What are your biggest priorities as OLR Director?
Outreach and connecting with lawyers across Wisconsin. I’ve been a government lawyer and judge in Madison for the past 10 years and recognize the limitations of my experience and professional network, both in terms of substantive practice areas and geography. I need to get out of my office, away from my Madison bubble, to build relationships with stakeholders from all across the state. The Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR) needs to connect with lawyers outside the Madison and Milwaukee areas, with diverse practice areas, and from all walks of life.
I’m proud to say that in my first six months at the OLR, since becoming director in August 2021, I’ve met with groups from all over the state, including affinity groups, both law schools, and the State Bar Board of Governors. I’ll be on a panel at the State Bar’s Annual Meeting & Conference in Lake Geneva in June and will present at the Solo & Small Firm Conference in October. This summer, I’ll hit the road, along with several State Bar leaders, to meet with lawyers from six counties in northeast Wisconsin. These are only my first steps in attempting to build relationships, and develop trust, with lawyers outside my immediate community.
What is something lawyers might not understand about the OLR?
Many lawyers don’t understand what the OLR does or how it does it. Some refer to the OLR as a “black box.” And others describe the uneasy feeling that accompanies getting an envelope from the OLR stamped “personal & confidential.”
Clearly explaining how the OLR operates reduces misunderstanding from lawyers and the public. This is one reason I prioritize outreach: to explain the OLR’s practices and procedures, what it does and how it does it, to increase awareness. And, in doing so, I make a point of emphasizing proactive practice management and wellness resources that exist within the State Bar of Wisconsin to provide advice, education, and resources to lawyers – and help them avoid OLR grievances. These programs include the Ethics Hotline, Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP), Practice411™, and Ready.Set.Practice.
Do you think health and wellness is an important part of the equation for lawyers to avoid grievances?
Yes! To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Sadly, national studies show lawyers and law students have disproportionately high rates of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. And all too often, the OLR receives grievances regarding lawyers who struggle with competence, diligence, and communication as a result of burnout and stress.
The numbers are shocking, but not surprising: the legal profession is inherently stressful and most lawyers are highly driven people who work long hours and demand perfection. Although work-related stressors make us vulnerable to substance misuse and symptoms of mental health conditions, many lawyers fear the consequences of seeking help. Left unaddressed, this can take a toll on lawyers, our clients, families, and communities.
The OLR recognizes these concerns and works in close partnership with WisLAP and proactive management-based programs such as Practice411 and its Wisconsin Law Firm Self-Assessment tool. But there is still more work to be done. The Task Force on Wisconsin Lawyer Well-Being recently released its report, “Well-Being: Changing the Climate of Wisconsin’s Legal Profession.” Section three includes recommendations from the Regulators Subcommittee, directed to the OLR and other regulatory agencies, which present opportunities to further address lawyer well-being.
You served in various roles before becoming the OLR director, including as a circuit court judge, assistant U.S. Attorney, and assistant attorney general. How did each of these roles prepare you for your current role?
I’ve learned and grown in every one of my roles, including my 14 years in private practice that predated my 10 years of government practice. As a lawyer, I’ve represented plaintiffs and defendants, practiced civil and criminal law, tried cases and handled appeals, and represented individuals and corporate clients. As a judge, I presided over civil, criminal, and family law trials. Grievances, investigations, and disciplinary actions come in all shapes and sizes, with varying factual bases and legal issues. I like to think that my background provides me with a context for what I see at the OLR.
To make clear, there’s still much to learn. I haven’t, for example, worked as a solo practitioner, represented persons accused of crimes, or litigated a family dispute. Connecting with practitioners from all across the state will help me better understand the pressures faced by lawyers with practices unlike mine and provide further context for my new role.
What changes would you like to make to the lawyer regulation system?
The trust account rule. Supreme Court Rule 20:1.15 (safekeeping property; trust accounts and fiduciary accounts) is among the most complex, lengthiest trust account rules in the country. Although written to ensure adequate protection of the public, the rule could be streamlined, updated to permit e-banking, and revised for clarity. I think we can achieve these goals – which would increase the likelihood of compliance – while still ensuring adequate client protection.
What is the biggest challenge you have encountered since joining the OLR?
Filling the shoes of former OLR leadership. Former Director Keith Sellen, in tandem with soon-to-be former General Counsel Bill Weigel, led the OLR for more than 20 years. Together they provided the OLR with strong, steady leadership for decades. Rather than try to walk in their footsteps, I realized that I need to create my own.
Where did you grow up and what sparked your interest in the law?
I’m a Midwesterner: I grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, by way of suburban Chicago. My parents were high school teachers and I’m a first-generation lawyer.
I was a child in the 1980s, and television sparked my interest in the law. Although entertainment options were limited, Thursday night was reserved for “must-see TV.” My family sat around an old console television set and watched L.A. Law. And I loved it. Beautiful people trying interesting cases with every detail wrapped up in an hour. It was captivating. So I jumped at the opportunity to participate in high school mock trial as part of a program like the Wisconsin High School Mock Trial Tournament. The process of learning facts, pressure-testing arguments, and rehearsing presentations was deliberate, painstaking, and completely unlike television. But it was thrilling and competitive, and I knew it was right for me. My team won our region but lost in the state finals. The loss still stings.
How did you adapt to practicing as a young lawyer?
I struggled to find my way as a young lawyer. Although I understood the academic side of things – I was a good law student who could read and apply case law – it took time to fully appreciate what it meant to be a professional. Judgment. Networking. Business. Finesse. In mock trial, for example, I could zealously argue every minor issue and still win style points. That approach doesn’t work as well in real life: it can inflame opponents, infuriate judges, and inflate client costs.
How did I adapt? Mentoring. I worked for an old-school Chicago litigator who was as tough as nails. Although a brawler by nature, she knew how to fight and when to finesse. She taught me to act like a professional in court and a trusted advisor to clients. And she emphasized the importance of getting involved in the local legal community, making clear it wasn’t just to “pad my resumé” but to make real relationships within the legal profession. It worked. Even in a large legal market like Chicago, active participation in local bar associations helped build a sense of community with other lawyers, many of whom I still keep in touch with.
How do you spend your days off?
Outside. Wisconsin has wonderful natural resources and I try to take advantage of them whenever possible. I’m a runner and hit the roads and trails most days, regardless of the season. My family, including our dog, loves hiking, kayaking, and tent camping in the summer. And, although I’m a terrible skier, my daughter is a budding ski instructor who displays extraordinary patience in trying to build my confidence on the slopes.
What is something you’d like Wisconsin lawyers to know about you, personally?
I’ve actually been known to smile. When I present to bar associations and groups, I tend to be focused, serious, and unsmiling. This is because I take my responsibility as OLR director very seriously: I don’t want grievants, lawyers, or members of the public to feel like I’m ever trivializing their concerns. My wife reminds me to smile. And sometimes I even do.
» Cite this article: 95 Wis. Law. 6-7 (May 2022).