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  • InsideTrack
  • September 07, 2016

    The Essence of Being a Lawyer: John Skilton Receives Distinguished Service Award

    Litigation attorney John Skilton of Madison is a co-recipient of the Charles L. Goldberg Distinguished Service Award from the Wisconsin Law Foundation. Learn more about Skilton and his philosophy about what it means to be a lawyer.

    Shannon Green

    Sept. 7, 2016 – To serve. To be an advocate in the community. To represent clients, solve problems, and resolve disputes – ethically and within the bounds of propriety. To be a mentor to the next generation. To pick yourself up after a loss and move on. Above all, to be dignified, highly intellectual, and above reproach.

    That is the essence of being a lawyer, according to Madison attorney John Skilton.

    Described by colleagues as a highly respected litigation attorney and dedicated servant to the profession and the community, Skilton is the recipient of the Wisconsin Law Foundation’s 2016 Charles L. Goldberg Distinguished Service Award. He is a former president of the State Bar of Wisconsin and the Seventh Circuit Bar Association, and is currently – for the second time – a State Bar delegate to the American Bar Association House of Delegates. The award is given for a lifetime of service to the profession and the community, and will be presented at the 2016 Fellows of the Wisconsin Law Foundation Annual Recognition Dinner in Milwaukee on Oct. 18.

    “I’m honored and flattered,” Skilton said. “I’m very humbled to receive it.”

    Skilton is a partner with Perkins Coie LLP, Madison, and has 45 years of experience as a litigator – the last 30 concentrating on patent litigation. At 72, he’s had only “occasional whimsical thoughts” of retirement.

    He is a litigation attorney who is continuing his long years of service to legal associations and organizations, and has litigated numerous pro bono cases involving civil rights and constitutional issues.

    John Skilton

    Former State Bar president and longtime Madison attorney John Skilton is the recipient of the 2016 Charles L. Goldberg Distinguished Service Award.

    An ‘Honor to the Profession’

    Skilton is an “accomplished and skilled lawyer,” said Gerald O’Brien, who nominated Skilton for the award. “He has dedicated many, many hours to the public interest as well as the legal profession.”

    Skilton is “an honor to the profession,” says award committee chair Kevin Lonergan.

    “He is a co-recipient of the Goldberg Award because of his professional accomplishments and his innumerable charitable and public service endeavors. He is an accomplished and skilled lawyer, specializing in commercial litigation, and he has done countless hours of pro bono legal work. He is respected by prominent lawyers, judges, and justices,” Lonergan said.

    Over a long and distinguished career, Skilton has received professional recognition on numerous occasions, including the Wisconsin Law Foundation’s Gordon Sinykin Award of Excellence (1996); Wisconsin Equal Justice Fund’s Howard B. Eisenberg Lifetime Achievement Award (2001); the Dane County Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico Lifetime Achievement Award (2005); and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights’ Whitney North Seymour Award for exemplary service in securing equal justice under the law (2007).

    The Role of the Lawyer

    Over his decades of practice, he has held many positions, including president not only of the State Bar (1995-1996), but also of such organizations as the Wisconsin Equal Justice Coalition, the Wisconsin Law Foundation, the Wisconsin Law Alumni Association, the Western District Bar, and the Seventh Circuit Bar.

    Shannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.

    Skilton is dedicated to service to these associations due to his ideas about what it means to be a lawyer. Organized bar associations are vehicles for lawyers to contribute their services to the public and clients. And such service is something required of those who are lawyers. “I’ve always viewed it as consistent with being a lawyer,” Skilton said.

    He views dispute resolution as the core of practicing as a lawyer. “The first and primary role of the lawyer is to attempt to work with his or her clients to solve problems and resolve disputes, ethically, and within the bounds of propriety,” Skilton said.

    The Litigator

    His chosen area of practice comes from his earliest years as a lawyer. Graduating in 1969 from the U.W. Law School, he clerked for Judge Thomas Fairchild of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

    “Fairchild, in my humble opinion, was the greatest Wisconsin jurist of the twentieth century. He was truly an inspiration and great man. I was honored to work for him,” Skilton said.

    Such work was a “great privilege” and Fairchild was a great mentor. “I gained confidence that I could delve into varied areas without being an expert,” and come out with a favorable outcome.

    “Litigation is a joust, a fight,” Skilton said. “It keeps your attention, raises your blood pressure, and keeps your interest.” It is both mentally challenging and physically taxing.

    “You’re a doctor of all trades, master of none. I learn enough to try the case,” he said.

    And while he aims for victory, he’s learned that a loss teaches lessons, too. “Believe me, winning is a lot better than losing. Part of the toleration (of litigation) is the ability to absorb losses as well as enjoy wins,” Skilton said.

    Among his proudest achievements are serving on a committee that established the Thomas E. Fairchild Lectures at the U.W. Law School – named after the judge he most admired as a young lawyer.

    He is also proud of a legacy from his year as State Bar president – the formation in 1995 of the Commission on the Delivery of Legal Services. The commission ultimately created what is now the Wisconsin Equal Justice Fund, to support state legal service agencies offering services to those with low incomes. Skilton served as president of its board of directors, and was honored in 2003 with its Howard B. Eisenberg Lifetime Achievement Award.

    Judge Ness Flores joins John Skilton as Recipient of Charles L. Goldberg Award

    “It is a rare occasion that the awards committee receives multiple nominations for the Charles L. Goldberg Award, which in any other year, each of which would easily be deserving of the award,” says Kevin Lonergan, chair of the awards committee. “In the 34 prior years, on four occasions, the Wisconsin Law Foundation board voted to give the award to two deserving recipients. This year, when the committee could not decide between two top recipients, the decision was made to recommend both.”

    Congratulations to our two winners! Look for our profile of Judge Ness Flores in an upcoming issue of InsideTrack.

    See past winners of the award on

    Lincoln as Lawyer

    His father, U.W. law professor Robert Skilton, wrote a book about Abraham Lincoln, and taught courses on him. It is an interest the younger Skilton inherited – he occasionally gives presentations on Lincoln as a lawyer – one is available via the State Bar of Wisconsin PINNACLE.

    “Lincoln is the perfect role model for lawyers,” Skilton said. “A good lawyer, taking tough cases, some of which he didn’t agree with, but still practicing at the highest level.”

    Pro Bono Service

    As a litigator, he has donated his time to cases he believes in. For 10 years he represented the State Bar during the struggle over the issue of whether Wisconsin should have a mandatory bar, from 1987 to 1997. Those years encompassed the suspension of the mandatory membership rule – from 1988 to 1992.

    “It was a very intensive, tough, constitutional issue,” Skilton said.

    He took on the task because he strongly believed that an organized bar is the “best vehicle for lawyers to deliver their obligation (by professional oath) to serve the greater good.

    “Practicing law is a privilege, and doesn’t include the right to opt out of the profession’s ‘corporate’ responsibility to maintain the high standards of the profession, assist the public, and aid the court,” Skilton said.

    It was a long fight, he says, and one that may never be completely over. “The issue of a mandatory membership has been litigated in Wisconsin since 1963,” Skilton said. “I certainly had a role in it. I’m very proud of that role.”

    Passing It On

    No lawyer learns to be a lawyer on their own. And acknowledging those who helped along the way is an important part of who Skilton is as a lawyer, who talks of his debt to Judge Fairchild, Marvin Klitsner, David Beckwith, and Pat Brody.

    “Just as the torch was passed to us, so we must seize that torch and try ourselves to pass it on,” Skilton wrote in the April 1996 issue of Wisconsin Lawyer, while president of the State Bar.

    Among the next generation is his daughter, Laura Skilton Verhoff, an attorney with Stafford Rosenbaum LLP, Madison.

    “She’s following in my footsteps, and will do better than I did,” Skilton said.

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