Photo: Andy Manis
As a political science major at U.W.-Madison, Christopher Rogers organized a union among his fellow employees at a campus hotel. Upon graduation, he moved to Boulder, Colo., with $250 in his pocket and a guitar “that I never did learn how to play” and spent four years as an advocate for people with developmental disabilities.
“We needed to create change because the conditions were unacceptable,” Rogers, newly sworn-in State Bar of Wisconsin president, says about his union-organizing effort. In Boulder, “Our whole charge was to try to integrate the folks we were working with into the community and into employment. That required job coaching and other types of coaching.” He later worked as an advocate for employment rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act. And he came to two realizations: “Being an advocate is when I was at my best.” And, “I’d done all I could do without a law degree.”
Lawyering is a Rogers Family Tradition
Rogers’ decision to come full circle to the U.W. Law School did not come easily. Law was a family tradition, with Rogers’ grandfather, father, and older brother having preceded him to the bar. His grandfather and father practiced together in his hometown of Whitewater for a quarter-century, and as of August, at least one Rogers family member will have been practicing law in Wisconsin for a century. “I was never going to be a lawyer, ever,” he says. “I was the sacrifice legal families made. I wasn’t looking to run away from that. It’s just that I was looking to create my own path.”
But Christopher Rogers, now a shareholder at Habush, Habush & Rottier in the firm’s Madison office, hadn’t planned to follow in that tradition. “I was interested in doing something else,” he says. Based on his early experiences, “I knew I wanted to be an advocate, but not specifically in the legal field. But I knew I had found something I could be passionate about.”
During his State Bar of Wisconsin swearing-in ceremony in June, Rogers told those assembled: “You can have these plans in your life, but life comes along – whether it’s intentional or serendipitous – things change.”
Diving Headfirst Into Trial Work
Once he received his law degree in 1995, Rogers spent four years handling insurance defense at Borgelt, Powell, Peterson & Frauen, Milwaukee. He recalls showing up on one of his first days of work and being called into the office of new boss Joe McDevitt, who worked at Borgelt for 30 years and has spent the last 19 years heading up McDevitt Mediation Services.
Ed Finkel is an Evanston-based freelance writer.
McDevitt said to him: “I want you to argue this summary judgment motion at 11 o’clock today. Here’s the file, go learn it and argue it.” Rogers got lost on the way to the courthouse in Waukesha, didn’t know which table to sit at, and quickly lost the case. “It was kind of an out-of-body experience,” he says with a chuckle. “Joe, tongue in cheek, said that [case] was never going to win anyway, and now you have the first one under your belt, now you know where the Waukesha courthouse is.”
McDevitt says he used to guarantee new hires that they’d handle a trial on their own within six months and support a partner on a case before that. “I did that for 15 years without a problem,” he says. “Chris was one of those guys who reacted just the way I thought he would.” Rogers had all the qualities McDevitt looked for in a new hire. “He obviously was very bright. I like people who are going to relate well to juries. He was ethical as hell. I thought he would be a good trial lawyer, and I was correct.”
Motivated by Advocacy for Individuals
Rogers joined his current firm in 1999, logging time in Lake Geneva and Racine before moving to Madison in 2004, and he has spent the better part of two decades representing plaintiffs, which has tapped back into his earlier advocacy experiences.
“I always represent the individual over the insurance company, or corporation. That’s where I wanted to be,” he says. “I want to have a client who’s a human being. It’s a demanding job, but the benefit is that you are making a significant difference in the lives of your clients. To have the individual connection with people you are representing and fostering significant change for them is the best part of the job.”
Cases with smaller verdicts can be just as personally rewarding for Rogers as larger ones, when he considers the effects they have on his clients – and beyond. The memorable cases tend to be tragic: for example, Rogers assisted Habush CEO Dan Rottier in representing the family of a child who died in part due to a defective car seat. In addition to the financial remuneration, “We also believe it had a positive effect in changing the design of the seat,” he says.
To have the individual connection with people you are representing and fostering significant change for them is the best part of the job.
In another case, Rogers represented the family of another young child who had drowned at a water park in Wisconsin Dells. “Advocating for that family obviously was difficult, and rewarding at the same time,” he says. “The strength of the parents in both of those cases is what stands out.”
“Some of our clients are in tough straits,” Rogers said during the swearing-in ceremony. “Their lives are upside down. We advocate as hard for them as we can, every day.”
When the firm hired Rogers, his advocacy on behalf of his fellow hotel workers and later on behalf of people with disabilities stood out to them, Rottier recalled during the swearing-in presentation on June 20. “He’s an advocate. Whether he’s advocating for developmental delayed persons, or workers he didn’t think were being treated properly, or clients of our firm for small cases or large cases, he truly believes that every person ought to be treated respectfully – and their cause should be advocated forcefully and with diligence.”
Service With a Smile
Robert Habush, who retired from his namesake firm two years ago, says Rogers always struck him as bright, hard working, and charismatic. “He is exemplary when it comes to client contact, he works hard, and he’s basically a great human being,” Habush says. “He’s the full package.”
Rogers has handled virtually every type of case and filled every role at the Habush firm, says Jim Jansen, managing partner in the Madison office. “He’s developed into a fully rounded personal injury case lawyer,” he says, adding that he’s impressed by how “gracefully” Rogers manages the demands of work and family. “None of that seems to slow him down. He manages to do all of it with a smile on his face and a calm approach.”
Steve Botzau, who worked with Rogers both at the Borgelt firm and during his early years with the Habush firm in Lake Geneva and Racine, echoes McDevitt’s comments about his colleague’s natural rapport with juries. “He could identify with them because he was a down-to-earth, commonsense, personable guy,” he says. “He’s smart, he’s a hard worker, and he’s got a great sense of humor. He’s got one of those personalities that you like him within two minutes of meeting him.”
Rogers served as an early mentor for Eric Ryberg, who joined the Habush office in Madison in the mid-2000s and is now a partner. “He’s a terrific advocate for his clients,” Ryberg says. “He leaves no stone unturned, in terms of making sure they’re fully compensated, to diligently advance their case. He has a lot of compassion and empathy and does a really good job of understanding and figuring out where other people are coming from.”
Even Rogers’ some-time opponents have nice things to say about him. Mike Crooks, a shareholder at von Briesen & Roper who does defense work and mediation, has litigated against Rogers at times but also been on the same side of cases with multiple defendants.
“He’s a complete straight shooter,” Crooks says. “He tells you something, you can rely on it. He’s very easy to work with and against. He’s obviously a very gifted lawyer but does not take himself too seriously. He’s a tireless worker, and he puts in extremely long hours.”
Advocate for Advocates
Rogers began his work with the State Bar of Wisconsin as a member of the continuing legal education committee, then was chosen for the Board of Governors, where he eventually became a member of the executive committee – chairing the task force that selected executive director Larry Martin – before being elected to move up the leadership track.
“The opportunity to be an advocate for the lawyers of this profession and for the clients we serve was really attractive,” he says. “I know first hand from my life, but also my extended family’s life, the demands of the job. We spend our whole day advocating for our clients. It’s a privilege, and it’s rewarding as all get out, to advocate for the lawyers who are on the front lines.”
High on Rogers’ agenda during his year as president will be clarifying for State Bar members what the organization accomplishes on their behalf and the relevance it has to their day-to-day work lives. “I want to get more judges involved in the State Bar, and more [attorneys] in the State Bar generally,” he says. “The more you find ways to get involved, the more it becomes clear what the Bar can do to add value to your practice.”
Rogers wants to clearly, regularly, and proactively communicate that added value. “We need to get some boots on the ground” around the state, he says. “I want to get member services folks coming to law firms and saying, here’s how the [State Bar] can support you and your practice. … It’s hard to get engaged when you’re working your tail off – to exhale, and look around. But the [State Bar] is capable of supporting so many aspects of members’ practices.”
To ensure that the State Bar is providing value for members’ dollars, Rogers plans to conduct a yearlong cost-benefit analysis examining bang-for-the-buck of every program the organization conducts. “We’re likely going to get smaller, more nimble, and more relevant. That’s something I’ve been deeply committed to, and something we’re going to see come to fruition during my year,” he says. “For me, it’s really about driving value for our members, and making sure that we’re on the same page and that we’re filling their needs.”
Related to being on the same page will be Rogers’ efforts to ensure the State Bar and its programs continue to become more technologically accessible. “Younger lawyers are no longer bound by books, or desktop computers,” he says. “We’re making a concerted effort to be accessible … on tablets and on phones. The next generation of our members, that’s how they’re working, that’s how they’re communicating, and we need to catch them.”
Helping Lawyers Help the Public
Rogers plans to continue an effort that began under former president Fran Deisinger to shine a spotlight on disparate incarceration rates in the state. “It’s an important issue, not just for the [residents] of our wonderful state but for anybody working in criminal justice,” he says. “The human costs and financial costs are just outrageous.”
Another societal issue on Rogers’ mind is access to justice, both financially and geographically. “There are whole counties in northern Wisconsin that are not going to have enough lawyers to serve the public,” he says. “It’s a matter of finding somebody to do the work.”
Private attorneys who do work for public defenders’ offices have become particularly marginalized, with the pay rate at $40 per hour, which Rogers plans to continue efforts to challenge, along with supporting district attorneys through merit increases.
Rogers is also concerned about unregulated competition from online services that claim to provide legal assistance. “We need to be able to be nimble, and pivot and deal with them,” he says. “[Attorneys’] bottom line is getting marginalized. The State Bar has the ability to assist in these areas, and it’s our job to make sure we [do so].”
Private attorneys who do work for public defenders’ offices have become particularly marginalized, with the pay rate at $40 per hour, which Rogers plans to continue efforts to challenge, along with supporting district attorneys through merit increases. “All of that goes back to access to justice,” he says. “We’ve got to get the lawyers willing to take these cases, and have the ability to advocate and defend them, and prosecute them the way they need to be.”
Radiating Fairness and Respect
Rogers will make an excellent bar leader due to his sense of fairness, affection for people, authenticity, and sincerity, says Deisinger, a shareholder at Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren, Milwaukee, who has gotten to know Rogers well through State Bar involvement over the past few years.
“If you have a tough problem, you can see how quickly and deeply engaged he becomes in it,” Deisinger says. “He really drills down. He does his homework on an issue. If there’s a problem – a significant question that comes up – Chris doesn’t wing it. He does the work to understand the problem and try to come to the best answer.”
Rogers has worked in larger and smaller towns, and with larger and smaller firms, Habush noted. “He has a great scope of what the [State Bar] needs as a leader and brings to it a vast amount of experience with all kinds of practicing attorneys – which I think is a key requirement of a State Bar president,” he says. “He has a great sense of humor, and he’s very level. He doesn’t seem to get upset by anything. That’s a pretty good quality for the president of a bar association.”
Jansen says the State Bar will be well-served by Rogers’ ability to see different points of view and calmly manage situations. “He’s not afraid to tell people something they don’t want to hear,” he says. “The nature of the work he’s done all these years is assessing complicated situations with different points of view and being able to sort things through and advise clients with a realistic, thoughtful approach.”
During the swearing-in ceremony, Rottier spoke of the kindness and respect with which Rogers treats his colleagues and clients and even opposing counsel. “It’s kind of a remarkable thing, and I think it bodes well for the State Bar. He will be an advocate for not only lawyers in the state, but he’ll be an advocate for the people of Wisconsin who are served by us as lawyers. And he will listen to people and treat people respectfully, and I think in the end, he will make good decisions for all of us.”
Judge Rhonda Lanford of Dane County Circuit Court, who worked alongside Rogers for nine years at Habush, spoke about his work ethic during the swearing-in. “Chris’s work ethic will serve this organization well,” she said. “If Chris tells you he will do something, it gets done. If Chris makes a promise to you, he will keep it. And he is unwaveringly loyal. He will always have your back. That is just his nature.”
Margaret Raymond, currently Dean of Rogers’ alma mater, the U.W. Law School, presented him with a gift from his former law school classmates at the swearing-in: a U.W. Memorial Union Terrace chair. “Your colleagues are proud of your leadership, they’re honored by your friendship, and they’re really excited about what you will accomplish in your role as president,” she told him. “As the stresses and challenges weigh heavily on you, I hope you will sit on this chair, and imagine yourself at the terrace with a beverage in your hand, and Lake Mendota in view, and a smile on your face.”
Through it all, Rogers has been grateful for the support of his wife, Corina; and his children: Nicholas, who will be a freshman at U.W.-Madison this fall, and Abigail and Danielle, students at Waunakee High School, where Corina teaches U.S. and world history. Rogers has been active in supporting the schools and their athletic programs, including fund raising for the charity arm of the athletic department. “We’re a busy household,” he says with a laugh.