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Ebbott champions quality representation

John Ebbott (Photo by Kevin Harnack)

John Ebbott (Photo by Kevin Harnack)

At first glance, the bald head and boots may suggest attorney John Ebbott should be tearing up the asphalt in a Harley Davidson commercial rather than overseeing the administration of free legal services to the poor.

While Ebbott does own a Harley “bagger” that he drives out west on vacations, his casual, yet forthright demeanor is well-suited to his job as executive director of Legal Action of Wisconsin, a position Ebbott has held for the past 20 years.

Since graduating from law school in 1970, Ebbott’s legal pursuits have always trended toward providing access to justice for low-income people both locally and nationally, he said. He started his career as a staff attorney at Freedom Through Equality Inc., a law reform legal services firm in Milwaukee, and later spent time as litigation director for the Migrant Legal Action Project in Washington, D.C.

Last fall, Ebbott filed a petition with the Wisconsin Supreme Court asking it to adopt a rule which would mandate that judges appoint counsel in most civil cases. He acknowledged it could be a tough sell, but that doesn’t diminish his belief that everyone has a right to quality legal representation, he said.

Ebbott emphasized that notion in this week’s Asked & Answered.

Wisconsin Law Journal:
If you could develop one CLE course for credit, what would it be about?

John F. Ebbott:
The treatment of poverty stricken pro se litigants by the courts.

WLJ: What was your least favorite course in law school and why?

Ebbott: Accounting and the Law, the professor seldom spoke even in single-entry sentences.

WLJ: What is your favorite website and why?

Ebbott:, because it promotes the right to counsel in civil cases.

WLJ: What is the one luxury item you cannot live without?

Ebbott: I need two: my 1991 Isuzu Trooper and my 1985 Chevy pickup.

WLJ: What is one thing attorneys should know that they won’t learn in law school?

Ebbott: That the preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct states: ‘All lawyers should devote professional time and resources and use civic influence to ensure equal access to our system of justice for all those who because of economic or social barriers cannot afford or secure adequate legal counsel.’

WLJ: What is the first concert you went to?

Ebbott: A massed choir at the World Council of Churches in Soldier Field in about 1954.

WLJ: If you could trade places with someone for a day, who would it be and why?

Ebbott: Bill Clinton, so that I could pursue my Clinton Global Initiative around the world and, for one day, forget about the mean politics of this country.

WLJ: What is your motto?

Ebbott: A declaration by President Eisenhower: ‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.’

WLJ: What is your favorite movie about lawyers or the law and why?

Ebbott: Not a movie, but a TV show: “The Defenders.” It features defense lawyers, for a change, and doesn’t portray them as sleazeballs, for a change, (like “Law and Order” does.) I like it despite (Jim) Belushi being a Bears fan.

WLJ: If you hadn’t become a lawyer, what career would you have chosen?

Ebbott: Custom combining from Texas to Canada, operating a fleet of wheat combines that harvest wheat, beginning in Texas and harvesting up through Kansas, Nebraska and Montana and into Saskatchewan.

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at

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