On July 1, Margaret Hickey began her one-year term as the 67th president of the State Bar of Wisconsin.
Photos: Andy Manis
Margaret Hickey is the fourth consecutive woman to lead the State Bar of Wisconsin and the ninth overall. The head of a five-lawyer firm that focuses on family and elder law and a longtime bar association mover-and-shaker, incoming president Hickey also originally hails from Beaver Dam – and that combination of qualities, more so than her gender, is what sets her apart, according to longtime law-firm partner Heather Poster of Becker, Hickey & Poster in Milwaukee.
“We’re excited because she’s a small-town girl, from very humble beginnings, and we’re a small firm,” says Poster, who joined the firm in 2002 and made partner in 2009. “She’s the first attorney, to my knowledge, who’s been elected president, who does work on the elder and special needs planning side. We represent clients who are the underdogs, they’re often disadvantaged – and taken advantage of.”
Perhaps that explains why Hickey intends to focus on younger lawyers, access to justice, and diversity, equity, and inclusion during her year as president. “Margaret is not from a big firm or a common practice area. She brings some fresh air into the role,” Poster says. “We’ve had a lot of women [leaders]. It’s not her sex that’s the compelling issue, but the different caliber of person, and how she practices, and what she values, which make her special.”
Hickey entered the legal field inspired in part by her older brother, Peter Hickey, a medical malpractice and product liability lawyer with the Everson Law Firm in Green Bay. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Marquette University, she attended the University of Wisconsin Law School. “I can’t say being a lawyer occurred to me until he did it,” she says. “I had been hoping to focus on a variety of litigation, and in my first three to five years, I handled a more general litigation practice.”
Ed Finkel is an Evanston-based
After briefly working at two firms – one (Gibbs, Roper, Lopes & Williams) became part of von Briesen & Roper and the other (Charne, Clancy & Taitelman) folded – Hickey began working with Barbara Becker, who focused on family and elder law. When Becker asked her to go into practice in Milwaukee 31 years ago, Hickey wasn’t sure at first about focusing on these areas of practice.
“At the time, I thought, ‘That sounds unappealing,’” she says. “When [Becker] hired me, we had an agreement that I would try out family and elder law, but I wouldn’t be stuck with them if I didn’t like them. I found that I did, and they fit my skills pretty well. It’s good to try a few things, and see what you do and don’t like. You don’t know exactly what your skills are, and I didn’t expect to be good at [family and elder law] when I was younger. But I didn’t enjoy working with businesses, and with personal injury, I didn’t enjoy the medical part. I don’t know how I found this niche, but I think I was pretty lucky.”
What Hickey has found appealing about these areas of practice are the problem-solving involved and the fulfillment of helping people get through difficult patches of their lives. “When you work in those two areas, you are working with people in crisis and trying to help them solve problems,” she says. “With divorce, it’s the difficulty of dealing with the placement schedule for the children, how to manage child support, how to divide assets. In elder law, in some ways it’s very similar, dealing with intergenerational issues, and maybe the transition of assets, including businesses from one generation to another. And personal issues like who should be the agent under a healthcare power of attorney.”
‘She is very practical, she is no nonsense, and she doesn’t candy-coat anything. She also feels a moral obligation for equity and justice.’ – Heather Poster
Patience and Compassion Garner Respect
Hickey met her husband, Bob Wrenn, when they both worked at Gibbs, Roper. They’ve been married for 29 years. “I refer to her as the attorney I always wanted to be,” Wrenn says. “Margaret was a double major in college, Spanish and psychology. Particularly for the kind of practice she does, she uses her psychology major, and what she learned in that, to help clients tremendously, and to understand the issues they face. She has a patience in dealing with complicated and emotionally laden issues that family law cases and elder law cases involve.”
Wrenn occasionally hears Hickey’s side of phone conversations with clients when they’re in the car together, and while he has no idea who the client is, or what the case is about, “I can tell from the tone she takes, and her demeanor, that she’s extraordinary,” he says. “It’s always been amusing to me – friends I’ve had for years will say, ‘I assume Margaret told you she represented us on this.’ No, Margaret doesn’t reveal any of that. She’s very tight with attorney-client privilege, even with me. Then they’ll go on and talk about how happy they were and what a great job she did.”
Wrenn hears similar comments from groups of family and elder law attorneys with whom his wife is connected. “I hear from her peers how much they respect her,” he says. “I’ve never met anybody who doesn’t like her or respect her.”
Poster first worked with Hickey when Hickey and Becker, who’s now retired, hired Poster as a law clerk in 2001 and then brought her on as an associate the following year. “Margaret is the same whether she is at home, in the boardroom, at the book club, at the office, or in court,” Poster says. “She is fair and equitable. She is very compassionate about a client’s issues. She doesn’t want to win for the sake of winning, but she is very interested in the client’s outcome. People hold her in high regard because she is very practical, she is no nonsense, and she doesn’t candy-coat anything. She also feels a moral obligation for equity and justice.”
As a firm leader, Hickey is neither pretentious, nor demanding, nor “snooty,” Poster says. “She tries to incorporate and make everyone feel as an equal. I see that every day in practice. It doesn’t matter if you’re a long-term partner or brand-new law clerk. She’s very conciliatory. People feel they can connect to her regardless of where they’re at with her. She’s got a good sense of humor, and she makes fun of herself.”
Becker remembers first working closely with Hickey at Charne Clancy, at a particularly delicate moment. “I was going on a three-week family-law trip with other lawyers to Australia and New Zealand, and I needed somebody to take over my caseload,” Becker says. When Charne Clancy dissolveda few years later, Becker asked Hickey to join her as a partner, impressed by her work then and afterward, and also at the recommendation of another attorney joining the firm.
“She was so smart,” Becker says. “She had never done family law before. She was so quick to learn it, and so good with clients. She also caught on to elder law, which is a very complicated area of law, with both federal and state law. It was a new field we were pioneering. Margaret was part of that.”
Becker sees it as a “sacrifice” that Hickey has agreed to become State Bar of Wisconsin president and “share her talents,” but has no doubt that she also will keep up with her caseload. “She’s still doing trial work,” Becker says. “She handles complicated divorce cases quite well. She has a reputation that precedes her. When somebody hires her, people have heard she’s the one to hire. It’s such a raw time, to go through a divorce. It takes skills to be a tough negotiator and tough litigator, but at the same time, to realize clients are going through a rough time.”
Friend and colleague Kelly Centofanti, a plaintiff’s personal-injury attorney in Mequon who probably met Hickey through the Milwaukee Bar Association, says that Hickey is one of the best matrimonial attorneys in the state. “She is a powerhouse,” Centofanti says. “She is also a fabulous friend. She’s somebody who keeps in touch. If you forget to get in touch for a while, you get an email or a note. She is intelligent and committed and throws everything she has into everything she does.”
“She’s wicked smart. She’s incredibly knowledgeable,” adds Amy Shapiro, a family-law attorney who has been opposing counsel to, referred cases to, and worked on cases with Hickey and also knows her as a former neighbor in Shorewood. “She’s always respectful of clients and lawyers on the other side. She’s collegial and respectful in all ways. I’m in awe of her ability to represent everybody the way she does.”
Hickey’s law office on Erie Street in Milwaukee’s Third Ward is close to the Hoan Bridge, seen in the background. At lunch
time, she often walks to the Erie Street Plaza along the Milwaukee River, the site of this photo.
Getting Involved With the State Bar of Wisconsin
Hickey began her bar association involvement during her early years at Charne Clancy, where the late Irv Charne encouraged it of everyone who worked at the firm. Hickey recalls him as “a man with a huge social conscience who believed tremendously in the bar as a profession – he believed in giving back. When you were an associate in his firm, you were essentially required to volunteer for the bar.”
Hickey’s involvement in bar associations and other legal groups during the past 30 years makes an impressive list. At the Milwaukee Bar Association, she served as vice chair of the Elder Law Section before joining the board of directors and then serving as president in 2004-05. Hickey has served as president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (2006), president of the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (2012), and board director at the Milwaukee Bar Foundation (2005-12).
At the State Bar of Wisconsin, Hickey has been chair of the Elder Law Section (1998-99) and the Family Law Section (2002-03), chair of the Board of Governors (2006-07), treasurer (2009-11), and a leader of several committees. “I really enjoy that work,” Hickey says. “It helps me remember why I became a lawyer. We have a profession that I think can make a difference. I’ve been involved in some kind of bar work since I went to work for Irv Charne in 1988. That’s a long time. I’ve been involved in local bars as well, and the Association of Women Lawyers, but the Milwaukee [Bar Association] and [the] State Bar have been my primary focus.”
Many of the same qualities that have made Hickey an excellent boss and then law partner will put her in good stead to lead the State Bar, Poster says. “The law is why we’re together, but the gel, for her, is about relationships and about people, and I think that will translate well to her being a leader for the bar, as it has in every other area of her life,” she says. “Her willingness to listen to people and hear their concerns and her commitment to equity and justice have been there throughout her career. She’s a very humble person, and that’s one of the things that makes her a great leader and makes people want her to lead.”
Hickey is a natural leader who listens to other people, takes that information, and makes decisions, Becker says. “And boy, is she a hard worker,” she says. “She is very easy to get along with. Margaret has everything you need – personal skills, ability to handle emotional issues, and at the same time, being a tough negotiator. And she is committed to the State Bar. She has spent many years on the board, in various positions. She is more than ready to be president. She’ll be a good leader. She’ll take into account the varying needs of people – big-firm lawyers, small-firm lawyers. She’s led so many different organizations.”
Shapiro says Hickey will be an asset to the State Bar on many levels. “She’s been on so many committees and head of so many committees – and how she’s able to maintain her practice, I have no idea how she does it. She’s a very good listener and a very strong advocate. We have gone head to head – I have a mediation with her tomorrow. She has the ability to see other points of view and problem-solve. She listens, but also people listen to her.”
Wrenn cites his wife’s intelligence and hard work in bringing about a consensus, in a group in which people might start with widely varying opinions but come together to resolve their differences. “She’ll figure out a way to do that,” he says. “She’s not a forceful leader in the sense that she bullies people into her way of thinking or anything like that. She has a way of having people come together. She’s very patient. She’s also got great ideas. She has strong views on a number of subjects. She’s a strong believer in the organized bar and what it can do for lawyers everywhere. She’s a strong believer in diversity.”
Hickey became a village trustee in Shorewood (2006-11) after residents approached her and asked her to run, Wrenn recalls. “I went to a lot of the trustee meetings and watched her,” he says. “It’s a different context, of course, but all those same things I mentioned, she brought to bear at those meetings. She’s great in those kinds of settings. She’s an ambitious person, without being overly political about it.”
“I told her she was crazy to run for State Bar president,” Centofanti says. “She’s so busy. Why would she take on this, when she doesn’t have to? Is it really going to benefit her career that much? She said that the State Bar is important, and she believes in it. When she was asked – of course she said yes. She is so trustworthy, and you can believe she will do everything that needs to be done. Not only will she do a good job running the State Bar, but she will do a good job representing the lawyers of Wisconsin.”
Plans for the Coming Year
As Hickey takes the reins as State Bar of Wisconsin president, she intends to sound a theme of adapting to change. “The last two years have shown us that we can – that the system can change faster than we thought was possible,” she says. “That makes me optimistic. To tackle the problems we have, it’s going to require change – and we have shown that we can change, that our legal system can adapt. That’s a positive indication that we’re going to be able to solve some of these problems.”
Hickey does not intend to start a raft of new initiatives but to carry forward “the good work the State Bar is already doing” on a number of fronts. Her top priorities are helping newer lawyers, providing greater access to justice, and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion both within the bar and in the wider legal profession.
Helping younger lawyers is “something I feel very passionate about,” Hickey says. “One of the first things I did [when elected] was to reach out to the president of the Young Lawyers [Division] to talk about their needs, and how the State Bar can best support younger lawyers. I went to a recent conference they had, and my plan is to continue to not just be in touch, but most importantly, to listen to what they need and help them with what they perceive they need the most. Is that mentoring? Is that opportunities to grow their practice by meeting other professionals?”
Hickey notes that the pandemic has underscored the disparities in access to justice for low-income people and people of color. “We need to look at access to justice issues to make sure we serve all of our statewide needs, and not just those [of] people who can afford to hire us,” she says. Governor Tony Evers allocated $8 million for civil legal aid from Wisconsin’s share of the federal pandemic relief funding authorized under the American Rescue Plan legislation, and this “is real money. That’s going to help. But we do need to make sure that lawyers are available to do the work.”
Hickey cites as one example whether there are enough public defenders in more remote parts of Wisconsin to take the cases that need to be handled. “That is a real problem,” she says. “But one thing we can do, which we learned through COVID, is that lawyers can appear remotely, and many, many things can be handled remotely. Maybe a lawyer in Washington County can appear in a case in Oconto County. We need to rethink the delivery of services, so we can serve more people. We have a lot of great agencies in the state, but they have to have money, and they have to have lawyers to do the work. That’s where the problem lies.”
The State Bar of Wisconsin has a diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility plan that Hickey intends to reexamine and hone its implementation across three areas: “inside the bar, outside the bar among lawyers and the people we serve, and in the greater community,” she says, adding that she’s been serving on a committee looking at how to revise the plan. “We need to look at how DEI access affects everything we do. It’s not enough to support lawyers of diverse backgrounds. How are we producing continuing legal education seminars? How are we producing the magazine? How are we supporting young lawyers in leadership? It’s a huge task, but we can do it.”
Hickey mentions a few other ongoing State Bar projects that she plans to continue. One is the Greater Wisconsin Initiative, which has been focused on the dwindling numbers of lawyers in rural parts of the state and how the State Bar could help meet that need. “We need to continue problem-solving on that,” she says.
The other is the issue of well-being, which the State Bar has reported on in the past, and with which lawyers have particular challenges, Hickey says. “We probably do a good job in addressing our clients’ needs, but we don’t do a good job addressing our own needs,” she says. “We want lawyers to be healthy, to serve their clients, and to be contributing members of their own family. Sometimes, your family is where you show your stress.” [See the feature article on the Wisconsin Lawyer Well-Being Task Force elsewhere in this issue.]
Family and Pastimes
Hickey’s own family is what she terms “a fairly modern American family.” She and Wrenn both have children from former marriages and they have a child together. The four children range in age from 27 to 47. One lives in Minneapolis, one is moving there, and the other two live in Seattle.
Bob Wrenn practiced commercial litigation for 25 years and then became CEO of a nonprofit organization that helps people with severe mental illness. Son Eliot Wrenn is a licensed attorney who practiced privately for a time and now works as a legal research supervisor for Thomson Reuters, where he’s “still involved in law but doesn’t have to worry about billable hours,” Hickey notes. Son Mack is a physician. Son Sam, a scientist, worked on one of the COVID vaccines and is now at a startup doing cancer-related research and development. Daughter Madeleine Schulz is a user researcher at Microsoft.
While Hickey has difficulty finding time for hobbies, she’s been a weaver since her undergraduate days and makes “simple projects like blankets and scarves, which makes your mind think differently than you do as a lawyer.” She also enjoys the outdoors – she owns a kayak – and she and her husband love to travel. Bob Wrenn is a “car guy and a woodworker,” which, Hickey says, “means I know more about those things than I ever thought I would.”
Far more important than any hobbies, she says, “We have four grandsons, which is the absolute best job in the world, as I don’t have to tell anybody who is a grandparent. We spend a lot of our free time trying to see them and be a part of their lives.”
» Cite this article: 95 Wis. Law. 20-24 (July/August 2022).