The longtime executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee Inc. is retiring in September.
Tom Cannon, one of the most visible faces in the fight to help poor clients seek representation in court, has been involved with the nonprofit for more than four decades. He started his career as an attorney at Legal Aid in 1971, and has been its executive director since 2005.
He announced his retirement to the Board of Directors on Wednesday.
Cannon, 67, said he has always considered himself as one of the luckiest people he knows. After serving as a Marine in the Vietnam War in 1968 and 1969, where “you survive knowing it was just the physics of the battlefield” that kept him alive, he said it pushed him toward helping others.
“I wanted to do something with my law degree that would be different from just seeking money and prestige or power,” Cannon said. “I wanted to use my law degree to make a difference in people’s lives. I thought a career in legal aid work would be a way to do that.”
Peter Stone, the board’s president, said the board is sorry to see him go, though he added that he knew Cannon was thinking about retiring for some time.
“Tom has certainly contributed a lot over the years,” Stone said. “His expertise and experience will be difficult to replace.”
Cannon said he will spend his retirement working on other projects, including polishing a memoir about his time in Vietnam, and writing about Medieval Irish history, another longtime interest.
In recent years, he has been one of the loudest advocates for indigent representation in Milwaukee and across the state. His departure comes at a time where public money for these services is at an all-time low, as the state’s current biennial budget contains no money for civil legal services.
In an interview, Cannon also expressed disappointment with the state Supreme Court’s 2012 decision to deny a rule petition to set up a system where civil attorneys would be appointed at public expense.
“There was a lot of handwringing about where the money’s going to come from,” Cannon said. “It was such a departure from their predecessors on the court, [on] ruling that defendants in criminal cases [should be provided representation]. They never concerned themselves on where the money was going to come from.”
A new petition, co-sponsored by Cannon and Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc. Executive Director John Ebbott, is now pending before the court.
But while public money for the issue is nonexistent, Cannon said private money and action for civil legal services has grown since he started with Legal Aid.
Still, he said, it has “been a challenging time to raise funds for civil legal aid.”
Cannon also served as Legal Aid’s executive director between 1977 and 1981. He was on its board between 1985 and 2003, and served as the board’s president for eight years.
Legal Aid’s Board has set up a search committee for a new executive director. Cannon said the process will take several months and that he will train the new executive director once he or she is chosen.
Cannon’s retirement is the second high-profile loss to the Milwaukee legal services community this week. Ebbott also said in an interview Thursday that he will retire in June.