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Bar president hopefuls talk increased dues, decreasing membership

Wisconsin State Bar President candidates Chris Rogers (left) and Jon Axelrod stand near the state Capitol on April 5 in Madison. (Staff photos by Kevin Harnack)

Wisconsin State Bar President candidates Chris Rogers (left) and Jon Axelrod stand near the state Capitol on April 5 in Madison. (Staff photos by Kevin Harnack)

Two Madison litigators are facing off in this year’s race for State Bar president. The two were nominated by committee to run for the position and their acceptance was announced in February.

Attorneys should receive ballots for the election by Friday and return them by April 28. The winner will start on July 1 on a one-year term as president-elect before becoming president.

Jon Axelrod is a shareholder at DeWitt Ross & Stevens, where he has worked since 1974. He earned his law degree at the University of Wisconsin Law School and has been practicing for 43 years.

Axelrod’s platform calls for persuading the Legislature and Wisconsin Supreme Court to provide law clerks to all circuit court judges and appointing a committee to study whether the court’s civility rules should be enforced by the Office of Lawyer Regulation.

Chris Rogers is a shareholder at Habush Habush & Rottier, where he has worked since 1999. He works on cases involving product defects, vehicle accidents and general negligence. Rogers earned his law degree at the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1995.

Rogers has done volunteer work with the State Bar since 2012 and was first elected to serve on the Board of Governors in 2012.

Axelrod and Rogers each recently took a break from the campaign trail to sit down with the Wisconsin Law Journal for an interview.

Chris Rogers

Chris Rogers

Chris Rogers

WLJ: If elected, what would your top priority be?

Chris Rogers: One of the biggest things for me would be to absolutely focus on communicating with our members and working to underscore the point that the State Bar is a value-added association for our members and it has to drive comparative advantage for them at every turn.

We need to be a voice for them, whether that’s lobbying or another venue, but really underscore the point that the State Bar is here to serve you and add value to you to your practice. That is key because if we have a disconnect with our members, it’s a problem and it’s unacceptable, quite frankly.

We need to address the changing role of our profession. Change is coming quickly, whether we like it or not. We’re having what some people call the uberization of the legal profession, the commercialization of legal services through things like LegalZoom that are, quite frankly, barely regulated. And that’s an issue where the State Bar really needs to drive a competitive advantage to its members and needs to lobby with regard to regulation around the country. Throughout the country, the regulation aspect of that has not succeeded, so the bar has to be forward-thinking and support the membership and help them be as competitive as possible.

I think a huge issue for me is the access to justice issue and the economics of that. Quite frankly, the rate for our assistant district attorneys and public defenders and private-pay public defenders is just ridiculously low. And we need the support effort to try to increase that as we are doing currently with the judiciary.

We have some of our northern counties where I believe we don’t have private-pay public defenders able to work in those counties. We just don’t have the bodies.

WLJ: What are the biggest challenges facing Wisconsin attorneys and what should the bar’s role be in overcoming those?

CR: Some of the biggest challenges our attorneys have is facing nationwide competition, is dealing with a pay scale when you’re a public and government lawyer that is difficult to manage, and the demands of the practice can be difficult and stressful. And the State Bar needs to focus on all of those issues — and it can. It’s uniquely situated to do so.

We’re looking at these issues. The question is: Do our members understand and know that and feel it is adding value? We have to be fiscally responsible in doing these things and that’s a whole other topic.

The changing demographics of the membership of our profession in Wisconsin is certainly a challenge. The changing face of technology is another example. Right now, to access the State Bar on your laptop, your tablet or cellphone is pretty darn difficult. And that’s just unacceptable.

We need to make certain that the State Bar comes to our members. It doesn’t work the other way around. Our members shouldn’t be traveling to the State Bar. So we need to be accessible from a technological standpoint. You should be able to access the State Bar programs through your smartphone with a click of a button, through your tablet, through video conferencing. That provides value. And quite frankly, the younger, newer lawyers, that’s the universe that they live in — we are all living in now. So the bar has got to be nimble enough to deal with it.

WLJ: The State Bar is projecting a decrease in membership. What are your thoughts on why this is happening, what it means for the bar and what the bar should do to deal with it?

CR: Declining membership is simply a reflection of the market forces we’re seeing nationally. The cost of the degree is increasing. The margins of profit and quality of life can be, at least some people argue, is decreasing. There is the commercialization of legal services. So the public is looking elsewhere, which I think is dangerous. So all of these are factors, along with sheer demographics. The baby boomers are hitting retirement age. It’s something that isn’t a surprise or shouldn’t be. But I think it’s been accelerated by the market forces I’ve just mentioned.

What the State Bar needs to do is make sure to support our older lawyers as they transition. We need to support and advocate for our younger lawyers. We have to have these discussions openly to make certain that the public is being served. After all, that is our charge. And we want them to be served responsibly, professionally, with qualified lawyers. That’s one of the charges of the bar: to protect the public interest. So it’s of the utmost importance.

WLJ: And with that projected decline in membership, the bar is proposing increasing dues. What are your thoughts on the proposed $4 increase?

CR: It underscores the importance that the State Bar has to be of value to its practicing members. It has to provide value for dues dollars — period. The responsibilities of the bar and its mission is broad and important, but you are not going to have members that feel supported by the bar and that the bar is doing good work for them and the citizenry of the state if they feel the bar is not being fiscally responsible with dues.

I take the fiduciary responsibility of the bar extremely seriously. There has to be a constant analysis of the programs the bar is providing compared with the service and number of lawyers those programs are supporting.

When I go around the state and talk about our bar, non-dues revenue is often times brought up. We have to look at tailoring our CLE programming to maximize non-dues revenue but we have to do it strategically, meaning there has to be a cost-benefit analysis to it. We can’t just create programs. We have to be fiscally responsible to make certain we’re targeting our dues efficiently. And we also have to do the same strategically with our continuing legal education programming.

And I think there is room there, as long as we are doing it fiscally and strategically, to help with non-dues revenue. The bar is going to have to get more nimble. It’s going to have to, in all likelihood, get smaller. It still can serve its members as long as it is agile enough to do it.

WLJ: At the last meeting some governors noted that rural and government lawyer members are questioning the value they are getting from their bar memberships. What are your thoughts about how the bar can respond to that concern?

CR: One of the reasons I chose to accept the nomination is that I’ve had the pleasure of being a member of the Kenosha, Walworth and Racine County bars along with Milwaukee.

I know what the day-to-day pressures of law practice is. I’m in the trenches. I understand rural counties. I grew up in two rural counties; I practiced in rural counties.

I understand that every dollar counts and we have to treat our members with the respect that they require when it comes to being fiduciaries of our State Bar dues.

There have been numerous petitions over the last 10 to 15 years to have our government lawyers’ bar dues paid by the state as part of their salaries, to have the state pay those. That has fallen on deaf ears. There are members across the state who are paying their dues themselves. They see the bill come out, it’s got the Supreme Court and other assessments on it and that’s a big number. You have to dig down a little bit to see where the State Bar number is — even that number, at $254, is significant.

WLJ: Why should lawyers vote for you?

CR: I went into the field of law to be an advocate. That’s what I enjoy about the profession. When I got involved in volunteer work with the bar, I thought it was time to be an advocate for fellow lawyers. That’s really what the genesis was for me getting involved. It was extremely rewarding.

It was capped by running the search for the new executive director. Throughout all of that I had the opportunity to talk to lawyers throughout the country and really started seeing the challenges, on a national level, the profession is facing and want to be part of solving that and supporting members in doing so.

Based on my background I think I am qualified to do that. I understand the finances. I understand the structure. I can hit the ground running. I can be a sharpened voice for not just fiscal responsibility but also for advocacy where we need it to be.

Jon Axelrod

Jon Axelrod

Jon Axelrod

Wisconsin Law Journal: If elected, what would your top priority be?

Jon Axelrod: Probably first on my list would be assistant district attorneys and public defenders, who are paid less than starting police officers. Both, of course, are very important to public safety.

And there’s no principal reason why assistant DAs and public defenders shouldn’t be paid fairly. And then if you look at the assigned counsel rate, that’s $40 an hour. That was set, what, in 1977?

Obviously one of the first things that I would do, if I was fortunate enough to be State Bar president, is to not only make sure that our association lobbies the Legislature to change that. But I think that’s something that could be done by petition to the Supreme Court, as well, because one of the most important cases that we study in constitutional law is Gideon vs. Wainwright, which is the basic right of every criminal defendant to an attorney. And it seems to me that $40 an hour is contrary to Gideon.

At $40 an hour, you’re only going to get two types of people who are going to do that: You’re going to get very principled people who take these assignments, but we can’t do that all the time. But then unfortunately the people who do it on a regular basis either are people who are very wealthy or who have other means to do this, or are practitioners that don’t provide the level of service the constitution requires. That’s a huge problem. And I’m not sure that what’s currently in the budget for assistant district attorneys and state public defenders is sufficient.

Second, we want to have the best people who are willing to become assistant district attorneys and state public defenders. In order to attract the best people, it seems to me we’re not only going to have to pay them fairly, but I’d like to see Wisconsin — I think we’re down near the bottom right now — and I ‘d like to see us closer to the top.

WLJ: What are the biggest challenges facing Wisconsin attorneys and what should the bar’s role be in overcoming those challenges?

JA: Technology has dramatically changed our profession largely for the better, but it’s required attorneys to adapt. And one of the areas where the State Bar has done a great job is that the CLE courses that are available in technology are plentiful and first-rate.

But I’d like to go a step further because technology changes so quickly. It seems to me that the State Bar should consider asking the Supreme Court to require three technology credits every two years the same way the court requires three ethics credits every three years. That’s kind of a no-brainer to me because in a three-year period, there will be changes in ethics rules but they won’t be as massive as changes in technology. Technology seems to have a half-life of about six months. On the positive side, technology has enabled us to serve our clients’ needs more practically and more efficiently.

It’s also resulted in specialization. It’s wonderful in larger cities but in terms of other areas of the state, I don’t want to see specialization drive lawyers away from general practice. If I have an idol in the law, it wouldn’t be Clarence Darrow. It would be a sole practitioner in rural Wisconsin who’s truly a jack of all trades.

It’s going to take new ideas to address those issues.

WLJ: The State Bar is projecting a decrease in membership. What are your thoughts on why this is happening, what it means for the bar and what the bar should do to deal with it?

JA: It depends on the locality. I have a sense that in downtown Chicago there might be too many lawyers right now, and I have a sense that we might be in sync in Madison and Milwaukee. But certainly, in rural Wisconsin, we’re under-served.

Declining law-school enrollments can create a real problem there. The state medical society has a program whereby physicians who locate in underserved areas will be given student-loan forgiveness. I think there’s a five-year requirement. I’d like to see the State Bar of Wisconsin, and particularly the Wisconsin Law Foundation, which is the charitable arm of the State Bar, do the same thing.

I was president of the Fellows of the Wisconsin Law Foundation for the past three years. We were able to, during my tenure, raise a quarter of a million dollars. It seems to me that there’s money available both in the legal profession, as well as in the corporate sector, that could provide funds for such a program.

I’d like to see a State Bar program to match recent law school graduates with senior members of the bar retiring in those areas or who maybe have plans for retirement in the next three to five years. If we could match a law school graduate with a senior member of the bar who is willing to be a mentor, I think that would not only encourage somebody to go to an underserved area, but would benefit the senior lawyer as well because he or she is going to have a roster of clients who are going to need services after that retirement occurs.

I’d like to see a CLE credit for mentoring. I’d like to see it in Milwaukee and Madison, but I’d particularly like to see it in rural Wisconsin. For the first time, our Supreme Court is giving CLE credit for certain pro bono activities. I believe that rule went into effect in January. It seems to me that mentoring is as important, if not more important. Rather than require it, let’s incentivize it by awarding CLE credit not only to the recent law school graduate but to the mentor as well.

WLJ: And with that projected decrease in membership, the bar is proposing increasing dues. What are your thoughts on proposed $4 increase?

JA: It seems to me increasing dues by $4 as opposed to not raising dues are fundamentally the same. And the $4 increase sends the wrong message.

Both the state of Wisconsin and the federal government appropriately take the position that the government is the client and therefore if you’re a government lawyer, in most instances, you can’t have a private practice on the side. Well if that’s the case, it seems to me that they need to pay for the tools that you do your work with.

I would like to see us, at least in Wisconsin, have the State Bar use our ‘lobbying’ power to require the state of Wisconsin to pay the dues and the assessments of state of Wisconsin lawyers.

WLJ: At the last meeting some governors noted that rural and government lawyers members are questioning the value they are getting from their bar memberships. What are your thoughts about how the bar can respond to that concern?

JA: We have to make our organization more responsive, effective and appealing to all members. I’m not just talking about those in private practice, I’m talking about government lawyers, talking about the sole practitioners and I am talking about those who would not join our organization if membership was voluntary.

How do we do that? I think it’s a two-step process. The first thing that I would like to do would be to develop a survey to be transmitted to our members, preferably by email, which would dig down into what the needs of our members are.

It seems to me if we have less dues dollars to spend, we need to find out what are the most important things the State Bar can do for you. As a litigator I sit here in a bubble. I can tell you what the State Bar is doing — quite effectively — for litigators. But I’m not sure that without a properly developed survey that I can tell you exactly where the State Bar should be putting its program dollars for non-resident lawyers, for example.

The second step is finding out what changes in structure, if any, in programs are necessary to address those needs. I mean certainly the CLE programs are no-brainers. Those are done very well. I think we need to take those survey results and look at all programs and become leaner and meaner and make sure that we can remain appealing to all 26 sections, which is no easy task.

WLJ: Why should lawyers vote for you?

JA: I think I have the experience and the commitment to be an effective leader. I’m a good listener. But at the same time I’m not afraid to make decisions after hearing alternatives. I also think I’m a collegial person and the only way that the next State Bar president is going to be effective with 25,000 lawyers, 86 staff people and 52 governors is to be collegial and be a consensus builder. But I think at the same time, one has to be courageous and willing to speak out when it’s necessary.

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