Q&A with Brian D. Winters

Published in 2008 Wisconsin Super Lawyers magazine

By Erik Lundegaard on November 17, 2008


Brian D. Winters of Quarles & Brady has degrees in economics and philosophy. In the 1970s he taught in France and in the 1980s he was a successful Republican campaign manager and college professor. It wasn’t until the ‘90s that he thought seriously about law school.


Many lawyers know they’re going into the law at the age of 7. But not you, right?

This sounds sick but I really wanted to be an economist. I went off to college at 16. Cornell. Plan was to major in economics [but] I sort of became disillusioned with it because-at least the way I was learning economics there-it was very technical. Didn’t seem to be about human beings.

In the meantime something happened that was a big influence. In 1970 I got involved in a congressional campaign in Ohio. The candidate was a young law professor from the University of Toledo, Allen Shapiro, who, oddly for a Republican at the time, was anti-war, and who gave an incredible speech denouncing Nixon and the incursion into Cambodia. I called his campaign a couple of days later and said I’d like to volunteer.

That was the first time I’d ever encountered lawyers. And they started talking to me about, “Well, gee, do you really want to be an economist?” So [in 1973] I applied to law school but I decided to take a year off. And basically what happened was I took 19 years off. [Laughs]


But you went back for another reason.

I got an M.A. in philosophy, studying mostly [Ludwig] Wittgenstein and the philosophy of language.


Why did Wittgenstein appeal to you?

He was absolutely obsessed with the nature of language and meaning. And that’s turned out to be helpful as a lawyer.



This is kind of bizarre, but I do antitrust counseling, OK? There’s a concept in antitrust law called “a minimum advertised pricing policy.” A manufacturer can restrict its dealers’ ability to advertise prices below the manufacturers’ list price. So the question comes up: What’s advertising?

What Wittgenstein would say is: Let’s think about how we would use the word “advertising” in everyday life. Here’s something that arrived in the mail. It’s multicolored, it’s got products, it’s got prices. Is this advertising? Sure, it is. Here’s an Internet page for a company that sells lamps and on the home page they have the price of the lamp they’re selling. Is it advertising? Well, this may not be advertising.


It’s more passive.

It’s more like the price tags in stores. No one in ordinary speech would refer to price tags as “advertising.” What Wittgenstein tells you is if you’re confused about the meaning of a word, think of how the word gets used in ordinary life.


How did you get involved in Ohio politics?

A woman named Donna Owens was running for mayor of Toledo [in 1983]. Toledo had fallen on hard times and Owens was running for mayor basically on an economic-development platform. A friend of mine knew one of her fundraisers. And this friend and I spent a lot of time drinking beer and talking about the problems in the city, and he kind of relayed some of our ramblings to this fundraiser and the fundraiser said, “Well, maybe you guys should get involved in the campaign.” And we ended up managing the campaign. And she won!


Did you get a job in her administration?

No, but I got a job with the Republican party in Toledo. I was a campaign consultant for the Republican party in that part of the state, and I also managed some individual campaigns.

It lost its appeal because I was not just doing campaigns but I was also getting involved in the internal party politics. Who’s going to be the chairman of the party? Who are going to be the committee members? All that infighting…


You liked the fighting, not the infighting.


So in 1989 I got a full-time teaching position at Bowling Green State University in economics. About ’92, I was approaching my 40th birthday and … Bowling Green had a really good Ph.D. program in philosophy? They brought in great speakers: Jules Coleman, a professor of law at Yale, and Richard Epstein, a professor of law at Chicago. And I’m listening to these guys and thinking to myself, “I’d planned to be a lawyer way back when. Maybe it’s time to get back to what I started out thinking I wanted to do.”

So I resigned my position in 1993 and started [Yale] law school in the fall. Graduated in ’96. Came here, and have been here ever since.


You taught in France in the ’70s. Make it back much?

As often as I can. My wife is the curator of European art at the Milwaukee Art Museum and [last fall] we went to Paris with some donors and had a good time. My wife put together a show a couple of years ago, called “Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity,” and it was such a good show the Louvre took it.


You’re kidding. How often does that happen?

The Louvre taking a Milwaukee show? It’s never happened before. My wife’s had her picture in The New York Times twice as a consequence. I’ve never even had my picture in The Shepherd Express.

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