Paul Swanson’s ties to the State Bar of Wisconsin go way, way back. Some 40 years ago, he was a U.W. Law School student working as a part-time law clerk for the State Bar’s Professional Ethics Committee and Continuing Legal Education Department.
He remembers asking staff how he could get actively involved in the State Bar once he’d finished his JD. One suggestion he heard from Keith Kaap, the organization’s ethics consultant at the time, was to start with the Young Lawyers Division.
“Keith told me to show up on a Saturday morning when the young lawyers had their board meetings,” Swanson recalls, “and that if I did that a few times, they’d probably ask me to join the board. I did, and they did.”
Eventually, Swanson became president of the Young Lawyers Division. He also served many years on the State Bar’s Board of Governors, which he chaired for the 2014-15 fiscal year. Plus, he has worked on several committees and was the State Bar’s treasurer from 2015-17. Now he’s the new president.
Given that history, Swanson acknowledges some would call him a “Bar insider.” As such, how can he persuade lawyers who feel far less inclined to be active in the State Bar to get more involved?
“That’s a good question,” he responds. “I think it takes a touch. You have to ask people to do something. Some will say ‘No,’ but many will say, ‘Sure, how can I help?’ A lot of people just wait to be asked.”
Swanson has never been one of those. After finishing law school, he quickly acted on the advice he’d gained from Kaap and others. “As a young lawyer,” he says, “I did about everything I could in the Bar.”
Finding His Way
A law career, however, wasn’t always in Swanson’s life plan. When he finished high school in Oshkosh in the early 1970s, his father, an insurance lawyer, and his mother, a homemaker, gave him enough money to pay for tuition at a four-year public university.
“I promptly took that money,” Swanson says, “and bought an Austin-Healey 3000 and said, ‘I’m moving to Florida to work construction with two of my buddies.’”
Orlando was booming at the time with the development of Disney World. “You could make a lot of money if you worked hard,” Swanson says.
He did, but after a few months, he decided he wanted something else for his future, so he headed back home, enrolled at U.W.-Oshkosh, and became an English major. It just so happened, however, that he also took an accounting class and discovered he loved the subject and had a talent for it.
He switched majors and eventually decided to go to law school to become a tax lawyer. Upon graduation from the U.W. Law School, he got a job offer in Dallas with Touche Ross (now Deloitte), where he’d worked one summer while a law student.
But then a phone conversation with his father, who noted he had open space back in his Oshkosh law office, spurred Swanson to change direction. Besides, there was a romantic interest back home.
He returned to his hometown and joined his dad’s firm to become a general practitioner. The elder Swanson, now 95, retired 30 years ago. His firm has evolved over the years to become the one where his son works today, Steinhilber Swanson LLP, which now has six lawyers in Oshkosh and three in Madison.
“My dad taught me how to try a case,” the younger Swanson says. “I learned from my father how to be a lawyer, which was great.”
A New Direction
Then happenstance again triggered a detour in Swanson’s career path. He tried a bankruptcy case as a favor to fellow Oshkosh lawyer and mentor Russell Reff. Judge Jim Shapiro presided over that trial, which Swanson lost. But, impressed by what he’d seen, Shapiro later called Swanson to ask if he’d like to serve on the Chapter 7 bankruptcy panel for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. Swanson accepted.
One thing led to another, and Swanson ultimately dove full tilt into a bankruptcy law career. “I’m so glad I did,” he says. “There’s never a dull moment. And by and large, I help a lot of people get out of jams.”
His bankruptcy law career has allowed him to use both his financial background and negotiation skills, as well as other sides of himself. “Sometimes it’s a matter of educating people,” he says, “or maybe just holding their hand to help get them through a financial meltdown. They come out the other side with a fresh start, or at least an ability to see a future.”
Swanson’s role as an educator extends beyond his
clients to include fellow bankruptcy lawyers and other
Swanson’s role as an educator extends beyond his clients to include fellow bankruptcy lawyers and other professionals. For instance, one week this past April he traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak at the American Bankers Institute. A few days later it was on to Eau Claire, where he taught a State Bar course on agricultural bankruptcy.
“I enjoy sharing knowledge with other people,” he says, “and especially when I’m on a panel. We interact with each other and develop ideas as we’re talking. There’s always a better way to do something. We just have to try to find it.”
Swanson’s teaching and speaking engagements have spanned “from California to New York, from Florida to Seattle, and everywhere in between,” he says. Other national activity in the bankruptcy law arena included a stint on the board of the National Association of Bankruptcy Trustees from 1994 to 2006. He was the organization’s president in 2004-05.
His educational activities – on the state, regional, and national levels – have been a boon to his own law practice, as well, Swanson points out. “It’s a great way to keep up on what’s going on in this area,” he says, “and it’s fun to be on the cutting edge of bankruptcy law.”
New State Bar President Paul Swanson poses with his extended family at the Presidential Swearing-in Ceremony.
Photo: Shannon Green
On Water, Snow, and Trails
In his personal time, Swanson enjoys being outdoors. Even when he’s indoors, he savors the connection he feels to Lake Winnebago through the windows of his lakeside home. “The lake is 10 miles across and 35 miles long,” he says. “It’s spectacular.”
Not only does Swanson live next to the lake, but he also spends as much time as he can sailing on it. His twin son and daughter are avid sailors, too. In fact, Michael was on the sailing team at Tulane University, and Alexandra was on Brown University’s team, which took second in the 2016 national women’s championship.
Biking is another of Swanson’s favorite recreations. During college and law school, he didn’t own a car, so he biked everywhere he went. He got back into biking in a big way years later after his wife, Jody, an Appleton native and former marathon runner, sustained an ACL injury.
That summer, Jody had to forego running, but she could bike. All season long, she and her husband set out together on regular 30-mile rides. These days, he likes to bike on country roads early in the morning, when there’s little traffic and wind.
In winter, Swanson turns to snow skiing for fun and relaxation. The family spends many winter weekends at their place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. For years, he’s also made an annual trip to Vail, Colo., for a combined ski trip and bankruptcy CLE program.
His bankruptcy law career has allowed him to use both
his financial background and negotiation skills, as well
as other sides of himself.
When it comes to skiing, Swanson has one regret. After finishing law school in December 1979, he considered taking off for a month or two to ski in the Colorado mountains before starting to practice law. But, being broke after finishing school, he scrapped the plan.
As it turns out, daughter Alexandra did the trip in her father’s place years later. After her graduation from Brown, she spent two months skiing in Colorado earlier this year before beginning a stint in the Peace Corps teaching ecology in Panama. By indulging in the long-term ski holiday, “she fulfilled my lifelong dream,” Swanson says.
Yet another of his favorite destinations is the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where he worked as the waterfront director at a youth camp one summer during college. “It was one of the best gigs I had, “Swanson says. “I fell in love with the White Mountains, and I still go back in the summer to hike for four or five days.”
His former lifeguard skills proved useful decades later when he woke up one night to discover that wife Jody was having a stroke. He was able to administer CPR until help arrived. The twins were only three years old at the time.
Over the years, it’s taken a lot of family support and hired nannies when his children were young to enable Swanson to continue practicing law. “We just had to pull it all together,” he says. As a result of the stroke, Jody can no longer run, ski, or bike, but she still takes part in various family outings and excursions.
And on June 14, Jody was in attendance at her husband’s swearing-in as the new State Bar president. So were both of Swanson’s parents, and son Michael traveled up from New Orleans, where he’s lived since graduating from Tulane last year.
Linking to the Past
Swanson says one of the unexpected joys of serving as president-elect for the past year and as president for the year ahead is the opportunity to renew old connections dating back to his days as a young lawyer.
Dianne Molvig is a frequent contributor to area and national publications.
For instance, at the American Bar Association’s Bar Leadership Institute a few months ago, he sat down next to someone from Michigan. “We looked at each other,” he recalls, “and asked, ‘Aren’t you …?’”
As it turned out, they’d known each other some 30 years ago through the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division events. Many young lawyers at that time who were active in the state bar divisions also were involved in the national group. When Swanson ran into his old acquaintance at the recent ABA institute, the latter was serving as the president of the State Bar of Michigan, while Swanson was in his president-elect year in Wisconsin.
“I’ve been meeting people from around the country that I knew through Young Lawyers and haven’t seen for years,” Swanson says, “and now they’re active in bar leadership positions. That’s been a delight.”