Ralph Cagle, sworn in as Wisconsin State Bar president June 24, came to Wisconsin first as a politico, not a lawyer. Raised near Providence, Rhode Island, he earned a master’s degree at the Eagleton Institute of Practical Politics at Rutgers University, then moved to Madison in 1968 when he was hired by State Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) as head of the Democratic caucus staff.
Three years later, Cagle became assistant to then-Assembly Speaker Norman Anderson and enrolled in law school as well. Years later, he would end up teaching the General Practice Course at the UW Law School, renamed as the Lawyering Skills Program, and leaving a lasting imprint on generations of Wisconsin attorneys.
Q: You have been teaching new lawyers-to-be for many years. What’s the biggest difference between law students you teach now and those you saw 20 years ago?
A: First, they are carrying a great deal of school debt and their employment prospects are not as good as they were in the past. But, they are pretty realistic about that and generally more positive about their futures than some might expect. Their generation is deeply embedded in the electronic and cyber world. This may explain their being quieter and less outgoing than the stereotype of lawyers. They see relationships differently. They tend to prefer online interactions than in-person contact. I find them less likely to stop by my office to talk, even though I openly invite them to do so. They would rather pose questions and career concerns online. I prefer not giving email answers to “where am I going in my career” kind of questions.
Q: What’s the most important advice you can give a new lawyer?
A: Be curious. Ask smart questions. Listen. Observe. You have so much to learn after law school. There are lawyers and others who know what you need to know. Many, if not most, will share their knowledge and experience freely and openly, but you may have to initiate that engagement. Identify and cultivate good mentors and sponsors.
Q: I know you are a frequent author and national speaker and trainer on negotiation, mediation and the professional responsibilities of lawyers. That opens up so many questions. Why do lawyers get such a bad rap?
A: Actually, as individuals, I don’t think lawyers do get a bad rap. Most people think highly of lawyers they know; those who serve and lead in their communities, or who they see at their kids’ soccer games and those who have represented and often helped them through unfamiliar or sometimes challenging legal situations. What draws criticism is what lawyers sometimes have to do to represent their clients. There is very little “happy law.” Most law deals with difficult aspects of life, is complicated and often involves one party winning with another party or parties feeling that they lost, sometimes unfairly. In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Miss Maudie Atkinson, Atticus Finch’s neighbor, tried to explain to Jem and Scout Finch their father’s job as a lawyer. Miss Maudie said, “There are some men in this world who are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father is one of them.” I think that’s pretty accurate.
Q: What can the profession do to look better in the public eye?
A: I’m not sure “looking better in the public eye” is a good goal for lawyers or a good outcome for the public. I tend to agree with Miss Maudie. In a free society, law and lawyers have a certain job to do. Sometimes — maybe often — it is unpleasant (or worse) especially for the people directly affected. Sometimes, people see how the law works and find it unpleasant or worse. Some lawyers may do the job more unpleasantly than may be necessary. But, most lawyers do a pretty good job of finding solutions to client problems even hotly contested ones. But, I think lawyers risk trouble if they feel the need to be loved by the public. That’s why we have families and friends.
Q: If you want to accomplish one thing during your tenure as president of the State Bar, what is it?
A: I want the State Bar to do its best to help its members be successful in all aspects of their lives. We want to educate them as to how to best represent their clients and develop effective law practices. We must encourage and assist them in the roles that they play as leaders in their respective communities and pass their skills and commitments on to the next generation of lawyers.
We want to do all we can, as a profession, to promote respect for the rule of law over the alternatives and secure justice for all. And we should help lawyers find the fullness of satisfaction and happiness in their professional work and in their personal lives.
We also need, as a privileged profession, to diversify and be more inclusive. This is not only a matter of justice, but also a test of our relevance in the 21st century.
Q: As a negotiator, tell me why people in this country seem so bad at it? It seems that the middle ground is eluding us on so many fronts, and everything is so contentious. Why is that?
A: Your observation about the middle ground eluding us is a perceptive comment on our times. It is certainly true of our toxic politics. Our economic system seems to be eliminating much of the middle class as income and wealth disparities widen. We don’t do a good a job of communicating across cultural and class differences in a necessarily culturally diverse society. There seems to be so little appreciation of difference and different points of view. Too many people worship their own opinions, values and interests.
But negotiation offers me hope. As you know, I have taught negotiation for 25 years. Working with interested and engaged students, teaching negotiation is like teaching “life 101.”
How do we work together to fashion a mutually beneficial deal? How can we resolve this conflict and build a workable relationship in the process? How do I assert my interests and get a good result while respecting the other side’s interests in a way that encourages them to agree?
These are some questions and skills that smart negotiators apply to the challenges of human interaction and competing interests.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: I love the outdoors, except Wisconsin winters. The truth is I live more through my mind than through my muscles. I love understanding ideas particularly about this curious human species.
I live for books, could watch a good movie every day and am always curious about new topics, particularly as they point to possibilities. I am a sports fan, especially baseball, but I lack any redeeming athletic skill.
My favorite humans are family and friends, and I choose to spend as much time with them as they will allow. Grandkids are my idea of unmitigated fun. In fact, with my grandkids that is our slogan: “Fun, Fun, Fun!” We start every venture yelling those words.
Q: What’s the best part of being a lawyer? After all these years, do you still believe in our system of justice? Why?
A: I believe in our justice system, but that is easy for me to say because I have been privileged by it. It is harder for many others to share that belief.
So, I believe in a justice system that has to change in some ways quite significantly and that will likely always have to change and adapt. Having a hand in improving the justice system is a great opportunity in being a lawyer. The question always is how much and how well we do with that opportunity.
Q: When you were in high school, where did you expect to be at this point in your life?
A: In high school, I was obsessed with politics. It seemed a much more idealistic pursuit then. I actually hoped to be Governor of Rhode Island someday. I even had a plan.
But, as they say, “life happens,” and a series of events unfolded that led me to move to Wisconsin “for a while” – it’s been 47 years.
But, Wisconsin changed my career goals, my cruising speed, and it provided me just about everything that I hold dear today, especially my family. So, my life took a very different course, and I am grateful.