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State Bar’s outside attorney talk ends with no action

A closed-door discussion regarding the State Bar’s procedure to hire an outside attorney ended with no decision Saturday morning.

Bar President Patrick Fiedler said the bar’s Board of Governors – during its meeting in La Crosse, made it clear that it did not want to be involved in the day-to-day operations of the bar. Hiring Bobbi Howell of Foley & Lardner LLP to recently represent the bar in front of the state Supreme Court – and subsequently paying her $27,588 – would fall into that category.

Fiedler said bar Executive Director George Brown told governors about hiring counsel in the past.

And after the 90-minute closed session – held with no objections by any present governors – was finished, no governor tried to change anything about the way the president or bar staff would handle a different situation in the future. And Fielder said he does not anticipate that changing in the near future.

“Ultimately it was decided that this is something that comes within the purview of the decisions the president has the ability to make,” Fiedler said.

That portion of the meeting was sparked by concerns from governors after they read an email BOG member Steve Levine sent to former State Bar Assistant Executive Director Lynda Tanner questioning the amount paid to Howell. The Foley & Lardner attorney was hired to defend a bylaw the BOG passed 38-2 in June that states the BOG can remove a governor if he or she “engages in conduct which is contrary to the best interest of the State Bar.”

Fiedler said he hired Howell at Brown’s request.

Levine – who was not at this weekend’s BOG meeting – had filed his own petition asking the court to strike down the bar’s bylaw. The state’s Supreme Court unanimously decided earlier this month that the BOG should not, as written, have that power, with Justice David Prosser adding that the court would be “insane” to approve the BOG’s petition as is.

Absent Levine’s challenge, the bar would still have had to file a rules petition. But Fiedler said after Saturday’s meeting that he does not think the bar would have had to hire Howell if Levine hadn’t filed his own petition.

“If there had not been the petition filed by Gov. Levine, and the subsequent briefing schedule issued by the Supreme Court, my sense is no, it would not have occurred to us to hire outside counsel,” Fiedler said.

Fiedler also said he does not regret hiring Howell, even if the court didn’t rule in the bar’s favor. He said that while the amount paid to Howell could create some “sticker shock,” Howell also drafted the bar’s petition and had a Foley & Lardner associate work with her.

Howell – along with BOG member Ray Dall’Osto and Brown – also conducted a mock hearing to prepare for the one the Supreme Court held in January, Fiedler said. That time also factored into the money that the bar paid Howell.

“That’s the norm,” Fiedler said. “If you’re going to go in front of the Supreme Court, you have to be as prepared as possible.”

Levine has said he thinks the push to move the discussion behind closed doors was made to spare the bar from embarrassment in trying to defend the bylaw. But bar spokeswoman Andrea Gage said it was closed because it touched on past litigation.

Governors at the meeting were given envelopes with Howell’s invoice Friday, as well as other information that pertained to the discussion.

The bar is set up as a quasi-governmental body that performs a function – i.e. the regulation of lawyers in Wisconsin – that the courts system would otherwise have to do. However, the bar does many other things that don’t qualify as government functions.

About Eric Heisig

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