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Q&A: Incoming leader Cheryl Daniels prepares to join State Bar's first all-women team

Q&A: Incoming leader Cheryl Daniels prepares to join State Bar's first all-women team

Cheryl Daniels

Future president-elect of the Wisconsin State Bar, Cheryl Daniels. 

As the nation commemorates the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage, the Wisconsin State Bar is preparing to welcome its first ever all-female leadership team — a reality longtime state lawyer Cheryl Daniels is thrilled to be a part of. 

Daniels, who was selected as president-elect of the Bar this spring, is preparing to begin serving in the role on July 1, where she'll work alongside incoming President Kathy Brost and former head Jill Kastner. 

"For me, women being a part of all organizations and women in leadership in all areas is near and dear to my heart," Daniels said in a recent interview. "On the hundredth anniversary of women getting the right to vote, to have all-women leadership in the Bar is, to me, it's just a thrill."

A Madison-based lawyer with the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, where she's worked for three decades, Daniels chose to come to Wisconsin from upstate New York to earn a master's in public policy and a law degree. 

The move was meant to set herself up for a career in government work after graduating from UW Law School in 1985, she said, a field she was drawn to in large part because of her upbringing in a family led by a first-generation American mother that was able to avoid poverty because of governmental programs. 

"I saw the power of the good of public institutions," she said. "And so it just became something that I felt very strongly about, that it was a fundamental part of how we are able to have as good a country as we are is because of the nature of the public-private (sectors) together, and I really wanted to become part of the public sector."

Below is a transcript of the interview, edited for length and clarity. 

You stayed in the state post-law school and have been practicing here ever since. Why did you decide to remain in Wisconsin?

Part of it was because I met my late husband, Chris, in law school. And so he got out before I did, and he had a position in private practice in Madison … When I got out, I actually did have a position available to do a presidential management internship in Washington. But I had also looked at state (jobs) because he was already working. I was able to secure a position and actually, it was before I had quite finished my final degree, I started working for the Legislative Audit Bureau. I came in right when there was a budget session kind of starting. So I got to hit the ground running with a budget session and learning what was going on from actually one of the true masters at the time, Dale Cattanach, who was the longtime head of the Legislative Audit Bureau. Dale just was brilliant and you could learn so much from him as to his working with all the legislators, both sides of the aisle. He was really somebody that you could learn a lot from.

You've held some interesting positions over your career and the LAB one is definitely something that catches my eye as a state government reporter. 

It was a very good place to start. And then I was recruited from there to go over to DATCP to be one of the first people on the ground doing the farmers assistance program. At the time, we thought it was going to be a shorter-term program. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way. I mean, we've had long-term issues with that, but I spent four years working in that program, and it was a great way to learn about Wisconsin and Wisconsin agriculture and learn about one of the foundational industries in the state, even though it was working with a lot of people in distress …

I was then was asked by the secretary of the department, there was a new position for an administrative law judge to work directly with the secretary of Ag, Trade and Consumer Protection to hear cases when either the division wanted to take action against somebody’s license or a person was appealing an action, they needed somebody to hear the case because the secretary in our statutes is the final decision maker on those cases. At the time, the central hearing panel wasn't in place, or it was but it was very, very small and they weren't willing to take on the cases. So they got a position available and secretary of the agency at that time, Howard Richards, asked me if I would consider applying for that position. And I did, and it became where I worked. I did that for 18 years.

After serving as an ALJ, what did you do next? 

The central hearing panel finally got to the point where they could accept taking our cases. But they were going to just take the cases, we were going to be done with under contract; it wasn't that my position was going to flip over there. So they actually asked me if I would stay on at DATCP because there was retirement amongst the attorneys who represent the different divisions. Because I had such an overview of all the different divisions because of the work that I had done, they asked if I would consider coming on as a full time legal counsel as opposed to the ALJ, and I said yes. 

So that’s 30 years at DATCP alone, given that you’ve spent 11 years there as legal counsel after serving as ALJ. That’s quite a career. 

Yes. It’s not something that a lot of people do anymore, but I built a career and what was great about it was that I've worked in different areas, and it always stayed interesting because there was always something new going on … 

You’ve spent so much time at DATCP under a number of different administrations and secretaries. You've moved positions in that period. But has your job ever evolved at all amid changing leadership?

I worked well with every single secretary of this agency. I guess it’s up to — I’d have to count right now — about 10? But whether appointed by Democrats or Republicans, what I've known about the secretaries of the agency is that they wanted to work for the good of both Wisconsin agriculture as a whole, but they also took their jobs really seriously about being public servants in those positions, and honestly, I had an excellent working relationship with every one of them. 

You talked about how you had been drawn to government work. Why was that the case? 

I had a family where on my mother's side, she was a first-generation American. And so I knew, my grandparents and my older aunt and uncle who were immigrants. How we interacted with government was very important. Also, my father died fairly young and one of the ways that we stayed out of poverty were government programs that helped us, Social Security and the public school system. Because all of us were able to go to public schools through college and I went to law school, my brother ended up going to grad school. But we were able to start out and have all that because of the public school system. And that was actually something my mom wasn't able to do. She was a very, very smart woman, but was not ever able to attend college, just wasn't within her reach. So for us to be able to do that, I saw the power of the good of public institutions. And so it just became something that I felt very strongly about, that it was a fundamental part of how we are able to have as good a country as we are is because of the nature of the public-private together, and I really wanted to become part of the public sector.

As the future president-elect of the State Bar, you'll be part of the history-making all women leadership team within the organization. Tell me about that. 

For me, it’s very exciting. I have been a longtime member of the League of Women Voters, and I was in leadership a number of years ago at the Dane County League of Women Voters. So for me, women being a part of all organizations and women in leadership in all areas is near and dear to my heart. On the hundredth anniversary of women getting the right to vote, to have all women leadership in the Bar is, to me, it's just a thrill.

The announcement also noted the variety of legal experiences you all bring to the table. Why’s that important? 

That's very important because we want all of our different constituencies, if you will, the places that we practice (to be represented). I practice government work, Kathy Brost, coming in as president, practices in solo and small firm and (future past president) Jill Kastner practiced in a large firm and then went to civil legal services. So we've got all those diverse kind of things. You always want your constituents to be involved. But you also want the membership to understand that all of us together as a group represent all of the lawyers and care about all of the lawyers and care about what all the lawyers think. 

Is there anything else readers should know? 

I think what we're looking at is, like any other organization, we are in unprecedented times, there is no doubt about it. And we have to figure out how we can best serve both our membership and also help our members serve the wider public that they serve during this time. It's not going to be something that's just going to be over even when the “safer at home” (order) is done, it's not going to be over for a while. We're going to have things that are going to kind of continue to reverberate over, we're not really sure exactly how long. We have to be aware of and up to that challenge, to be out there on behalf of all of the members of the Bar and to help them serve as officers of the court and as people who serve the public in Wisconsin and beyond that, we've got to work and figure out and be ready to look at what will be a lot of different challenges over that time.

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at WisPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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