ABA Leadership

Michelle Behnke looks to build community and strengthen the ABA with new strategic plan

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ABA President-elect nominee Michelle Behnke

ABA President-elect nominee Michelle Behnke. (Photo by Mitch Higgins/ABA Media Relations)

Michelle Behnke thrives on being part of a team.

“It’s just one of those things—having a bunch of smart people in a room trying to solve an issue or contributing their talents to make a difference is always very energizing to me,” Behnke says.

She brought this energy to the ABA, where she has held many leadership roles, including serving as treasurer from 2017-2020 and as chair of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession from 2020-2023. She is now a member of the association’s Strategic Planning Committee and is poised to soon step into her next and most prominent position.

Behnke was selected as the ABA’s president-elect nominee by the House of Delegates Nominating Committee at the association’s midyear meeting in February. She will face an uncontested vote by the full House at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago in August.

Bill Bay is the current president-elect and will begin his one-year term as president when he takes over from ABA President Mary Smith at the close of the annual meeting. He would pass the gavel to Behnke after the 2025 ABA Annual Meeting in Toronto.

A new strategy

As Behnke looks to the years ahead, she says she is excited about implementing the ABA’s new strategic plan, which is expected to shape the future of the association and will be released in July.

“I have learned so much about the ABA and all of the things that it does,” she says. “It’s a huge tent, it really is. But like any organization, you have to figure out what you can affect most and try to focus on those things.”

Behnke, the principal of Michelle Behnke & Associates in Madison, Wisconsin, anticipates being most helpful in two potential parts of the plan.

“Without starting something new or creating a new task force, I suspect that in implementing our strategic plan, I’ll be able to highlight things in two areas: practice support, especially for solo and small firm practitioners; and diversity, equity and inclusion,”she says.

‘Happy law’

Behnke starts her own story in Madison, where she has lived most of her life.

Her father served in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed at Truax Field on the city’s northeast side when she was 3. She attended Catholic elementary and high schools, and she credits a guidance counselor for suggesting she become a lawyer.

“I know this will be shocking, but I like to talk, and I like to debate,” Behnke says. “And so she said: ‘You know, you ought to think about law.’ I can honestly say I don’t think she meant it in a good way. But that’s really where the idea of going to law school came from.”

She graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison with a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1983. She worked as an assistant manager at a local bookstore before graduating from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1988.

Behnke initially thought she would work as a criminal defense attorney or prosecutor. But while in law school, she realized she was more interested in contracts and property and gravitated toward business law.

“That just really tripped my trigger—helping people who wanted to start a business, or they wanted to pass on a business to the next generation or key employees,” Behnke says. “I have for the longest time called it ‘happy law.’ You are helping people at an interesting and exciting time as opposed to people who are in crisis.”

Behnke, who also enjoys working with accountants and other business professionals, started her career with local law firm Stolper, Koritzinsky, Brewster & Neider and then went in-house with CUNA Mutual Insurance Society.

In 1998, Behnke opened her firm, where she since has practiced business law, real estate law and estate planning. Through the years, she appreciated both the opportunity to choose her own clients and to be more active in her community. She has helped guide numerous nonprofit organizations, including as president of the board of directors of the Greater Madison Housing Foundation.

Behnke also realized she felt strongly about supporting and improving the legal profession and has been able to put much of her time and energy into that cause.

“It turned out to be bar work that I wanted to have as part of my lawyer responsibility,” says Behnke, who in 2004 became the first person of color to serve as president of the State Bar of Wisconsin. “As a solo practitioner, I got to decide all of that.”

But on Aug. 1, Behnke is joining a team. She will be senior counsel with the Madison firm Boardman & Clark, giving her flexibility and extra client support when ABA duties demand her time.

‘A sense of community’

Shortly after starting her career, Behnke worked with a colleague who encouraged her to join the ABA Young Lawyers Division. Behnke had met and married her husband, Darrell, in law school, and they have two children, Derek and Taylor. She quickly saw the benefit of connecting with lawyers from around the country who were at similar stages of their lives.

“Sometimes you feel isolated or like you’re the only one who’s experiencing something,” Behnke says. “But seeing other people who were balancing families or learning their particular areas of law gave you a sense of community.”

During her tenure with the ABA, Behnke helped strengthen this community, including in her role as chair of the Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services from 2006-2009 and through her longtime involvement in its annual Bar Leadership Institute. She also served on the Board of Governors and in the House of Delegates.

When asked why the ABA’s work is important, Behnke says she still views its ability to bring together a broad base of lawyers of different backgrounds and experiences as one of the most influential aspects of the association.

“There are moments I’m amazed that a kid from Wisconsin is in this position, but at the same time, the ABA is a home for everybody,” she says. “You don’t have to be from an elite law school and a big law firm to contribute, and that part is pretty amazing to me as well.”

This story was originally published in the June-July 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “‘A Home for Everybody’: Michelle Behnke looks to build community and strengthen the ABA with new strategic plan.”

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