George Brown with his grandkids, Lewis and Aria. “I’d like to teach my grandkids to fish,” he says about retirement. Photo: Andy Manis
“Change is in the air at your State Bar.”
That’s what George Brown wrote in the July 2000 issue of this magazine. It was his first column as the State Bar’s new executive director. Staff had just moved to a new State Bar Center, a place where members could obtain continuing legal education credits and conduct business, including client and other meetings. He talked of rapid changes in the practice of law, including technology and external competition. “The State Bar needs to position itself as a resource for you as you face these new challenges,” Brown wrote.
Once again, change is in the air at your State Bar. Brown retires this month, after 30 years in various State Bar roles, 17 years as executive director. Larry Martin, currently associate executive director, assumes the executive director role on July 1.
In the last 17 years, Brown has written 188 columns in Wisconsin Lawyer. His columns, snapshots in time of the last two decades, indicate that Brown is both a historian and a futurist. He revisited the lessons of history, both in and out of law, while communicating about the future of the legal profession. And as he navigated and cultivated staff and bar leadership to help grow the organization to what it is today, Brown talked about the different programs and services available to help lawyers face emerging challenges.
Brown, it must be said, leaves the State Bar as one of the country’s most accomplished bar leaders. He recently served as president (2014-15) of the National Association of Bar Executives (NABE) and is the 2017 recipient of the Bolton Award, NABE’s highest accolade. It is presented annually to the bar executive “who epitomizes the highest standard of professional excellence.” State and local bar association leaders nationwide identified George Brown as a champion for lawyers and the legal profession, a diplomat, and an advisor with an ability to inspire and lead.
How did you end up at the State Bar of Wisconsin?
Politics got me here. I wanted to be a history professor. My professors said that was stupid, there are no jobs. One professor told me to go to law school, said with my grades I could get into the University of Chicago or Northwestern, some of the top national schools. But I wanted to teach history. So I was on my way to a Ph.D. in history and I realized: there were no teaching jobs, at least not ones that would allow me to support a young and growing family.
I was working at the Wisconsin Historical Society and applied for an opening at the State Capitol. I started on the staff of the Assembly Democratic Caucus. I did that for a year and then the chairman of the Joint Finance Committee, Marlin Schneider, they called him “Snarlin´ Marlin,” asked me to serve as his legislative aide. I covered education, the historical society, and the judiciary. That’s how I learned about the State Bar of Wisconsin. Before that, I didn’t even know the State Bar existed. But when you are an aide on Joint Finance, everybody knows who you are and you know who everybody is.
So one day I got a letter from attorney John Walsh, who must have been the head of a State Bar search committee. He asked me to apply for an opening, director of public affairs. I talked to a bunch of folks, and they were very impressed with the Bar. So I applied and got the job.
I started in November 1986. There were about 40 staff and 36 members of the board. We were in a downtown building that had two additions and was already at capacity. Programs were growing, CLE was growing like crazy. I was the chief lobbyist for about eight years. Then I left to join the lobbying staff at Quarles & Brady for two years. In 1998, the State Bar asked me to rejoin as associate executive director. Then I served as interim executive director for almost a year before becoming permanent in May 2000.
George Brown started his nearly 30-year career with the State Bar in 1986
as the Public Affairs Director. Here he is in 1988.
What type of organization did you inherit?
We had some problems. The finances were not in good shape. We had just moved from downtown to the far east side of Madison. We had a new building with a mortgage and our cash flow was at 0.6, which means we didn’t have enough money to pay the bills each month. We would short-term borrow until dues started coming in in May and then would borrow from next year’s dues to pay this year’s bills.
The second big problem was inherent with the change in staff leadership. We lost 15 or 16 people because of the move as well as for a variety of other reasons, including three department heads. Some people had a hard time with change and they chose to leave. Other people stayed to help with the transition, and the transition process burned them out so they left. Whenever there’s a change in leadership, things will be different. I was not like my predecessor, just like Larry Martin won’t be like me. People have to understand that things will be different, and they will be more different than you think they will be different.
How has the organization changed since then?
It’s a much more professionally run organization, more financially stable. The building has been paid off for a long time. We have a strategic plan in place, something we did not have before, and a smarter and more capable staff. I certainly had a lot to build from. I did not start from scratch. But there was a sort of rebuilding that had to happen when I came in, with respect to cultivating the staff.
The membership is also much different. We now have far more women and minority members, for instance. From a leadership perspective, we are moving away from the days when presidents come in with ideas on creating something to mark his or her year. We’ve tried to have presidents who recognize that their agenda needs to be the association’s agenda. That doesn’t mean they don’t tweak things or emphasize one thing over another, but to create giant new programs, that isn’t done like it used to be. We have also moved toward more direct benefits and services to members now. When I started, the Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP) didn’t exist, WisLAP was a shadow of what it is today, and we had a half-time ethics counsel. Now we have two full-time ethics counsels, and LOMAP is an excellent resource, especially for solo and small-firm lawyers, who make up about 80 percent of our membership.
On a larger scale, the board has developed from being an administrative body that literally fly specks everything the organization does to a policy-making body that oversees operations and focuses its attention on policy and the future of the profession and the organization. I would’ve liked to move it to a generative body, where they are actually coming up with ideas. That was always my goal.
We also communicate differently, and our information delivery tools have improved tremendously. We have Books Unbound, which gives lawyers instant access to PINNACLE’s materials (referred to as the “Brown Books”). We have a vibrant pro bono program, and more lobbying ability than we used to. We have a full-time legal writer to keep members informed on the latest legal developments in Wisconsin. Members can get information almost immediately, and that was the goal. Quite honestly, the initial part of that vision was not mine. My predecessor wanted to make the State Bar an information hub for lawyers. I just took that vision and grew it.
George Brown in 1993.
What has been the biggest challenge in leading the organization?
Getting our members to understand the value the organization brings to them. Some have a hard time judging that for two reasons. One, it’s just the nature of the mandatory bar. In a mandatory bar, members do not make a buying decision, so they don’t sit down and figure out what the value is. It’s just there. We don’t recognize the value of really good roads until we drive on really bad roads. Many members have never practiced outside Wisconsin, so it is difficult for some of them to compare what they get from us versus another bar association.
Another challenge is the constituent groups that make up all associations. Those groups are really valuable, but they can also be impediments to change. If a member or a staff person recognizes that things need to be different or can be better, you often run up against people who believe the legacy is the way to go.
A perfect example is what we now call the Diversity and Inclusion Oversight Committee. Staff recognized that the predecessor committee wasn’t working, for a variety of reasons. We worked with the officers to figure out how to address the issue, because at first it was just a bunch of old white people sitting around a room saying diversity isn’t working. It took a long time to put that together. It would not have happened if not for some key people, of diverse backgrounds, who stepped forward and said it is broken. We had to figure out how we were going to make it work. You have to reeducate, and the right people need to lead that reeducation. That’s one of the biggest challenges when it comes to change of any sort.
The complexity of the organization is always a challenge. It takes at least a year to understand it. The State Bar does many many things. It’s always a challenge to keep all those balls in the air, and of course the question of whether to get rid of some of those balls.
George has a knack for hiring smart and capable people who also
know how to have fun. Here, staff show off our Bucky pride.
What are you most proud of that the State Bar has achieved?
Growing the organization to benefit the members. Our job is to help lawyers be better tomorrow than they are today, whether that is becoming more knowledgeable, more efficient, or more integrated within their communities and businesses. Our job is to help lawyers do their jobs.
Talk to any judge, and they would rather have two lawyers on any case. And I bet you a dollar to a hole in a donut that they would rather have two well-educated lawyers. And that’s true for all areas of practice. The company is better with good lawyers. The government is more efficient with good lawyers. Individuals are safer and more protected with good lawyers. And so our job is to give them the tools to be better so that the solo practitioner can effectively compete.
What do you say to somebody who says the State Bar should be a voluntary organization?
Just as there are advantages to being mandatory, there are advantages to being voluntary. And just as there are problems with being mandatory, there are problems with being voluntary. They are just different.
One of the things that being mandatory does is provide the opportunity for all lawyers to get all the same information. The same knowledge base is out there for them. There’s nothing hidden because you are not a member. And it’s easier for the courts, quite frankly, because they know all the lawyers have access to this information. If you don’t know it, it’s not because it’s not available to you. There’s a greater uniformity of services available to all the members as a result. The other thing is, it’s pretty lonely out there if you’re a solo. You have an opportunity to be more connected, and to contribute, to grow your reputation with a credible organization that all lawyers belong to.
The downside of the mandatory bar is the perception of value. We provide far more than most organizations do. When you talk to someone who has moved here and practiced in another state, or somebody who has opened up an office in another state because they are going to retire somewhere else, they are stunned at what they get here, which they didn’t realize they got. It also has some limits. There are certain things that we cannot do, by supreme court order. Particularly in the area of governmental affairs, we cannot get involved with campaigns, we can’t have a PAC or raise money, which somewhat limits our ability to engage at the legislative level.
On a voluntary side, members have made that decision to buy, to join the organization. Therefore, they understand what the value is. In a voluntary organization, if they don’t like what you are doing, they leave. In a mandatory organization, they might sue you. Our service package could be even better if we didn’t have to expend resources defending the mandatory bar, which is what we’ve had to do. And it’s not a transparency issue. I once had a reporter tell me that the State Bar of Wisconsin is far more transparent than state government.
George and his long-time executive coordinator Jan Marks were fixtures at Board
of Governors’ meetings, giving reports, answering questions, taking minutes.
What lawyers have inspired you?
Lane Ware, Michelle Behnke, Frank Gimbel, Jerry O’Brien, to name a few. A lot of the presidents have been my mentors in many ways. I’ve learned a lot from of them.
The truly good leaders know that leadership is more than a good speech. They know that leadership is more than acting like a leader. They know that leadership requires the willingness to upset somebody, because you made a decision, and the consequences of not making decisions, and how you need to be decisive.
I think of Lane Ware, who inspired a lot of people through his confidence, his quiet direction, and his elegance as a person, as well as his intellect. I think of Michelle Behnke, who just inspires when she walks into a room. She commands the room with her energy. You have someone like Frank Gimbel, who is incredibly politically astute, or Mike Guerin or Bob Gagan who can work a room like a person directs a play, or Pat Fiedler, who made the association’s agenda his own. You’ve got people who are willing to say the hard things and take the tough stance when it needs to happen. We have generally been pretty lucky in that we’ve gotten the right leader at the right time.
What qualities have allowed you to be successful here?
I like to hire smart and capable people. I have said, when I retire I want to be the dumbest guy in the room. You hire smart and capable people, smart is not always capable, but smart and capable people because you want people who are willing to argue with you in a professional manner on the merits. You get the best out of everybody then. You get the best ideas on the table; you get the best decisions as a result. I’ve tried to bring that to this organization.
I’ve tried to lead from behind as much as I lead from in front. I’ve tried to encourage others and allow others to lead – and take the authority and responsibility that goes with it. You get better results out of people when you give them the authority, trust, and responsibility. You hire people who have the capacity to accept it and do good things for the good of the organization.
Finally, to be successful in this role, you have to understand the members. You have to be able to walk from the marble floors of a large law firm to the solo office with carpeting on the walls and be able to connect right away. You have to change your whole approach, your attitude, your sympathies, and your understanding of what that member needs from the State Bar.
My blue-collar background helped. My dad owned a paint store on the south side of Chicago. I never worked office jobs, I worked in the factories. That background helps me relate to people. The political background helps, too, in terms of reading people and being collaborative.
What do you think the State Bar needs to do to help lawyers 5, 10, 20 years from now?
Deal with change. One of the biggest challenges lawyers have is they are trained to look backwards. We have to retrain them to look backwards for precedent, but look forward in terms of where the practice is going and how they need to practice and work with clients and where they can add value. They are all busy, but there’s a difference between activity and results. Lawyers must learn to leverage technology and other changes to their advantage, rather than fight the changes.
Frankly, I don’t think the State Bar of Wisconsin is going to defeat Google. We are not going to defeat the unauthorized practice of law. How are you going to fight Legal Zoom? Instead, take advantage. How can you leverage that and add value?
This goes back to a column I wrote, “Gary Bakke was Right.” (Gary Bakke is a very forward-looking past State Bar president.) Lawyers have to recognize that knowing the law and spitting it back is not good enough anymore. They need to add the counselor aspect back into the relationship. They need to be that business advisor, the civil litigation advisor, become the advisor again. They used to be counselor and attorney at law. The counselor part has been forgotten.
One of the failures of bar associations, including the American Bar Association, is not educating the public about what value lawyers bring. Lawyers themselves have failed at that, too. They just allow themselves to become a niche so that when a company is doing a deal, the lawyer isn’t necessarily in the room. The business people are cutting the deal and then they say let’s take this to legal and see how they screw it up. The lawyers should be in the room cutting the deal. This is where somebody like Lane Ware excelled. He used to say, “I’m a business man masquerading as a lawyer.” More lawyers need to be that way, understand what their clients do and how they operate in order to effectively help them. That is what we have to educate them to become. The Bar’s role is to help them get to that point.
What worries you about the future of the legal profession?
The lawyers who are not thinking about where their practice and the practice of law is headed. Leadership must think more broadly about how changes in the world will affect the practice and the organization. That makes me nervous. It makes me nervous that we have a decisionmaking structure that’s rather byzantine. It’s not nimble, and many people are reluctant to change it. One of my greatest fears is that by the time my grandchildren are my age, lawyers will be scriveners in the basements of courthouses. If you know history, you’ve seen this sort of thing happen before with other professions and trades.
Associations are not going away, but they are changing dramatically, and I’m concerned that if there’s no consistency in leadership over time, the necessary changes won’t occur. There’s a lack of willingness to be flexible on the part of many lawyers, although the new generation is much more flexible now than previous generations ever had to be, plus they just are more flexible because they are young and new to the profession.
Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.
Law associations are changing. As far behind as we think we are, we are way ahead of everybody else in many ways. But we are not ahead of where we need to be. There are organizations out there right now that are going to take over a lot of what we do. Organizations like Meritas and Lex Mundi started out as qualified referral services and are now becoming worldwide strategic alliances. When they have a convention, everybody shows up. A lot of it is stuff lawyers don’t get CLE credit for, it’s marketing. We need to change along those lines. In addition, with fewer lawyers projected in the future but more legal professionals, like paralegals or the limited licensed legal technicians in Washington, bar associations need to work to bring everyone under the same tent not only for the future of the association but for the future of the practice of law.
On the other side of the question, I also have a lot of hope for the future of both the organization and the practice. Elected bar leaders across the country are increasingly aware of the challenges facing the profession, and I believe that Larry Martin has the leadership experience and ability to work closely with our elected leaders to ensure the Wisconsin bar continued success.
What will you do in your retirement?
Spend time with family. My older son, his wife, and our two grandchildren live nearby. Our younger son lives in New York. He’s a journalist for Business Insider right now, so we’ll visit him. My brother and his wife live nearby, and we are close with them. My brother and I are starting to fly fish together. I’d like to become a better fisherman and hunter and golfer and spend time up north on the lake. I’d like to teach my grandkids to fish. First lesson: Make sure the lure catches fish, not you. I like fixing things, so I will enjoy hanging around the house and doing projects.
I have a Master’s thesis I want to turn into something publishable, and I have a Ph.D. dissertation I never finished, “The Impact of the Committee System on the Policy Agenda of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1849 to 1861.” I won’t get the degree, but I want to finish that. I’ve got a couple books I’d like to write, and I have a thousand books I want to read. I used to sit and read for six hours straight. I can’t even sit for 10 minutes now. I need to retrain myself to concentrate, which is something I look forward to doing. My wife, Nancy, and I want to travel out west and to Europe. There’s certainly a lot to keep me busy.