Taking the Reins

Christine D. Esser is determined to make a difference, one gallop at a time

Published in 2019 Wisconsin Super Lawyers — August 19, 2019

Being an attorney can be solitary work. Except when Christine Esser is in trial surrounded by a jury, she’s mostly preparing, alone, with books and papers. It’s something she likens to another of her passions: working with horses.

“Working with them is kind of the same as working in the law. You can’t just make a jury believe you; you have to earn their trust. It’s the same with horses,” she says.

“You can purchase a horse that knows everything to do and just get on and ride, but that's not the kind of person I am. I'd rather build the relationship with the horse and teach it what it needs to do. And that takes time, and it's not always a social thing.”

The Sheboygan personal injury attorney was born and raised in Indiana, and has spent a lot of her life around horses. She has owned them for the past 15 years, and the two she has now she has had for five. “They have registration names, and they have their barn names,” Esser says, noting that while one is named after the Wicked character Elphaba, her show name is Defying Gravity. The other is an off-the-track Thoroughbred named Roo, whose jockey name is Exclusive Actor.

“They’re like a calming release for me,” she says.

Esser attended law school at Drake University in Iowa. At first, her goal was to be an FBI agent—“I wanted to be Jodie Foster,” she says—but the FBI went on a hiring freeze. “So I started out practicing at a general firm and kind of fell into personal injury. I really liked the medical side of it."

Esser gained confidence by participating on the mock trial team at Drake.

“We always got to practice in a real courtroom,” she says. “They would videotape us. I would repeat ‘OK’ after somebody answered, and they would point it out on the videotape, or they would squawk like a parrot … just to really drill into you: ‘You’re doing this wrong.’ Going into my first jury trial, the only thing I hadn't done was select a jury. So, I felt really ahead of my classmates coming out of law school.”

Esser started at Habush Habush & Rottier in 2000, and her biggest mentor in practicing law and balancing family was Justice Marsha Ternus, whom she clerked for at the Iowa Supreme Court after graduating from Drake. “Justice Ternus had also graduated from my law school, and I was the first clerk she hired,” she says. “She had three young children at the time. … She had this picture from her swearing in, and her 2-year-old was crawling under the bench. She really showed me that it was possible to be a working mother and that you don't always get things right. You just do your best and hope your family will forgive you when you're not there for things.”

When she’s not there for her family, it’s because she’s fighting on behalf of other individuals in need of her attention. Sometimes they include victims of sexual assault. “You feel pretty heavy when you think, ‘What if I can’t win this case for them?’” Esser says. “Sometimes, it's just encouraging them to keep going.”

That encouragement shows up in the gratitude of her clients. “All of my sexual assault clients have kept in touch,” she says. “When something good happens, they'll send me an email or a note and let me know how they're doing. It’s not so much that I've made any law changes, but I feel like I've really helped them.”

Not only is Esser devoted to helping her clients through difficult times, but she is also a leader in her community. She worked for the United States Pony Club when her daughters began competing in 4-H; she is on the board of a therapy barn called Helping Hands Healing Hooves; and she has been a lunch buddy through Big Brother, Big Sister for six years. In 2017, she was recognized for her work mentoring women and girls and given an ATHENA Leadership Award.

“I think if you're just out there doing things you enjoy, then people get to know you and know what you do,” says Esser. “Mentoring what tends to be young women with horses is really easy for me.”

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