When Margaret Wrenn Hickey, a Milwaukee family and elder law attorney, got a call asking her to run for president-elect of the State Bar of Wisconsin, she knew she had the experience needed for the job.
“I certainly have a passion for the State Bar and its role in the lives of lawyers,” Hickey said, “and I thought I could hopefully make a difference.”
Bar members elected Hickey in late April. She’ll start her one-year term as president-elect on July 1. In 2022, she’ll lead the organization as president.
The recent election is the latest chapter in Hickey’s involvement with the State Bar. She’s now in her 13th year on the Board of Governors, and she’s also been board chair, treasurer and a member of various committees over the years.
Hickey also brings an understanding of the difficulties encountered by lawyers at small firms, who make up the majority of bar membership. Hickey has worked at small firms for 30 years, including in her current role as partner of Becker, Hickey & Poster.
Hickey aims to be accessible and open to suggestions about the State Bar’s functions.
“If you have things that you’re happy about, but maybe more importantly, things you’re unhappy about at the State Bar, let me know,” Hickey said. “I’m happy to listen.”
Margaret Wrenn Hickey Interview
The Wisconsin Law Journal spoke with Hickey about her goals for the State Bar in the next two years.
Wisconsin Law Journal: What issues are on your radar as the incoming president-elect?
Margaret Wrenn Hickey: The changing demographics of attorneys is a big issue. People like me, Baby Boomers, are aging out, and we are probably aging out faster than we are getting new, young attorneys. That’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about trying to help the younger lawyers because we really need them more than they need us. We need them to learn the practice, be ethical and competent, and follow in the roles that the more experienced attorneys have done. I think we owe them that to support them.
The couple of other things that I ran on and that are very important to me are diversity, inclusion and racial equity. It’s a really important aspect of practicing law – understanding the changing demographics in our society. Those are people who we serve as attorneys, and so we need to be culturally competent. We need to be able to be best prepared to serve members of the public.
Within the Bar itself, we also need to be welcoming and inclusive for lawyers of all different types of backgrounds, racial, age, ability or disability. The State Bar has a diversity, equity and inclusion plan that we are carrying out. One of my tasks and goals will be to make sure that we implement that and that we are sensitive to those issues.
We’re part of the judicial system. We need to see that the judicial system functions fairly to everyone who is involved in it. Sentencing should be similar for the same crimes, and defendants should be treated fairly and similarly in different counties in the state. We have a problem with a higher number of people of color in our prison system than would reflect the population. Those are issues we need to think about and try to address as a system.
Lastly, but certainly not least, is access to justice. The pandemic has magnified the inequities of people being able to access a lawyer. We need to find more ways to help people access legal services.
We need to encourage our members to give pro bono services, go to those clinics where we’re providing free advice, take on the occasional case, and give money to those organizations that are serving people who can’t afford us. We have some wonderful organizations, but they need our support.
WLJ: What do you see as the solution to improving diversity and inclusion within the Bar and the profession?
Hickey: We need to address this issue at law school or before. Supporting people of color in undergrad. The Bar has a wonderful program for mock trial, which gives an introduction to what is it to be a lawyer and provides really wonderful education.
Once people of color or diverse backgrounds get to law school, we need to make sure that they know what opportunities are available in the state, we support them in those opportunities and we try to encourage those young lawyers to stay in our state. We have diploma privilege, and most of the law school classes are quite diverse, but I’m not sure that we are effectively attracting people to stay in our state.
We need to make sure that our staff at the Bar is diversified, and I know that is an issue that we are working on. We need to interact with and support the many specialty bars. That diversity, equity and inclusion plan is fairly detailed, and if we accomplished everything that’s in that plan, we would be a long way toward making a difference.
WLJ: How do you plan to lead the State Bar in supporting young lawyers?
Hickey: One of the key jobs is to make sure that young lawyers know what we’re doing and how we can help. I have ideas, but I also really think that the ideas should come from the young lawyers.
They probably know things that they need that I’m not even aware of, so that’s where I would start.
I cannot imagine being a young lawyer today and the stress that is part of that. You have a demand for hours. Even if you’re in a government job, you still have a demand of a stressful job if you’re not working for billable hours like those of us in private practice. You probably have a mountain of debt. You might be juggling a young family or a partner. It’s just a lot, so I think we have to find out what we can do better to help them.
WLJ: What is your vision for the future of the State Bar in the next two years as you serve as president-elect and then president?
Hickey: I think the Bar does a lot of things very well, and my goal would be to continue that. But I know that there are people who feel we there aren’t doing enough or we could do things differently, and I would listen to members about what else they think we as the State Bar should be doing for them.
It’s really important to continue the excellence in our programming. More than 50% of our budget comes from continuing legal education. Bar dues are maybe 40 or 45% of the budget. We need to provide excellent programming that people want to attend because that is a big part of our budget. I think Wisconsin is just a cut above in terms of our education, but we need to continue that, and we need to keep it affordable.
My vision would be excellent services and providing what members need, but (also) looking at this work-life balance along with practicing law. I have learned so much from my peers, sharing ideas, talking to other people about the stresses of the practice and how they manage it, how they manage their employees and how they help their employees to get through the pandemic.
One of the things about the law that is maybe the most gratifying is that people are professional and share ideas with each other and help each other out. That collegiality is something that we don’t want to lose because otherwise we’re just a business. If we all contribute to the profession, then we have something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts, and that is beneficial to all of us.