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ITLA's Micki Wilson reducing role after 37 years as director

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micki-4777-15col.jpg Indiana Trial Lawyers Association Executive Director Micki Wilson will hand over day-to-day duties running the organization at the end of the year, but she’ll continue to lobby on its behalf at the Statehouse. (IL Photo/Daniel Axler)

Micki Wilson slips into an easy, self-deprecating laugh. She’s talking about the time 20-some years ago she promised her kids she’d be home from the Statehouse early for dinner—a rarity during a busy legislative session. The calendar promised a short day.

“Of course, they decided to go long,” recalled Wilson, longtime executive director of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association. “I was feeling, as most single mothers do when things like this happen, tremendously guilty.”

She rushed to a phone, called home. Breathlessly, with “uninterrupted guilt,” she said she was so sorry; the session had been extended; she couldn’t leave; her bill was coming up; there was money at home for the kids to order pizza.

“Then the voice on the other end of the phone says, ‘Who is this?’” Wilson said with a snicker.

Her youngest son, then 11, in three words reminded her of the importance of laughter.

“He was being a smart aleck. He is his mother’s son,” she joked. “We’re humans, and human beings are funny. We also need to get over ourselves a little bit.”

Wilson’s infectious laugh and fondness for a good yarn juxtapose her tenaciousness and devotion to the organization she’s led for 37 years. She steps down at the end of the year as ITLA’s executive director, but she’ll continue to lobby lawmakers and keep score, literally, on issues important to the plaintiffs’ bar.

Some things won’t change, but she will get a new title: senior policy adviser. “I told my son that, and he said, ‘But Mom, you don’t know anything about seniors,’” she said. “Same son.”

Solid bench

Association CFO Jason Bell will take over as ITLA executive director after Wilson reduces her duties. “We’ve worked in such close collaboration the last 10 to 15 years,” Bell said. “I’ve learned a lot from her. She’s been a true champion of civil justice and dedicated her life to protecting injured Hoosiers and their rights.”

Wilson, 68, said the association is in good hands with what she calls the best staff of any trial lawyers association in the country. “They pay attention to the members. If a member were to call here, they see to it that that member’s needs are satisfied. We serve at the pleasure of the leadership. It’s not our organization, it’s theirs.”

Membership services and publications, government affairs and continuing legal education are like legs of a stool the organization stands on, Wilson said. She credited ITLA’s leadership for building an organization whose strengths are nimbleness and flexibility.

For instance, internal focus groups of lawyers vet legislation and policy positions not just from a legal angle but also from the point of view of lawmakers who will ask tough practical questions. Efforts like this have given ITLA a sound reputation in the Capitol.

“Trial lawyers by definition are rugged individualists, they call their own shots, they’re captains of the courtroom,” Wilson said. “That’s not the definition of people who would work well together. In this context, they do.”

ITLA President James O. McDonald of Terre Haute noted Wilson has been the organization’s only executive director. “Prior to that it was a loose-knit organization,” he said. “Files were kept in the trunks of various attorneys’ vehicles.”

Wilson “has nurtured (ITLA) and grown it and has advised all the presidents and assembled a fabulous network of people in the organization itself,” he said.

From cursing to friendship

“Micki always reminds me, the very first time she had a conversation with me, I was cursing at her,” recalled Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford.

This was 1994, and Steele, now chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was running for a House seat. ITLA, he said, “supported my opponent, and I was a member of the Trial Lawyers Association, and a lawyer, and my opponent was neither one of those things. I was mad and I was wanting to know just what in the hell was going on.”

He said Wilson explained the organization supported incumbents who favored ITLA positions, and being an ITLA member wouldn’t in itself earn support. From that rough start, Steele and Wilson became good friends. “Micki is an extremely positive person,” he said. “When I get down, I call Micki and say let’s get a cup of coffee. Whenever I finish that first cup, I’m laughing.”

Steele said Wilson is to credit for setting the organization on a bipartisan course. Trial lawyers groups elsewhere are typically viewed as aligned with the Democratic Party.

“Her position was this: If you’re an incumbent, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Republican or Democratic,” said Steele, who suspended his ITLA membership while serving in the Legislature. “They said, ‘We’re going to look at the voting record’ and whether you voted with them on issues they thought needed changed in the law.”

Wilson shared some of the organization’s playbook. Lawmakers are scored positively or negatively not just on their votes. Sponsoring a bill earns points, as does speaking on the floor in favor of legislation and working the floor for a bill’s passage. Likewise, those who vote, speak or work against ITLA bills get negative scores. Lawmakers are keen to this, and often ask whether ITLA is scoring particular issues, she said. The organization lobbies hardest the roughly one-third of lawmakers rated in the middle.

Steele said across party lines, ITLA “gained a reputation in the hallway of, ‘Hey, these people know what they’re talking about, and when they come to testify that certain policies of the state of Indiana are wrong and ought to be changed, you can listen to them.’ That’s all because of Micki.”

Learning curve

Wilson said she knew nothing about running an organization when she came to ITLA in 1978. There was a phone, a typewriter and a box of 3-by-5 file cards.

“Had they told me I would have ended up doing what I ended up doing, I would have told them I wasn’t qualified,” she said. “Probably the greatest advantage I had was I didn’t know I couldn’t do it.”

There were about 300 to 400 members when Wilson arrived, and in recent years, membership has held steady at around 1,000 lawyers. That’s in contrast to similar bar groups around the country that have weathered significant drops in members lately.

Coming to the organization from a background as a history and art teacher, Wilson said she relied on experienced lawyer members when she needed help understanding an issue.

“I got hooked on justice years ago. You don’t get unhooked from that,” she said.

“She’s so knowledgeable about the law, I was shocked to find out she wasn’t a lawyer,” Steele said.

Wilson said ITLA regularly wages familiar fights, such as opposing attempts to give select groups immunity from civil liability or limit plaintiff access to civil courts. There have been victories over the years, such as increasing the tort cap, partial repeal of the hospital lien statute, and inclusion of adults without dependents in the wrongful death statute.

Bell said a recurring issue that will arise in the 2016 session is caps on medical malpractice damages. ITLA has worked with doctor, hospital and insurance groups to craft a compromise as the damages cap has remained at $1.25 million for 17 years.

Wilson recalled a bill some years back that would have granted immunity from civil lawsuits to companies that installed electrified fences around prisons. She said a lawmaker wondered to her how ITLA could oppose the bill and side with someone injured while trying to escape.

That wasn’t the association’s concern, she told the lawmaker. Rather, she told the legislator the group was worried about limiting civil redress in the event the fence failed and an escapee broke into someone’s home in his district and killed innocent people. The bill died and hasn’t reappeared since.

McDonald puts it this way: “She’s a tremendous communicator. She has the ability to frame things in terms people can understand.”

History repeating

There may be a reason Wilson excelled running a trial lawyers group. She can trace her ancestry to a Founding Father who spent a lot of time in legislative chambers, John Hancock.

“What’s really weird is my handwriting looks just like his,” she said. “I have this really big signature.”

Wilson’s signature also can be seen on artwork she hopes to focus on in her upcoming partial retirement. She’d like to hang some paintings in galleries, maybe exhibit some pieces. She paints abstracts and works in various other media. She said she does what she likes, but she doesn’t like commissioned pieces. Too much like work.

Before Wilson began haunting the state Capitol, a distant relative did. Indiana Sen. Dennis Pennington was a Whig known for his outspoken opposition in the 1830s and 1840s to the Mammoth Internal Improvement Plan. Pennington predicted the statewide canal-digging extravaganza would be a boondoggle and bankrupt the state. “He was right,” she said. “It did.”

She can laugh about it, though, and does.

“If you lose your giggle, you’re in real trouble,” she said.•

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