As the president-elect and now president of the State Bar of Wisconsin, Fran Deisinger has attended his share of events over the past year. He’s been there, for instance, for Wisconsin Supreme Court hearings and for swearing-in ceremonies for new lawyers.
In a phone conversation on May 10, he mentioned that earlier in the day he’d attended the luncheon for 50-year State Bar members, where he was struck by comments made by one of the honorees: former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson.
Thompson remarked that in his political life as a Republican, he’s had many arguments with Democratic leaders about policy issues. Nevertheless, they somehow managed to set aside differences and go out together to just talk over a beer or lunch.
That story resonated with Deisinger and his views on how all individuals in leadership positions ought to conduct themselves.
“When you get a group of like-minded people together,” he says, “you can come up with a better resolution. By like-minded I don’t mean they agree on everything. I mean they have a generous spirit and are willing to work on solving problems together. I believe strongly that the more smart people you get working on an issue, the better. It’s a waste of talent not to do that.”
Deisinger is looking forward to carrying out this approach to leadership in the year ahead. And he’s equally excited about the opportunity to meet more State Bar members from Wisconsin and beyond.
Getting the Call
Becoming the new president marks Deisinger’s first involvement in a governance role in the State Bar. He describes the call from former State Bar president and long-time acquaintance Mike Guerin, in which Guerin invited him to consider running for this office, as “the most shocking thing I’d heard in my life,” he says. “If you’d given me a thousand guesses as to what that phone call was going to be about, that wouldn’t have been it.”
At one time, Deisinger might have said much the same about the notion of becoming a lawyer someday, although the idea did cross his mind briefly during high school in Milwaukee. Except for his years at the U.W. Law School and while doing a summer clerkship at a Chicago law firm, he’s lived his entire life in the Milwaukee area.
His father was an electrical engineer, and his mother, who lost her eyesight at age 14, managed a household including eight children. “She’s a remarkable woman,” Deisinger says.
After he graduated from U.W.-Milwaukee with a degree in Latin and film history/criticism, he wasn’t sure what his next step ought to be. “You know that old line from the Beatles: ‘Out of college, money spent, see no future, pay no rent’? It wasn’t quite that dire,” he says, “but I spent one sort of feckless year in graduate school and then took a job as a messenger for a stock brokerage firm.”
At a party one weekend he ran into a high school friend who said he was going to apply to law school and asked Deisinger, “Want to go?” Once the friend had planted the idea in Deisinger’s mind, “I just ran with it,” he says.
Still, he experienced his share of 1L self-doubts and intimidation at the U.W. Law School. “After the first couple of days,” he recalls, “I was terrified by how smart everybody else was. So I thought, ‘I’m leaving.’”
He didn’t. Connecting with some excellent professors and developing a group of fellow law student friends made him feel he was in the right place after all, and he graduated in 1982.
By the time Deisinger finished law school, he knew he wanted to return to his hometown to live and practice law. His professional home ever since has been at Milwaukee’s Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren s.c., where he’s now a shareholder.
Connecting back to his undergraduate degree in film history and criticism, Fran Deisinger screens movies in his basement
theater. He writes a blog called “Movies About Lawyers and Lawyering,” and he regularly contributes articles about
lawyer movies to the Milwaukee Bar Association. Photos: Andy Manis
An Evolving Career Path
Deisinger started out at Reinhart in general litigation practice. From there, his special interests and natural strengths developed. For instance, as a young lawyer, he joined the firm’s ethics committee. “As I got into the subject of legal ethics,” he says, “I found I enjoyed it, and I’ve become more involved with it over the years.” In fact, he’s taught numerous CLE seminars on legal ethics during his career.
For about half his tenure at Reinhart, Deisinger has been the firm’s general counsel. He explains the role as being much like the job of general counsel for a non-law business entity. His responsibilities include chairing the firm’s ethics committee, handling loss-prevention matters and claims, and so on.
“I’m kind of a handyman type,” he says. “I handle whatever comes up in legal issues facing our firm.” In addition, he still does some litigation work for clients, primarily representing trustees and banks in estate or trust matters.
Fellow Reinhart partner Jennifer D’Amato has worked with Deisinger on many contentious trust and estate litigation issues. “Fran’s temperament is fantastic,” D’Amato says. “In these cases, you have family members pitted against one another, so there’s a lot of emotion involved. Fran stays calm, and he listens to what people have to say. He really tries to resolve problems.” She feels such traits will serve him well in leading a diverse organization such as the State Bar.
In my mind, nothing is better than bar service to counter
isolation. You make connections that are gratifying and
probably helpful in your practice. But most of all, it just
makes for a better life.
Another significant part of Deisinger’s practice is representing lawyers called to appear before the Office of Lawyer Regulation or the Board of Bar Examiners, as well as lawyers facing malpractice lawsuits.
Overall, Deisinger says he devotes about half his work time these days to his duties as Reinhart’s general counsel. “I divide things in halves,” he quips, “but right now I have too many of them. My Bar service alone takes up virtually half my time.”
But that’s in no way a complaint. Many years ago, he decided to become active in the Milwaukee Bar Association, primarily because he wanted to meet more lawyers. He eventually served as one of the association’s directors for several years and as president for one year. Until June 1 of this year, he was president of the Milwaukee Bar Association Foundation.
In his various capacities with the Milwaukee Bar Association, “what I liked most was getting to know other lawyers in Milwaukee,” he says. “Now I’m meeting lawyers from all over the state, and I love it.”
This past year as State Bar president-elect has “opened my eyes to the breadth of not just the responsibilities of being president,” Deisinger says, “but also the obligations and capabilities of the Bar itself.” There’s much the State Bar can and must do for its members and for the legal profession, he says.
He adds that he’s emerged from the past year with a deeper appreciation for the challenges currently facing State Bar members: new technologies, new types of competitors offering legal services, and so on. “There’s a lot going on that puts our members under some distress, whether they’re in a large firm, small firm, government agency, or some other setting,” he says.
While all that presents a daunting picture of what needs to be done, Deisinger brings with him a valuable lesson from his leadership roles in the Milwaukee Bar Association. “I learned a bar association can accomplish much if you just go for it,” he says, “and get all hands on deck. You can move the needle” on vital issues.
For instance, in the case of the Milwaukee Bar Association, a key accomplishment Deisinger points to was the creation of the Milwaukee Justice Center, where lawyers, paralegals, and law students volunteer to serve the legal needs of low-income county residents.
Access to justice must continue to be a major focus of the State Bar, too, Deisinger says, and he intends to add a related concern: disparate incarceration. “Wisconsin has a deplorable racial disparity in incarceration,” he says. “Compared to the rest of the country, the ratio here is just awful.”
Based on conversations he’s had in the past year with people both inside and outside the legal profession, he sees a great deal of interest in finding solutions to that problem.
Deisinger and former State Bar presidents Ralph Cagle and Michelle Behnke traveled this spring to the nation’s capital to meet with all members of the Wisconsin congressional delegation. Republicans and Democrats alike expressed strong desires to address the inequity of racially disparate incarceration.
“Everyone we met with is interested,” Deisinger says, “for differing reasons. To me, they are all good reasons. Let’s take this momentum and see if we can move the needle on this issue. It’s important that the Bar takes the lead.”
Part-time Movie Critic
The recent trip to Washington had an additional purpose. Deisinger teamed up with Cagle to present a seminar to the Washington, D.C., chapter of the State Bar’s Nonresident Lawyers Division. The topic: professional ethics lessons from the movies.
Dianne Molvig is a frequent contributor to area and national publications.
For Deisinger, this connects back to that decades-old undergraduate degree in film history and criticism. Movies continue to hold a fascination for him. He writes a blog called “Movies About Lawyers and Lawyering,” and he regularly contributes articles about lawyer movies to the Messenger, the Milwaukee Bar Association’s magazine.
His writings about movies are essays, not reviews, he explains. “I’m not saying ‘Go see this movie or that one,’” Deisinger says. “I write about any movie about lawyers or lawyering, no matter when it was made. The majority of them were made years ago.”
What’s the best one he’s seen? Anatomy of a Murder gets his vote. His pick for one of little value would be A Few Good Men. “I kind of panned it,” Deisinger says. “I thought it was hackneyed.”
Besides viewing movies, another way Deisinger unwinds from his busy professional life is by watching college basketball games. Then there’s the family cabin in Vilas County, where he can escape with his wife, Judy. Together they raised two sons, Nate and John, both now grown and on their own, one living in Syracuse, N.Y., and the other in Seattle. Both came home for their dad’s swearing-in ceremony on June 15 at the State Bar’s Annual Meeting & Conference in Green Bay.
The date June 15 has great significance for Deisinger. He was sworn in as a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin on June 15, 1982. He was sworn in as State Bar president on June 15, 2016. Long before these two dates, in 1924, Deisinger’s father, John, was born on June 15.
Deisinger says family life has always been his “refuge” from the challenges presented by his lawyering career. He’ll have some new challenges on his plate in the year ahead as State Bar president. And, yes, bar activities of any sort, state or local, are one more demand on a lawyer’s time, he concedes.
But Deisinger feels it’s worth it, and that it has been ever since his involvement began years ago with the Milwaukee Bar Association.
“Once I got involved,” he says, “my only regret was, ‘Why didn’t I do this earlier?’ Bar service is so different in a good way from the other things we do as lawyers. We get to work on behalf of the profession and our colleagues. If we’re not careful, we lawyers can become isolated. In my mind, nothing is better than bar service to counter isolation. You make connections that are gratifying and probably helpful in your practice. But most of all, it just makes for a better life.”