Most economics majors who graduate from Cornell University go on to Wall Street to make gobs of money.
Not Joe Bugni.
Raised by a factory worker and teacher in Bay View, he was drawn to helping the poor and disenfranchised.
“I wanted to eradicate misery,” Bugni said. “That was my goal. My best friend and I were going to do that.”
While that friend ended up on Wall Street anyway, Bugni took a winding path before finding his calling as a federal criminal defense lawyer, almost becoming a Catholic priest but eventually finding his way to law school.
After graduating from Ave Maria Law School in 2006, Bugni clerked for a federal district judge in Florida and then for Judge Daniel Manion of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. That first clerkship turned him on to criminal defense work.
“I saw the evils of the criminal justice system,” Bugni said. “My heart started to turn toward criminal defense. I saw people wrongfully accused or punished. I saw how little humanity they were treated with.”
Bugni’s approach to criminal defense focuses on recognizing that humanity in his clients, going beyond getting favorable results for them and defending their interests.
For example, after helping a client get released on bond, Bugni helped that client get a job driving cabs and helped him enroll in a technical school. That client ended up becoming part of the National Honor Society and landing a job at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee after graduation. Bugni helped another client get sober, texting him every day to encourage his sobriety.
Bugni’s extreme kindness is a personal attribute that makes him uncommon, says Madison attorney Steve Meyer, who runs a private practice focused on federal criminal defense.
“I see him take books up to his clients at the jail,” Meyer said. “How many lawyers do that — and then talk to them about the books?”
Jim Shellow, one of Milwaukee’s legendary criminal defense lawyers, is one of Bugni’s mentors and role models. Bugni grew up hearing about Shellow’s work from his father, and after corresponding for many years, the two became close friends and colleagues.
Shellow says Bugni’s writing sets him apart among federal criminal defense lawyers.
“His use of the language is incomparable,” Shellow said. “His briefs are absolutely elegant. His motions are original, and he is just beginning to develop the trial skills he will need to further his experience and further his efforts as a criminal trial lawyer.”
Shellow believes Bugni’s career is only just getting started.
“He is certainly one of the most talented of the young lawyers we have in Wisconsin,” said Shellow. “And someday I fully expect that he will be on a federal bench, where he can bring his depth of understanding of federal law.”