On December 5, 2014, Atty. Ann S. Jacobs was elected by her peers as president of the Wisconsin Association for Justice (formerly the Wisconsin Academy of Trial Lawyers). WAJ is the state-wide voluntary association of trial lawyers and has been at the forefront of advocacy on behalf of injured persons for 57 years. Below are her remarks.
In discussing our organization recently with a non-member, the person remarked, a little skeptically, “you are all in competition with each other every day for cases, how do you manage to get along?”
I thought this was a fascinating question. Here is an organization where its members compete for literally every tort case around the state. And yet, we voluntarily come together not only for an occasional CLE, not only for an annual dinner. We come together daily through list serves, weekly through voluntary committee work, monthly with our officers and executive committee, quarterly with our CLE’s and meetings, and, during the political season, with what feels like endless exhortations to action and giving.
How do we do this? How do we manage to create such a cohesive organization from what an outsider would see as directly competing interests?
Many reasons drive our strength as an organization. First is our uniform desire to help our clients. We need the lawyers who represent the injured to do a good job – indeed a great job. The help we give each other – a brief, a motion, advice – isn’t helping a competitor. It’s helping that injured person achieve justice. It is the desire to do right by the citizens of Wisconsin that allows us to put aside our business competition, and focus on doing what is right.
Second, it is our recognition that united we are strong advocates for our clients and the law. We are able to propose (or oppose) legislation that affects our clients and the law with the authority that comes from representing the best tort lawyers across the state. The intellectual prowess represented by this organization – whether in trial or appellate work, legislation or advocacy – is astonishing.
Finally, it is our history. For 57 years we have been the organization advocating for the injured. Even when people disagree with us, we have a reputation of honesty, intellectual rigor, and advocacy on behalf of the unheard public.
I am humbled and honored to have been asked to join the remarkable list of presidents of this organization. Although I confess that when Paul Gagliardi asked me to do so, I think I might have been a little unaware of the full job description. I am thankful to have the support of my husband, Brad, and children, Lily, Julia and Jacob, in this very time and energy-consuming endeavor. I am also following the example of my parents, Helen and Ronald Jacobs, who have always given in volunteer work and public service. I watched my mother rise to be the first woman chair of the Wisconsin DNR, and am hopeful to live up to the example she set.
WAJ has incredible strength as a voluntary, state-wide organization – incredible strength in our unity and shared goals. And yet, despite this, we find ourselves in a time of great changes.
We have a new political reality. Wisconsin politics have changed direction and are unlikely to swing back any time soon. e have had surprising changes in how we can give money politically. If we have learned anything from the recent decisions coming out of the federal courts on election law issues and giving, it is that our previous models may have changed forever.
We have had a sea change in judicial elections. Even local judicial elections – formerly the bastion of local giving and bad cheese plates – are now drawing large-scale money. As trial lawyers, we spend a great deal of time with our judges. It is essential to the well-being of our clients that we continue to be aware of the importance of a smart, impartial judiciary.
And we have seen great changes in our organization. Jane has departed after over 30 years as our executive director. We have moved our membership directory into new software on the cloud. We will have a new Executive Director who will help us move forward with these new realities.
With these changes come tremendous opportunities. Over the past several years that I have been an officer, I have watched Mike, Ed, Jeff and Chris open the lines of communication to people who previously we might have dismissed as unreachable or not worth the effort. The ability to speak with those who may oppose us on many issues is essential and must continue. This means continuing to open up lines of communication with groups and people that perhaps in the past we didn’t see as receptive to our message. We know now that we cannot assume who will and will not hear our advocacy on different issues. Different issues resonate with different politicians and the more we get to know them, the better we can work to educate them and hopefully obtain their support (or perhaps simply not their opposition) on various issues.
This year, there is a surprisingly large group of new legislators. We need to introduce ourselves, and offer the opportunity to educate them on issues they may never have thought or learned about. What is important to them? How can we help them recognize the importance of our efforts? We must maintain our credibility as a reliable source of information on laws and their effects.
We must continue our relationship building with other stakeholders on aligned topics. We cannot advocate alone. Many laws affect not only us and our clients, but others within the judicial system and beyond. Sometimes those affected do not even realize how proposals will affect them. We need to continue to recognize when we can work with allies.
Our efforts at outreach to the public must continue and indeed grow to combat the continuing beat of “tort reform” activities that do nothing to reform, and only serve to further harm the people who were victimized. Our efforts for the Family Justice Network, Erin’s law – efforts that seek to right the wrongs that parents like Eric Rice has suffered – must continue and strengthen this coming year.
We must continue to be strong supporters of candidates that believe in our values. Our Justice Fund is one of the largest political conduits in the state. We have the upcoming Supreme Court election where Justice Bradley – a firm believer in the rights citizens, the right to a trial, and access to the justice system – is facing a well-funded challenger. We will all be called upon to help her in this very important race.
However, in addition to that important race, we need to evaluate our political giving. How do we give? To whom? Past models may not be the best models as we move forward in this new reality. We need to think about the influence of money on local judicial elections – an area that we have not traditionally been involved. When Club for Growth drops $167,000 into a local circuit court race, we need to start thinking about how we look at those races.
Finally, we must continue to modernize our organization. This is more than our technological innovations, although this surely is a large part of it. We must grow our membership. The issues that we recognize as important are not limited to personal injury lawyers. We need to show Workers Compensation lawyers, labor lawyers, criminal defense lawyers, DA’s, consumer lawyers, that our organization can provide support, CLE’s, and advocacy for issues they believe in. We need to reach out to lawyers who may not traditionally see themselves as trial lawyers. We need to work more closely with other voluntary associations – create relationships and perhaps find opportunities to share the burdens and expenses of our activities with groups who have similar aims.
I am tremendously fortunate to have the opportunity to be a part of this great time of change for WAJ. This will be a busy time – we need to review every aspect of our organization to maximize our strengths. We may have to make difficult decisions, change long-standing traditions, alter ingrained procedures. However, I am confident that in the end WAJ will emerge a stronger, more vibrant organization whose advocacy on behalf of the injured will continue as our guiding principles.