Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Shortage of Lawyers Plagues Northern Counties

New Attorney Retention and Recruitment Committee seeks to address the crisis.

By - Jun 25th, 2024 05:30 pm

Gavel. (Public Domain).

The State Bar of Wis, as the association is now known, estimates that there are about 16,800 lawyers in Wisconsin. Supreme Court Chief Justice Annette Ziegler says that’s too few and the number is shrinking in disturbing ways.

Ziegler this month announced the creation of an Attorney Retention and Recruitment Committee to reverse the shortage of lawyers — a shortage a Barron County judge called a “crisis” in her county.

According to the State Bar of Wis, two-thirds of the 16,800 lawyers in Wisconsin live in just four counties: Milwaukee, with 5,331 lawyers; Dane, 3,848; Waukesha, 1,556, and Brown, 496. That concentration of lawyers rises to 73% if attorneys who live in seven more southeast Wisconsin counties are included.

Contrast those concentrations with the 410 lawyers — or 2.4% of all lawyers who live in the state — in 14 northwest Wisconsin counties, the State Bar Association reported. Those counties have 4.5% of the state’s population.

Another 8,832 lawyers licensed in Wisconsin do not live in the state.

The Attorney Retention & Recruitment Committee will include deans of the state’s two law schools, State Bar officials and attorneys and judges from around the state. Chief judges in each of the state’s nine Circuit Court districts will work with the committee, Ziegler said.

When she announced the creation of this panel, Ziegler cited these trends: In the last four years, the number of active attorneys in Wisconsin has decreased by over 4%. The number of students in the state’s law schools has fallen over the last five years. The number of attorneys in rural Wisconsin has dropped by 7%.

“Each day in court, trial judges face the challenges of finding attorneys for unrepresented individuals in criminal cases,” Kenosha County Circuit Court Judge Jason Rossell, chair of the Committee of Chief Judges, said in a statement. “The delays caused by the shortage cause problems throughout the system, including delays in trials, lengthy pretrial incarceration, losing treatment options, and delayed closure for victims and witnesses.”

Adam Plotkin, a spokesman for the Office of Public Defender, said in eight northern counties there are “no certified private bar attorneys who are physically located in that county, though attorneys located in other counties may be certified to take cases there.”

Those eight counties are Adams, Bayfield, Buffalo, Green, Marquette, Menominee, Rusk, and Waushara.

“In Barron County, there are no local lawyers who regularly accept public defender appointments, and we must rely on remote technology to ensure representation for those facing criminal charges,” Barron County Circuit Court Judge Maureen Boyle, chief judge of that region, said when Ziegler announced formation of the committee.

Even with on-line appearances, Boyle said few lawyers are available.

Kelli Thompson, state public defender for 12 years and now a private practice attorney in Madison, said the statewide shortage of lawyers results from “a number of factors that have combined over a long time.”

“From the number of people admitted to law school, to the number who choose to stay or locate in Wisconsin, the number of licensed attorneys in Wisconsin has remained relatively static while the demand for legal services in all areas of practice has increased,” Thompson said. “Specific to criminal defense work, especially in the public sector, years of stagnant wages and workload challenges have created a stigma for future lawyers about going to work as a public defender or prosecutor.”

It wasn’t until 2023 that “historic pay increases” were approved for public defenders and prosecutors, Thompson noted. While those raises “appear to have had a significant impact, now we need to work on addressing the workload demands.”

A shortage of public defenders is a national problem, Thompson said. “There are almost no jurisdictions that have adequate staffing, even for the 50-year-old workload standards which are now known to be far too high.”

Thompson called Ziegler’s creation of the Attorney Recruitment and Retention Committee “a vital step” in addressing the shortage.

Thompson’s suggestions for changes?

“Looking at incentives such as loan forgiveness and geographic pay enhancements to get new practitioners into rural counties. Better recruiting of people to pursue a rural law practice, starting as early as high school. Removing practical barriers [in] scheduling, communication with clients in custody. Addressing the overwhelming caseload of attorneys in the public sector.” estimates the annual pay for a Wisconsin lawyer at $102,093 a year. But ask the 410 lawyers in those 14 northern counties whether they make that much. Probably not.

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at

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