Michelle Behnke Joins Boardman Clark and Assumes ABA Leadership: Double Impact (Part 2 of 3)

Michelle Behnke

Michelle Behnke will be only the second Wisconsinite to become the American Bar Association president in August 2025.

by Jonathan Gramling

Michelle Behnke, Madison’s own who will lead the American Bar Association as its president in August 2025, has had the right mix of factors that have led her to the heights of her profession. She has had the personal support one needs in order to undertake such a time-consuming venture.

“My family and friends have supported me as I’ve taken each of these steps, my husband Darrell, our kids Derek and Taylor and my mom,” Behnke said. “I’m just grateful that as I’ve been doing these various service pieces within the community and within the profession, that I have had the support my family and my clients.”

The other is the personal attributes that Behnke brings to the table: commitment, patience, tenacity, competence, a pleasant personality and a long term plan to get where she wants to go in life. But the most important trait is her commitment to service and an undying belief in the importance of her profession and the need to keep it operating at a high level as it adjusts to an ever-changing landscape.

When Behnke graduated from the UW-Madison Law School in 1988, she practiced law within an organizational structure.

“I practiced with a Madison-based law firm, practicing in the same areas of business,” Behnke said. “But then about five years into that practice, we had two young children and not a lot of control over our schedules. That’s when I moved in-house to CUNA Mutual, which is now known as TruStage. We actually had more than 20 attorneys in-house. I was a part of the General Counsel’s office. I was there for about five years and I

loved the transactions that I did. But I really missed the more direct representation of people. And so that’s what made me think about going back out into private practice. And I decided to do that on my own.”

Being a sole practioner made the rest of Behnke’s life “work.”

“Being a sole practitioner gave me the flexibility of taking care of my kids,” Behnke said. “It is the case that client issues and questions don’t always neatly fall into 8-5. But going out on my own really allowed me, if there was a sick child, I could stay home with the sick child and work from home long before we did remote working. But it also gave me the opportunity to do the community work that I enjoyed doing as well. So, just being in charge of my own priorities was important.”

It also resulted in her first experience with what the ABA had to offer.

“I turned to the ABA for resources way back when I started my own practice,” Behnke said. “And the resources and the information that I got through the ABA was really critical to my being able to even go out and practice on my own.”

While she had a shaky start, Behnke soon succeeded in her practice.

“I went out on my own February 1st in 1998,” Behnke said. “Back then, you may recall, they would publish the phone book in January. But in order to publish the phone book in January, they were actually taking the listings back in October and November. So when I first went out on my own, I was not even in the phone book because I didn’t decide to go into private practice until after the phone book had come out. But being a part of the community growing up in Madison, I had word-of-mouth. I knew people from my pass practice or other things that I had been involved in and I was very fortunate that people made referrals to me. So at the very beginning, it was 1-2 clients. And then it blossomed and at any given time, there could be one really huge case or there could be lots of individual cases.”

Becoming a sole practitioner also allowed Behnke to pursue other aspects of the legal profession that she didn’t immediately receive through the services she provided.

“Several things inspired me to do community work,” Behnke said. “Most people when they go to law school want to help. And certainly helping your clients, assisting your clients is one way to help. But usually you also see bigger picture things. And getting involved in your community or getting involved with your profession allows you to address some of those bigger picture issues that you see.”

Behnke got that desire to be a problem solver from her mother.

“People and the law are ever changing and there are people needed to help steer that change,” Behnke said. “My mom was one of these people who if you complained about stuff — she was not a fan of pity parties — she responded, ‘Well what are you going to do about it?’ I think that instilled in me at a very young age that if you saw things that you didn’t like or that you thought could be improved, it was your responsibility to roll up your sleeves and try.”

And if Behnke was going to be a part of the solution, she knew that she had to pay her dues. There was no going straight to the head of the class in the legal profession. Behnke was involved with the Wisconsin Bar Association, WisBar, for 10 years before she rose to the top.

“There was an incoming president, Pam Barker,” Behnke said about her decision to get involved in 1994. “She was the first woman president of the state bar. When I watched her be sworn in, I was very moved by that. And I went and talked with her and I said, ‘I don’t see a lot of people who look like me who are engaged in the work of the state bar. And with the state bar in Wisconsin, if you are a lwayer, in order to practice, you must be a member of the state bar. So I knew they were members. I just didn’t see them involved in the work of the bar. And very much like my mom, her response was, ‘What are you going to do about that?’ And so she appointed me. We decided to start the Diversity Outreach Committee. And she made me the inaugural chair. We started looking at things that we could do to improve diversity involvement in the state bar. I was involved in DEI before there was DEI.”

Behnke went on to serve on WisBar’s Board of Governors and then as treasurer before being elected as WisBar’s first African American president. And she received vital training and support from the ABA when she was president-elect of WisBar.

“The ABA has a leadership development program,” Behnke said. “It’s called Bar Leader Institute. And they bring people who have been elected from across the country and they try to help them identify the issues and the skills and the things that they are going to face in their new leadership roles. And I thought that was fantastic. As a person who was coming into that leadership, it allowed me to network with other people who were doing the exact same thing that I was doing and build a network of other people. So if I was facing some particular issue, there were people I could reach out to and say, ‘Hey, have you seen this in your state?’”

Behnke continued her service to the legal profession almost seamlessly when she applied to and was accepted to the ABA committee that puts on the leadership development training after she stepped down as WisBar’s president.

“Working with smart, capable lawyers is something that I enjoy doing problem solving,” Behnke said. “And so I went from there to other work within the ABA including membership. I got elected to the Board of Governors of the ABA and ultimately — surprisingly — treasurer. It was a similar pattern although I didn’t think about it at the time. After serving as treasurer, that’s when I started thinking about whether there was something else I could do in service to the ABA and decided to run for president. In 2023”

While Behnke began officially running in 2023, the ABA has a lengthy process in selecting its leaders. Behnke spent a full year in giving presentations at ABA conventions and meetings and had countless individual conversations with ABA members. She was finally officially nominated in February 2024.

Next issue: The ABA presidency