President’s Message

WDC Journal Edition: Summer 2012
By: Michael W. Gill, President, Wisconsin Defense Counsel

In August, my term as President of the WDC will end. My friend Rollin Krafft will then ably serve as WDC President for the next year, and I will assume the highly coveted position of “past President.” Seriously, it has been an enjoyable experience and an honor to serve as President for the past year.

I need to recognize and thank a number of individuals for their support and assistance during the last year. I have had the privilege of working with an excellent Board of Directors. This group has provided the organization with sound leadership and tireless service throughout the past year.

Kara Burgos has done an outstanding job as our Program Director and deserves special recognition for her effort. She has lined up an outstanding program for our August conference at the Kalahari in the Wisconsin Dells, including some breakout sessions specifically designed for defense lawyers handling cases in the business context. I hope that this excellent program attracts a strong turnout at the Kalahari.

Andrew Hebl is responsible for editing and gathering the articles for the Wisconsin Civil Trial Journal. He has displayed the patience of Job in waiting for past-due President’s columns and other Journal articles. Despite the obstacles that he has faced, the Journal has never been better and the substantive articles that Andrew has put together with the assistance of our volunteer authors have been superior.

Andy Cook of Hamilton Consulting has been a great resource for me and the organization over the past year as we have dealt with a number of legislative triumphs and frustrations. I have learned a great deal about the legislative process thanks to Andy.

Finally, I want to thank the people at Svinicki Association Management, Inc., for their work during the last year. “SAMI” has served the WDC for many years as its Executive Director. Jane Svinicki, Jenni Rodriguez and Jess Delaney are really the ones that operate this organization on a day-to-day basis and keep things moving—and under control—for the WDC. The practicing lawyers that serve on the Board of Directors for this organization would accomplish little if it were not for the work of our Executive Director.

Now that I have given the essential “thank yous,” I want to address an issue that is vital to both the future of this organization, and the defense Bar in general—the development of the next generation of defense trial lawyers.

At a recent Board of Directors meeting, I was talking with a fellow member of the Board about the dearth of young/new civil defense lawyers, especially in certain outlying parts of the state. We were hard-pressed to identify more than a few “under 40” lawyers who were regularly handling and trying defense cases. This is a problem that has been brewing for a number of years and would appear to have multiple causes.

Many clients are simply unwilling to allow law firms to entrust cases to younger attorneys. They either don’t want to risk having an attorney with less experience handle a case out of fear of a less than desirable outcome, or they don’t want to pay for any “teeth cutting” or learning experiences for a younger lawyer who may require more time to prepare for trial. While these sentiments are understandable, I think they also are a contributing factor to the failure to develop new blood in the defense bar.

When I was a very young lawyer in the early 1980s, I had the opportunity to second chair a number of trials with older members of my firm. There was no better way to learn and develop trial skills than by observing good trial lawyers performing in the courtroom in cases that you had had the opportunity to work on in a supporting role. Today it is almost unheard of for a young attorney to have a second chair opportunity, except in major cases, and even then the use of a second chair is closely regulated.

The economics of defending smaller cases has also eliminated a number of trial opportunities for younger lawyers. It is difficult for many of our clients to justify proceeding to trial, on even questionable claims, if the case can be disposed of for $10,000, $15,000, or even $20,000, with all risk and uncertainty eliminated in the process. Again, while this is understandable, it is contributing to the delayed development of the next generation of defense lawyers.

I submit that it is a shared responsibility for the defense firms and our clients to find solutions for this problem. As defense firms, we must view associates and young partners as something more than billable hour mechanisms. Senior attorneys need to mentor younger members and look for opportunities for younger attorneys to attend and participate in trials, even if it means taking some discount with regard to fees, on occasion, to assure that the opportunity to develop a young lawyer is not precluded solely by economic considerations.

I would also challenge insurance carriers and other defense clients to be more flexible in their approach to the involvement of younger lawyers in their cases. Some smaller cases still must be tried, or should be tried, for a variety of reasons. Be open-minded about permitting younger lawyers who have proven their skills in a supporting role to handle these cases at trial. Be more receptive in cases involving substantial claims to allowing a second lawyer to be involved at trial, and perhaps even allowing the second lawyer to play some limited role in the trial itself under the guidance of the senior attorney who is handling the case on a primary basis.

The old guard is getting nothing but older, and the need to develop the defense lawyers of the future is critical. I am convinced that there are a ton of talented young lawyers around the state who, if given the opportunity, would become stellar trial advocates for the defense. We are all “young lawyers” at one time. If it were not for the patience and understanding of our mentors, and the trust and faith of our clients, a number of us would not have succeeded in the profession. We, as defense firms and the defense claims community, need to “pass it on” to assure the future well-being of the defense Bar. Let’s work together to do so!

P.S. Although, in my opinion, there is no substitute for “real world” courtroom experience, I feel that the Trial Academy sponsored by the North Central Region of the DRI is an excellent opportunity for young lawyers from Wisconsin and throughout the upper Midwest to learn and implement trial skills. This year the trial academy is being held on September 29th and 30th in Indiana. Wisconsin is sending Tom Devine and Amy Goyette as faculty representatives to this year’s academy. I would like to thank them for their volunteer service and urge the defense firms and in-house legal staffs around the state to send lawyers who need experience in developing trial skills to the academy.