Reflecting on a year as state bar president
Published in 2005 Wisconsin Super Lawyers Magazine — November 2005 on January 4, 2016
The mainstream media typically pay little attention to state bar elections. But in the past year many reporters have been eager to snare interviews with Madison attorney Michelle Behnke. That’s what happens when someone makes history. In May 2004, Behnke became the first African American to be elected president of the State Bar of Wisconsin.
The “first African American” tagline soon got a bit worn, Behnke admits. Still, during her term (which ended June 30, 2005) she became increasingly aware of the importance of her achievement.
“I spent a lot of time talking to school groups,” she says. “Kids of color need to see that the doors are wide open for them. That also gave me the opportunity to say to them, ‘Yes, I’m the first. But you’re going to be the 27th, and you’ll be the 50th. And I hope someday we get to the point where we’re not counting.’”
Behnke, who’s lived in Madison since she was 3, grew up believing that education was the key to opening doors for her. Instilling that message were her parents, who attended segregated Mississippi schools in the days before Brown v. Board of Education. A high school counselor planted the notion that Behnke become a lawyer.
She latched onto that vision only to question it in college. Was a law career what she truly wanted or was she just bowing to others’ expectations? Taking six months off after college graduation, while working as a bookstore manager, helped her resolve the dilemma. She enrolled at the University of Wisconsin Law School, Madison, and graduated in 1988.
Business law was her passion from day one. “I like getting everybody to the table,” Behnke says, “and asking, ‘What do you need?’ Then you horse-trade and figure out how to make [a project] work for everybody.” After practicing in a midsized law firm and as corporate counsel for an insurance company, she opened a solo practice in 1998.
At about that time, the Bar’s nominating committee approached her about running for president. Behnke declined, wanting to focus on her new practice. Besides, after years of Bar involvement — participating in the Young Lawyers Division, serving on the Board of Governors and on various committees, and launching the Diversity Outreach Committee — she knew she didn’t have to be president to work on issues that mattered to her.
A few years later, the committee again invited her to run for president. After consulting with lawyer/husband Darrell Behnke, she realized someday she’d regret not jumping at the opportunity. So she jumped.
As president, Behnke made clear she was there to listen. She visited local and specialty bar associations across Wisconsin, and she was particularly eager to connect with lawyers who “often aren’t at the table,” she says — those who aren’t active in Bar leadership, committees and sections.
“I said, ‘If you’re sitting back and grousing in the weeds, that’s not valid,’” Behnke reports. “That was the message I delivered rather bluntly, and they took it pretty well.” The best part of her presidential year? That lawyers “trusted me enough to tell me the truth,” she says, “not what they thought I wanted to hear.”
Just weeks before the end of her term, Behnke says she is eager to be back in the shadows. “I felt a little uncomfortable with the notoriety. I’ll be happy to be back to being a transactional lawyer, working with my clients to put deals together.”