my career and today.
In addition to Jack, my father, Ron Kuehn, who is also a partner at DeWitt Ross & Stevens, has been instrumental as I have developed my practice. From him, I continue to learn valuable negotiation skills and perseverance. He is skilled at anticipating the other side of an issue and developing a path through the opposition or controversy. He is creative in his approach to solutions and, admirably, rarely gives up. Rather, his motto is, “Just work harder.” I am thankful every day to be able to work along-side my dad. It is unusual and wonderful to get to know your parent also as a colleague.
Q: If you could be anyplace else right now, where would you be?
Tuscany. My wife and I think every part of it is beautiful and interesting. The region is so diverse – from farms and vineyards to mountains, from the culture and flavor of medieval towns like Assisi to the hustle-and-bustle of Florence. The weather is superb. Warm, but not humid in the summer, cool but not cold in the winter. There’s rarely snow and then only on the mountaintops.
One of our favorite activities is to drive the countryside and purchase magnificent cheeses at some of the farms and superb wines at some of the wineries. Another is to stroll leisurely around the quiet, pedestrian-only plazas in historic towns like Cetona and talk with the always friendly residents who, even those who don’t speak much English, always welcome Americans. And then there’s the food! While there are few, if any, fancy five-star restaurants, the variety and quality of the food is definitely five-star.
Plus, one of our daughters and her husband have a vacation home in Cetona, which is half-way between Rome and Florence. Who could ask for anything more?