What is the best career advice you ever received?
I was told as a law clerk never to have a sense of entitlement. That advice has stuck with me. I love being a lawyer, and I try to view every project, case, argument, and trial as an opportunity to do excellent work, to learn, and to do some good. Every day I feel like I have something to improve on and learn. If I maintain that attitude, I think there will always be opportunities for success. Litigation is as competitive as it gets, so if I get complacent, no matter what I have accomplished in the past, I put my career at risk.
If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be?
I would want to have dinner with my grandparents. Three of them passed away before I was 15 years old, so I feel like I missed the opportunity to really know their stories, as an adult. When you’re a kid, you don’t always appreciate the advice and wisdom of those older than you, but now that I’m “older,” I crave it. I’d want to know more about how they fell in love, what was their secret to happiness and resilience, did they have any regrets, would they do anything differently, stuff like that.
I also never thanked my grandpa for his service in WWII. He was part of the Normandy invasion, was seriously wounded, and received the Purple Heart. My resilience work with U.S. soldiers has been done in his memory, and I would want to make sure he knew how very proud of him I am for his service to our country.
What is your favorite and least favorite aspect of fall?
My favorite fall activity is attending Badger football games and tailgates with my wife, family, and friends on Saturdays. On Sundays, I love living a misery-filled life as a Bears fan, dreaming of a time when these dark days will be a memory to laugh at as #6 and company win Super Bowl after Super Bowl, validating everything I’ve known to be true all along.
Back in reality, my least favorite part of fall is battling a never-ending supply of black walnuts falling in my backyard, which are promptly scooped up by my dog, Frank, a 6-month-old Brittany Spaniel, seemingly faster than they can even hit the ground and leading to an involuntary game of keep-away. If Frank misses one or two, then the squirrels pick up his slack by scraping at the walnuts like savages, ruining patches of grass in the process.
What do you do for fun?
When not immersed in the defense of innocent, wrongly accused, or just woefully misunderstood clients, my idea of fun typically involves spending time with family and friends, traveling, and the chance to read anything but the law. As a kid who grew up in Wisconsin and only recently returned, I particularly enjoy exploring our state waters and doing battle with wily trout on as small a rod and fly as possible.
How do you handle the “when are you going to retire” question?
This question comes at me several times a week now, usually from former clients relieved to find me still in the office, distant friends, or retired relatives. Sometimes, it comes on the retirement of friends and colleagues. I now have a grandson, and perhaps the mention of grandchildren triggers those retirement questions. It is an uncomfortable question – after all, the asker must think I’m old. But more, the question makes me look at what I am doing and ask myself why I am still practicing. The answer is really simple for me: I am doing what I love to do.
I have had a hand in helping shape the out-of-court dispute-resolution process, collaborative practice. I have had a hand in shaping the way family law is practiced, with enhanced professionalism and effectiveness. Who wants to give that up? When I had the honor to be the president of the State Bar of Wisconsin, I attended the ceremony honoring lawyers with 50 years of practice for several years running. At each one, I told myself I would not stay 50 years. But, there is so much to do. The next generation will change lawyering even more, and I want to be there. So, 39 down and counting.
What was the most ridiculous case you ever worked on?
I was asked to pick a jury when my client was accused of wrongful termination and defamation. The plaintiff in the case lost money gambling, several hours before his shift was to start as an assistant manager of a large retail chain. While he had thousands of dollars in his checking account, he did not want his wife to know he gambled away several hundred dollars. So during his shift he took $200 from the store safe, absolutely forbidden and against store policy. He claimed that since he wrote an IOU it was not in any way stealing from the company, and that he shouldn’t have been immediately terminated.
We won the case as the jury came back in favor of the defense after an hour of deliberations, but this was in a very pro-plaintiff, high-damages venue so nothing was taken for granted by my client.
Your practice focuses on bankruptcy law. What drew you to that practice area?
A great mentor. I law clerked for Dayten Hanson when I was in law school, and I quickly realized that I was learning more and acquiring skills faster working for him than I was in my law school classes, so I tried to spend as much time there as I could. Dayten encouraged my curiosity and always put down what he was doing to answer my questions and to explain complicated bankruptcy concepts. He let me write briefs and critiqued my legal writing. He took me along with him to bankruptcy conferences and events and introduced me to bankruptcy practitioners and judges as though I were one of them.
After having worked for Dayten for two years in law school, I had become convinced that he was the best bankruptcy lawyer in Wisconsin, so I didn’t think twice when he offered me a job as an associate. Thirteen years later, I still walk into Dayten’s office at least once a day to ask for his opinion on bankruptcy issues, and he still puts down what he’s doing to answer my questions every time.
I didn’t know that I wanted to be a bankruptcy lawyer until I met a really really good one who encouraged my curiosity and sacrificed his time to teach me what he knew. I was drawn to the bankruptcy practice by a great mentor, to whom I’ll forever be grateful.
What were your most memorable trips?
Probably two of the most recent. My wife and I chased the Northern Lights in Iceland. They’re wild, and worth the trip, especially if you’re into photography. I also went to the World Cup in Brazil with a law partner at the time, Jason Gehring. The country’s people were great, and I’d love to get back for the Summer Olympics next year.
If you weren’t practicing law, what would you be doing?
I most likely would be a high school history and government teacher and a baseball coach. I studied history, political science, and African American studies in college, and I have always been very interested in the differences between how groups of people throughout history choose to govern themselves. The different systems of justice applied throughout our history offer insights into the people who came before us – what they valued or did not value. If taught well, history should never be boring and should help us make some of our most important life choices.
What is your oddest or funniest story in a practice setting?
While prosecuting municipal charges for the cities of West Allis, Green Bay, and Milwaukee, I have heard many creative arguments from defendants who appear pro se. One of the oddest experiences I have had occurred during a drug possession case in Green Bay.
A medical-marijuana card holder from the Upper Peninsula decided to spend New Year’s Eve medicating in the frozen tundra with what he called his “support group.” Only a few hours into the year and after an astonishing lack of discretion, the Yooper was cited for possession of paraphernalia and marijuana. At a pre-trial conference that coincidentally occurred on April 20, he explained that his medical-marijuana card was valid in Wisconsin with the same poignancy as anything Jim Breuer said in the 1998 movie Half Baked. Unwilling to accept any settlement offer, the Yooper demanded a trial.
The show began prior to the judge entering court when he showed me a small brown leather glove squeezed over half of his hand and stated with a confident nod: “uh oh, it doesn’t fit; you’re in trouble.” Despite his closing argument on how he could not live in a world without marijuana, he was found guilty. Finally, just when I thought the show was over, he asked the judge if he would be receiving his marijuana and paraphernalia back in the mail or if he could just pick up the items on his way out of court.
Complete the sentence: I never leave home without ______, because ______.
I never leave home without multiple blazers and sport-coat type jackets in the car, because I never know when I might have to go to a hearing unexpectedly and need to have court-appropriate attire. As a bonus, I always have something on hand when I get cold.
If you could get free tickets to any event, what would it be?
Assuming Eddie Money has already cashed in his two tickets to paradise, I guess I’ll take two tickets, please, to Woodstock, 1969. Yes, we attorneys can let our hair down with the best of ‘em. I’m a big fan of live concerts, and this has got to be one of the best. The lineup of CCR, Joplin, Sly, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, CSNY, and of course Hendrix, playing his national anthem-infused Purple Haze at 9 a.m. after an all-nighter, would be incredible to see in person. Having played piano in a 16-piece big band in college, I’ve come to be a big fan of all types of music – but there’s just something about that classic rock of the 60s and 70s that can’t be beat.