In February, Michelle Behnke of Madison, principal of Michelle Behnke & Associates, was named by the American Bar Association (ABA) Nominating Committee as the next ABA president-elect. The ABA House of Delegates will formally vote on the nomination in August. If elected, Behnke will serve a one-year term as ABA president-elect before taking office as president of the association in August 2025.

Behnke, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Law School, has practiced law for 35 years, focusing primarily on business, real estate and estate planning. She first worked at a local firm, then after the birth of her second child accepted a more family-compatible position as in-house counsel for Cuna Mutual Insurance, now TruStage. 

After 10 years of practicing law, she opened her own firm in February 1998, specializing in business, real estate law (residential and commercial) and estate planning.

“I grew up in Madison and had many connections, so through word of mouth, marketing and networking, I got clients,” said Behnke. “Now I get many clients based on referrals, which has resulted in a wonderful client base and business growth.” 

Working previously as in-house counsel for five years, Behnke found it interesting that as an employee of the company, the business units did not have to pay per hour for legal advice and counsel, so she got to be involved in projects earlier and felt part of the decision team. She carried this philosophy into her own business by deliberately setting an hourly rate that showed her clients she was there to help and that by bringing her into a case early, she could give advice upfront rather than undoing or redoing work later in the process.

“With more lead time, I can provide more options and better solutions,” she said. 

Behnke finds it rewarding to operate her own firm, deciding which clients to serve and how much time to give to community and professional service, thereby crafting what practicing law looks like to her—a balance between serving clients and her community. This includes an investment in the state and national bar associations. 

She became involved in the State Bar of Wisconsin more than 20 years ago. 

“When I first joined the State Bar, I didn’t see a lot of lawyers who looked like me on committees,” she said. “I knew there were more Black lawyers, but they weren’t being appointed to join the work.”  

This led to her work in creating the first Diversity Outreach Committee.  

Behnke was elected to the State Bar board of governors, and later was elected as treasurer and then president in 2004. In her roles, she helped make decisions about legal education, changes in technology, policies and legislation. She found it invigorating to work with other lawyers as they tried to solve problems.

Next Behnke began serving on committees for the American Bar Association, including most recently as chair of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession and now as a member of the Strategic Planning Committee. She was elected treasurer and served from 2017-2020. After seeing how the budgets were created, she felt she could do more to ensure the organization’s goals and mission aligned with how it spent money. This led to her run for president. 

Behnke credits her successful law career to her love of people. 

“I enjoy learning their stories and hearing about their different experiences,” she said. 

She understands that listening and empathy are two key strengths in law practice. This involves asking the right questions, paying attention to the person, sensing if they have a question, not judging. She creates an environment where her clients feel confident sharing details. 

“Every case is based on individual facts and circumstances. If you don’t listen closely, you could miss something that could be a deciding factor in available options,” she said.

Behnke is passionate about helping people, and when a client recognizes that she went out of her way to do a good job and gives her a referral, it “makes her heart sing.”

From her early days serving the Madison Board of Realtors to a number of nonprofit and corporate boards to serving on the state and national bar associations, Behnke has found numerous ways to combine her passions for law and community. 

She looks forward to continuing her work with the ABA in her new role, building inclusivity and paving the way for others like her to experience the same opportunities.