By Michaela Paukner
Keith Sellen, the first and so far only director of Wisconsin’s Office of Lawyer Regulation, is feeling mixed emotions as he prepares for retirement in August.
“I think I will feel a sense of loss when I leave,” Sellen said. “And that’s natural. But I also have a great deal of hope and expectation that the program will continue to do well, improve, excel and flourish.”
Sellen has led the OLR since its inception in 2000. The organization’s predecessor, the Board of Attorneys Professional Responsibility, had been dissolved following a review of the system, giving Sellen the responsibility of building a new organization out of crisis. Throughout it all, he received support from the Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, the former board’s staff and the general legal profession.
“I was an outsider coming into it, and … it was a time when things were really sensitive,” Sellen said. “I felt that I was welcomed with respect, honesty and sincerity, and I think it speaks well for everyone involved in this program.”
Although the justice system is still recovering from the pandemic, Sellen believes now is a good time for a leadership change at the OLR. He’s confident that his successor, Timothy Samuelson, will continue doing what has proved to work for the OLR, while also bringing a fresh perspective.
Samuelson, a U.S. assistant attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin and former Dane County Circuit Court judge, starts as OLR director on Aug. 15. In the weeks up until then, Sellen will be working on the leadership transition with Samuelson.
“The program is going to be in very good hands,” Sellen said. “It’s going to continue to do well, and I have confidence that it can be improved and that Tim is the right kind of person to do that.”
Sellen talked with the Wisconsin Law Journal about the future of the OLR, his career with the organization and his plans for retirement.
Wisconsin Law Journal: How does it feel to hand over leadership of the OLR, an agency that you’ve led from day one, to someone new?
Keith Sellen: That’s an interesting question. I’ve got lot of different feelings about it. When you gladly invest so much of your life in something, you will have a sense of loss. I think I will feel a sense of loss when I leave, and that’s natural, but I also have a great deal of hope and expectation that the program will continue to do well, improve, excel and flourish. And I’m confident that it’s going to happen under Tim’s leadership. So I have some mixed feelings about it.
I am fundamentally grateful for having had this opportunity in my life to do this. When I reflect back on things, I just feel grateful, appreciative for all the support I’ve had from so many different constituencies and individuals, from the justices, staff, people throughout the community, the bar, the public in Wisconsin. I have a lot of good memories about working with individuals on things that were necessary to help us do a better job regulating lawyers and protecting the public. Those things give me a great sense of gratitude more than anything else.
WLJ: What are some of the most memorable moments of your career with the OLR?
Sellen: One of the most memorable and pleasant memories I have is when I received the Wisconsin Law Journal’s (Leader in the Law) award in 2018. That was a tremendous encouragement to me.
The things that I recall most fondly would include the support that the justices of the court gave me, especially during some of the times when we were facing significant challenges. In those circumstances, I felt I needed the court’s confidence most. I also will remember how well the staff, when I came here back in 2000, welcomed me, trusted me, supported me. I always felt I had a gracious welcome, and I had support and a fair opportunity to do the job that I was trying to do and that I wanted to.
Back in 2010 and before that, I’d been working with the WisLAP (Wisconsin Lawyer Assistance Program) community at the State Bar to develop what we referred to back then as the Lawyer Support Monitoring Group. We had noticed a very high correlation between serious attorney misconduct, and chemical dependency and medical conditions like depression. Working through the details of that and getting the cooperation of everybody involved is one of the things I think we’ve done best over the past 20 years to help protect the public and help the lawyers be well so that they could serve their clients well.
We went through another similar kind of thing in 2016. We had to do a lot of work to upgrade our trust-account policies because they weren’t responsive to the circumstances that had developed because of the improvements in technology in the banking system. Our office, the State Bar and banking associations within the state put together a task force and worked on revising our program.
We worked hard for two or three years on that and developed some policies and a new rule that became effective in July 2016 that have helped us to be more responsive and helped lawyers serve their clients better.
There are many other things like this that we’ve done over the years. This collaboration and sense of community with a common purpose has been something that’s been a hallmark over the last 21 years. That’s one of the things that I remember most fondly.
WLJ: What do you see as issues of importance for the OLR going forward?
Sellen: This is a good time for transition to start with because, though we’re coming through COVID and returning to normalcy, generally things have been going well. We have an opportunity to transition in a relatively calm environment and the opportunity to take a look at things and move forward.
We are looking at some systemic issues regarding responses in criminal and family law matters. We’re looking at issues relating to the exercise of our discretion as it relates to recidivism. Our Board of Administrative Oversight is looking at a professionalism course or program that would help new lawyers get on track quickly, understand the requirements of the profession and better serve their clients.
We’ve been looking at issues of diversity and inclusion. There are some significant things to think about in terms of how we relate to the public and how we relate to lawyers who have had grievances filed against them.
We can always improve the efficiencies we have with technology. We need to think about technology, our office procedures and how our staff works together in the future, depending upon the lessons we can learn from what worked well during the COVID experience.
The last thing I’d like to say is that it’s good to have a fresh look. I’ve been doing this for 21 years, and I brought a fresh look to this program, and I think Tim is the kind of person who will do the same thing. Certainly, we want to keep doing things that we’re doing well, but having a fresh set of eyes and someone with his talent and experience will give us an opportunity to think about how we can move forward. He may think of things that I haven’t thought about when he sees what’s going on here, and he may have some wonderful ideas. I fully expect that the system will have a great benefit from that.
WLJ: What’s next for you?
Sellen: I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to spend more time with my family. My two daughters have families and kids. My wife and I grew up in northeastern Wisconsin, and my mom is still up there, so we want to spend more time up there. Some traveling would be nice, especially in February. I know I want to spend more time reading, more time out in nature and more time writing. Right now, I plan to retire. I’m not seeking a particular other position or employment, but just kind of let’s see what it will be and look forward to that for now.