Kathy Brost took office on July 1. During her year as president, she will advance State Bar priorities such as increasing access to justice, championing diversity and inclusion, helping attorneys – especially those in solo and small firms – survive and thrive, and supporting the judicial system. And she’ll continue supporting attorneys and firms during whatever twists and turns the COVID-19 pandemic takes. Photos: Andy Manis
As Kathleen A. Brost takes the helm as president of the State Bar of Wisconsin during the public health crisis and social and political unrest, she is reminded of the adage: “May you live in interesting times.”
“It doesn’t get more interesting than this,” she says, adding that she’s been impressed with how quickly volunteer leaders and the State Bar staff adjusted to serve its members from remote locations during the COVID-19 “Safer at Home” order.
“It took staff one day, and they were all set up in their homes – not only up and running, but meeting with the supreme court, the governor’s office, to come up with emergency laws and resolutions that have benefited attorneys throughout the state.”
Brost has made a career of representing fraternal organizations both in house and as outside counsel, and since 2016 she has worked as a trust and financial advisor at Legacy Private Trust Co. in Neenah, not far from Fox Crossing, where she lives with her husband, Bob. During her year as president, she plans to advance State Bar priorities such as increasing access to justice, championing diversity and inclusion, helping attorneys survive and thrive, and supporting the judicial system.
The Black Lives Matter movement demands stepped up efforts to combat racial injustice and disparities, advance equal justice, and promote diversity and Inclusion. So, Brost has formed a team, led by State Bar Past President Jill Kastner, to take those next steps.
And Brost plans to continue supporting attorneys and firms during whatever twists and turns the COVID-19 pandemic takes. “This has provided a real opportunity for the State Bar to shine,” she says. “The State Bar has had several teleconferences with attorneys getting together from different practice areas for town hall meetings. Attorneys have shared ideas on what they were doing, how COVID affected them, how it affected their practice, and their practice area. You have seen the opportunity for the State Bar to show what it can do for attorneys, and the services it can provide for attorneys throughout the state.”
Focus on Rural Areas, Remote Representation
Access to justice in rural areas (the Greater Wisconsin Initiative) also tops Brost’s concerns. Outside Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha, Racine, and the Fox River Valley, the attorney population as a whole is aging with no one to take the place of these lawyers when they retire, Brost says.
“Some counties only have a couple of practicing attorneys. That’s unsustainable,” she says. “It’s not just Wisconsin. This issue faces many Midwestern states, if not all. This [rural representation] is a priority for all of them. It’s also a challenge for other professions, like doctors, dentists, and accountants.”
Attorneys who graduate from law school with $100,000 or more in debt can’t afford to take a position in rural parts of the state and expect to support themselves on the salaries offered, even in lower-cost areas, Brost says. “It’s a matter of coming up with solutions that work for Wisconsin attorneys,” she says. “Some of that is taking ideas from other states, collaborating with other states and other professions, and coming up with solutions that help.”
Videoconferencing is one potential solution. This technology has gained new traction during the socially distanced COVID pandemic and people are gaining a greater comfort level with it, Brost notes.
“I see this as a bright spot,” she says. “Lawyers and their clients no longer need to meet in person every time. … If everybody is comfortable and able to do a videoconference instead, you’re not driving all over from county to county to meet with your clients. Using videoconferencing can provide flexibility for courts, attorneys, and clients. I view that as an opportunity coming out of the pandemic, as horrible as this pandemic is.”
As a former solo practitioner for about 12 years, Brost wants to support attorneys and firms throughout the state, with a special focus on solo practices and small firms. “Once they thrive, they’re better able to support their clients,” she says. “I’m interested in supporting the solos and the small firms because that is so much of the State Bar membership.”
Brost also plans to promote diversity and inclusion throughout the profession. “Just getting a group of attorneys who come from different backgrounds, have different ideas, and bringing all those together to come up with a solution, I have really enjoyed that aspect of [bar work],” she says. “The State Bar always looks at diversity and inclusion, whether it’s demographic – racial, gender, age – practice area, or geography. Everything we do, we work to increase the diversity of whatever group it is, whatever the committee is working on, to get people with different viewpoints in the room.”
For the first time in its history, three women will serve together in the State Bar of Wisconsin’s top leadership positions. On July 1, Brost took the reins as president, flanked by Jill Kastner (immediate past president), and Cheryl Daniels (president-elect). “I am absolutely thrilled to be part of this history,” Brost says. “But at the same time, I wish it wasn’t an event.”
Like many of us, Kathy Brost is working from her home office during the pandemic. Unlike her “professional” office,
which she describes as spartan, here her collectibles from worldwide travel take center stage.
Kastner says Brost has been heading up the Greater Wisconsin Initiative task force for the past several months and has been active with sections and conferences over the years. Brost is the 2019 recipient of the John Lederer Distinguished Service Award from the State Bar of Wisconsin Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section, recognizing her dedicated support of solo and small-firm lawyers.
“She brings an important perspective as someone who used to be with a small firm before moving to in-house counsel,” Kastner says. “She understands the needs of a lot of our attorneys who are in private practice, and the perspective that they have in terms of what State Bar resources are valued, and how the State Bar can best position itself to provide value to those members.”
Brost also has a tireless work ethic, Kastner adds. “And she’s really funny – she brings a good sense of humor to our meetings. Sometimes a bit of levity is important; that reminder that we’re all there serving the same purpose, trying to reach the same goal, is helpful in keeping us focused on finding solutions instead of debating an issue.”
Chris Rogers of Habush, Habush & Rottier S.C. in Madison, who served as past president this last year after leading the bar in 2018-19, also worked closely with Brost in her role as president-elect. He says he realized quickly how energized, engaged, and tuned in to bar members Brost would prove to be.
“We’ve spent time together on every major issue that we have been dealing with over the last year or so,” he says. “She understands to a large extent what some of the solo and small-firm members are going through, specifically the ones in the central and northern counties. … It spins back to the bus tour. She’s taking the lead in finding solutions to the lack of lawyers in rural communities. And then all of the issues that surround that, like broadband access in central and northern counties, and how important that is, especially in the age of a pandemic.
“Regardless of a COVID-19 vaccine, or the straightening of a curve, we will never practice the same way again,” Rogers adds. “To maneuver and deal with that, and make sure we have the technology to do so, and a plan going forward, is going to be important as we go through this. She understands that.”
Brost had never considered running for State Bar leadership until she met Kastner, who was president-elect at the time, on one of the bus tours to rural Wisconsin communities. Kastner floated the idea and encouraged her. “I totally brushed it off,” Brost says. “Then I came to find out that the president-elect is the head of the nomination committee. She came back to me again and said, ‘We really think you should run for this.’ By that time I had convinced myself: ‘Why not?’”
Sounding a bit like the Stuart Smalley character that Al Franken played on Saturday Night Live, Brost adds, “I ended up accepting it, and doggone it, people voted for me. I had never run for anything in my life.”
Brost’s path to the State Bar presidency and the legal profession began in her childhood hometown of Menasha, where she learned a lot about real estate from her developer parents. She eventually obtained a real estate license herself.
Her parents thought she should become a secretary or a nurse. But after attending Lakeland College, where she received a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1988, attending nights and weekends while she worked at Marine Bank, and finally graduating 10 days before her daughter was born, Brost had other ideas.
The brother of a coworker at Marine Bank – which her current office overlooks, and where she met several coworkers she has reencountered at Legacy – had attended law school and loved it. “I thought, ‘I’m just going to try it.’ I took the LSAT,” she says. “It was all logic based. It was like doing one big logic puzzle. I loved it; I thought taking the test was fun.” She adds, “I only applied to the University of Wisconsin Law School. Two weeks later, I got a note saying they had accepted me.”
So Brost quit her position at Marine Bank, where she spent about 10 years overall, handling banking administration and loans, and started commuting two hours each way to Madison, four days per week. The dean had to approve her commuter status, but it turned out to be helpful in obtaining a research position with Professor Walter Raushenbush, who was “the real estate guru in the state of Wisconsin,” she says.
“He was real old school: you stood up to recite your answer, that kind of thing,” Brost says. “He heard I was driving back and forth, and he said, ‘You have a lot of time to think.’” And he set her to work doing research to update the Wisconsin Real Estate Law book, which is widely regarded as a standard reference on real estate transactions for brokers, salespersons, lawyers, and other professionals.
Kathy Brost brings a fun side to doing serious work – and she’s tenacious, collaborative, and curious, say her friends and colleagues. She also exhibits many aspects of the small-firm attorney — scrappy, resourceful, and efficient.
After receiving her JD in 1992, Brost took a position at what was then the Aid Association for Lutherans, now called Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, which was based in Appleton. Having taken a plethora of tax-related courses in law school, she worked on retirement products such as individual retirement accounts and annuities for the membership benefit organization and made lifelong friends among her coworkers and clients.
“It’s very similar to working for the State Bar: a membership organization of good people who are in it for the right reasons,” she says. “I picked up quite a bit about retirement planning. The general counsel at the time thought that all of the attorneys should know as much about the business as their clients did.” She worked closely with investment advisers and ended up obtaining an investment management license herself, as well as becoming a certified financial planner.
Todd Martin, who worked with Brost at AAL/Thrivent, says she worked in very complex areas of the law such as annuity taxation and financial-product tax issues. “She was always very good at taking something very complex and explaining it to clients and others in a way that was understandable,” he says. “She was always great to work with, very positive, and practiced with good humor.”
In 2004, after Thrivent went through a merger, Brost went out on her own at Brost Law Office LLC, where for the next dozen years she provided estate planning and legal advice to fraternal benefit societies. Her longtime friend Mary Beth Leib, a former colleague at AAL/Thrivent, suggested taking that direction and offered to put her in touch with companies that could use her help.
“I started working in a private office in my house, and sure enough, she came through,” Brost says of Leib. “She introduced me to presidents of other companies, they introduced me to their friends. Those individuals were on the board of the trade organization for [benefit societies], and I ended up working for the entire trade organization.”
Leib had joined the board of a smaller fraternal organization and came to realize that such groups had difficulty navigating the regulatory environment. “They didn’t have legal counsel. I was constantly sending them to Kathy Brost to answer little questions,” Leib recalls. “I finally said, ‘Kathy, you could build a whole practice here.’ She finally said, ‘I’m going to do it.’”
Brost’s current work at Legacy Private Trust Company continues in the same vein but focusing on financial planning work and reviewing contracts and trust documents. “It’s just fun,” she says. “It’s brought together all of the background and all of the types of law I’ve worked on – investments, estate planning, charitable giving, retirement planning. I use financial modeling to help people make decisions. I show people where they are going to get the money to retire. It’s really calming for them. I’m able to show them, ‘This is how it works.’”
Although she continued to enjoy working as a solo, Brost says that with her children in college and her husband traveling extensively for his work, “I had way too much time by myself,” she says. “When past coworkers [who had ended up at Legacy] said, ‘You know, why don’t you come work with us? We have a lot of attorneys here,’ I ended up going in with them.”
Racial Equity: It’s Time to Step Up
Black Americans suffer from police brutality and crippling fear caused by systemic racism and implicit bias that is ingrained in our legal system, law enforcement institutions, and countless other facets of American life. This is unacceptable. We must insist on real change – and we need your help.
Increasing access to justice and ensuring a commitment to diversity and inclusion are strategic priorities for the State Bar of Wisconsin. As part of furthering these priorities, the State Bar is working to address racial inequities in the justice system and to model diversity and inclusion throughout the organization.
While issues of race in the justice system are at the forefront of many State Bar efforts, we know we must do more. The State Bar is facilitating discussions with leaders in the legal community to quickly develop actionable steps to combat racial injustice and disparities, advance equal justice, and promote diversity and inclusion.
Decades of racial injustices call for systemic change and the elimination of racial disparities and implicit biases within the legal system. Together, we must make real change.
Because this is such an important issue, I formed a Racial Justice Leadership Group as my first action as incoming State Bar president. This working group is developing concrete, actionable steps the State Bar will take to combat racial injustice and disparities, advance equal justice, and promote diversity and inclusion. Past President Jill Kastner is leading this effort.
As a first action, this group created a resource page on WisBar.org that communicates what the State Bar is doing in the area of racial equality, how members can help advance policy positions that support this effort, and offer resources for learning more about racism and bias. Visit the resource page at wisbar.org/racialequity.
If you have ideas on actions the State Bar can take to combat racial injustice, please contact Mike Wiltse, Public Relations Specialist, at email@example.com.
– Kathy Brost
State Bar Involvement
During her time as a solo, Brost became heavily involved with the State Bar of Wisconsin and discovered its benefits. “I knew a lot about my specialty, my area of law, but I knew nothing about how to run a law practice,” she says. “I ended up going to the technology conference that the State Bar offered at the time. I liked it so much, and I learned how much I didn’t know. If you show up enough times, you get asked to join a committee.”
Brost joined the planning committee that puts on the Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference and became involved in the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section, serving on the board of that section for about a decade. “I joined because I had gotten so much out of the work that I did with the State Bar,” she says. “As a solo practitioner, you need a lot of assistance, particularly if you don’t know what you’re doing when you start out. The State Bar helped me fill a void.”
That void spanned a gamut of issues that all solos and small firms face, Brost says. “What technology to buy, what computers to buy, everything from cell phones to cybersecurity,” she says. “How do you protect against all of that? What type of system should you set up? Advertising, marketing, all of the law practice administration tasks that I never had to deal with while working in-house. It’s incredibly time-consuming to do that.”
State Bar involvement also educated her on how key ethics rules differ for in-house attorneys vis-à-vis those in private practice, Brost says. “All of those things were things I had to get up to speed on very quickly,” she says. “When you work by yourself, what a wonderful experience it is to talk to other attorneys who are facing the same issues you are, and to learn from them. It filled a huge void. I’ve been giving back ever since.”
Positivity, Perspective, Diplomacy … and a Sense of Humor
People who have worked alongside Brost at the State Bar of Wisconsin expect that she will give back plenty over the coming year. Kate Knowlton of the Knowlton Law Group in Milwaukee, current board chair of the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section, says Brost listens well, responds thoughtfully, and brings integrity, genuineness, and a sense of humor.
Ed Finkel is an Evanston-based
“She’s extremely personable,” Knowlton says. “Plus, she just makes you laugh. She has a very positive outlook on things. She has so many aspects of the small-firm attorney – scrappy, resourceful, efficient, with this added polish, and grace. She’s an amazing colleague that way. You can’t help but be reminded of all the best reasons you’re in law, and wanting to do more for the profession, and your colleagues, when you’re around her.”
Brost brings perspective and diplomacy and should not be underestimated, Knowlton says. “She’s very good at making sure the result comes out in a thoughtful and planned way,” she says. “She’s a wonderful, marvelous advocate for the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section. She also has a heck of a work ethic. She’s the first person to volunteer for stuff. If you need someone at the [conference] booth, during the deadest hour, 4 to 5 p.m., she’s the one to step up.”
Nancy Trueblood, who convinced Brost to join the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section, says she knew based on Brost’s approachability and enthusiasm that she had spotted a good volunteer.
“She’s never just been concerned about her own future when it comes to law practice,” Trueblood says. “She always has been just as concerned about the future of law practice all over Wisconsin. That’s going to translate well for leading our membership for the next year. She cares about people, and she cares about the issues facing Wisconsin lawyers – and about finding solutions, and not just rehashing what the problems are. Kathy can talk to anybody. She meets people where they are. She can bring and take something from any conversation.”
J. David Krekeler, incoming chair of the Solo/Small Firm & General Practice Section board, says Brost brings a fun side to doing serious work. “She always seems happy, even when we’re facing problems,” he says. “She’s got a lot of experience as a solo, and certainly solos and small firms make up a very substantial portion of the bar. Kathy’s very big on personal relationships. I admire the way she can interact so well with so many different kinds of people. … She’s a really good listener, too. That will serve her well in her position as our leader.”
Leib describes her long-ago coworker as bright, detailed, tenacious, collaborative, approachable, easy to work with, and incredibly curious. “That’s my favorite thing about Kathy,” she says. “She would always ask six or seven more questions and come back with a much broader [set of possibilities]. ‘What if it was this? What if it was that?’ … She will challenge people to think differently, to think broader, and to be as curious as she is.”
Brost will be a collaborative, strategic leader, Leib predicts. “She will put down a vision and follow a vision,” she says. “This is part A, this is part B, this is part C. She’s incredibly ethical. … And Kath has a very low ego. Credit will be passed to other people. She will give other people a chance to shine. She doesn’t take glory for herself.”
State Bar Executive Director Larry Martin says Brost will bring her interpersonal skills to the fore as State Bar president. “She is always easy to work with, very respectful of everyone, and great at bringing out ideas, he says. “She’s got a very broad perspective as it relates to the State Bar, having worked in-house, having worked in a small, solo environment, and having worked with large firms in other ways. She has this broad base of experience to understand the various issues in the legal practice, having worked on most of them herself.”