Wisconsin lawyer nominated to lead the American Bar Association

Michelle Behnke's Madison firm focuses on real estate and business law

A scale
A scale in a courtroom

After nearly 30 years of running her own practice, Michelle Behnke is the nominee to head the country’s largest voluntary organization of lawyers.

Behnke is principal of her own firm in Madison, Michelle Behnke & Associates, which focuses on real estate, estate planning and business law. This year, she became the nominee to become the next president of the American Bar Association. The organization’s Board of Directors holds elections to officially vote in nominees in August.

The ABA is a voluntary organization of legal professionals with more than 400,000 members. It creates ethics codes for lawyers, accredits law schools, provides professional training for lawyers and more. 

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Becoming a lawyer wasn’t something Behnke was even considering until a high school guidance counselor nudged her to think about eventually going to law school. “I think (law was suggested) mostly because I like to talk. And I like to argue. I ask a lot of questions.”

Behnke is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin Law School. Her interest in law grew when she saw the unique ways that lawyers are able to help people. 

“The law can be complicated and difficult to navigate. And it affects everybody. To be able to explain it in a way that (everyone) could understand (in order to) make the choices for themselves… really, really excited me,” she said. 

Behnke and her husband were expecting their first child the day she graduated from UW Law School. The commencement speaker, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, gave Behnke advice that stuck with her. 

“She noticed how pregnant I was. And she just pulled me aside and she said, ‘You can be a mom and you can be a great lawyer, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t,’” Behnke said. “She really encouraged me to fully engage in the profession. And not to believe that I couldn’t do both.”

Behnke took that advice to heart. She started her own business, which she’s been running for nearly three decades. She has also been involved in both the state and national bars; she’s a former president of the Wisconsin State Bar. 

She’s also been heavily involved in diversity efforts at both the state and national bars. 

“Our justice system is designed to be equal and fair and accessible to all. So having people that have had the similar experiences, and who look like the clients — all of that helps people feel like the system is fair and equal for all,” she said.

As ABA president, Behnke said she would like to focus on areas of the organization that helped her throughout her legal career. She said the ABA had resources that allowed her to open her business and get more involved in her community. 

Her advice for aspiring lawyers?

“Find something that you love … passion is needed to be a good lawyer,” she said.