Law Firms and the Justices, 2008-09 through 2017-18

Ever wonder about the success rates of law firms at the Wisconsin Supreme Court—and how the firms fared with individual justices? In previous posts we have often dwelled on the activities of the Department of Justice and the State Public Defender’s Office—agencies regularly involved in supreme court litigation—but today we’ll turn the spotlight on private firms and examine the accomplishments of their most active representatives.[1]

Starting with a list of the 15 private firms responsible for the most oral arguments over the past ten years, I removed a small number of cases from each firm’s total—specifically, cases in which a firm delivered an oral argument as an amicus party, and cases in which a fragmented ruling made it too difficult to classify the outcome as favorable or unfavorable for participating law firms.[2] Chart 1 shows the number of oral arguments conducted by each firm after the totals were adjusted according to these guidelines.[3]

(Click on the charts to enlarge them.)

Having arrived at a set of cases to consider, we next determine what percentage of each firm’s cases yielded favorable outcomes for the firm’s clients. Although roughly half the firms have “success rates” in the general neighborhood of 50%, the results for the remaining firms run all the way from 20% to 80%, as displayed in Chart 2.[4]

Peering more deeply into these cases, we can discern the amount of support for their arguments that the firms gained from the justices individually. To this end, the figures in Chart 3 indicate the percentage of a firm’s cases in which its attorneys won the approval of each justice.[5] As one would expect, the figures often vary markedly from firm to firm and from justice to justice—sometimes in predictable fashion. The clients of personal-injury firms, for instance, found the court’s two liberal justices (Abrahamson and AW Bradley) much more receptive to their arguments than were their conservative colleagues (especially Justices Roggensack, Ziegler, and Gableman). In contrast, Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren enjoyed the overwhelming favor of conservative justices, but none at all from Justice Abrahamson.

I am particularly struck by the results for Godfrey & Kahn—the only firm whose appellate lawyers secured the vote of every justice, conservative and liberal alike, in over 50% of their cases. And they did so with a comparatively large volume of arguments.

In our next post, we’ll take a look at the results achieved by prominent individual attorneys from the 15 firms featured here.


[1] In addition to state agencies, I am excluding non-profit entities such as the Remington Center and the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

[2] When a firm prevailed on certain issues but not others, the case is counted as a favorable (or unfavorable) outcome if it seems clear that the firm won (or lost) on the issues of greatest importance—a subjective call required in only a very small number of cases.
The handful of cases that resulted in 3-3 per curiam decisions also required special processing. Unfortunately, the court has recently ceased to divulge how individual justices voted in such rulings—and I omitted cases when this information was withheld. In earlier years, however, the justices did communicate their votes in 3-3 cases, which allowed them to be included in Charts 1 and 3.

[3] We are considering cases decided during the 10 terms under review. In other words, if oral argument occurred during 2017-18, but the case was not decided until 2018-19, it is not included in this post.
The total for Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek includes two oral arguments delivered by Husch Blackwell, which absorbed Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek in 2016. Boardman & Clark’s total includes three arguments delivered by Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field. Boardman & Clark was formed by the merger in 2012 of Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field and Lathrop & Clark.

[4] Chart 2 does not include 3-3 per curiam decisions.

[5] Justices RG Bradley and Kelly have not been on the court long enough to participate in many cases, and thus their results in Chart 3 should be viewed circumspectly.

About Alan Ball

Alan Ball is a Professor of History at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI.

SCOWstats offers numerical analysis of the voting by Wisconsin Supreme Court justices on diverse issues over the past 95 years.


  1. Well written and to the point. I appreciate the detail in this article!

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