It was largely a desire to work for social justice via the courtroom — and a little bit of “Perry Mason” — that led Justice Ann Walsh Bradley to the legal profession.Bradley started at the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1973, when women were just breaking into the profession in larger numbers. She was excited to be in that group, and ready for any challenges that a woman in the law might face, because she was already used to doing things her way.While all of her friends growing up in Richland Center had stayed in Wisconsin to go to college, Bradley had opted for Webster College in the St. Louis area. Why? Because of its reputation for being “innovative,” she says. (The full scholarship and work/study were major factors as well.)Following college, she taught religion at Aquinas High School in La Crosse for a year — the first lay teacher to tackle that subject, a big step for the school at the time.The teaching was a good experience for Bradley. After all, if she could handle the notoriously mischievous Thursday large group lectures when she was a new teacher, she was ready for anything that any law professor could dish out.Near the completion of her law degree, Bradley experienced another “first.” She was the first third-year student to run for president of the Student Bar Association. If she were to win, she wouldn’t be there to lead — a very unique platform for a candidate. Her sleep-deprived study group devised the prank the night before the election, she recalls. Bradley states, “To say that mine was a twelfth-hour candidacy would be absolutely accurate. It actually was a twenty-third-and-a-half-hour candidacy — it was about 11:30 at night when we decided that I would run for the next morning’s election.” One of her opponents, a second-year student, named Mark J. Bradley, “won big-time,” she says with a laugh.Apparently he forgave her for the incident, because a few years later, the two were married. It was her first experience with a contested election until she ran for the Supreme Court, she adds.
The thrill of the courtroom
Although women made up nearly one-third of the Class of 1976, the “real world” of the legal profession, especially outside of Madison, didn’t reflect that by a long shot.Bradley recalls that her first job with Wausau Insurance Co. brought her to northern and central Wisconsin, where there were virtually no women practitioners, especially women litigators. Bradley had accepted the job because she “liked the thrill of the courtroom,” she says. Three years later, and after she married, Bradley decided to start her own practice in Wausau — which was an intimidating prospect at first, she admits.“The climate for women attorneys was different than it is now,” she remarks. She had no idea if she would be able to attract any clients. Her fear was generated, in part, by hearing that some were even questioning whether two attorneys in private practice in a small town could have a successful marriage — since there supposedly would be “endless conflicts of interest.” Bradley says that she and her husband laugh about that notion to this day.As for the clients, Bradley immediately had so much work that she had to take on an associate. The best applicant was Mark W. Hoover, now with the District III Court of Appeals in Wausau. Business continued to boom, and Bradley had two small children. So they hired another lawyer to help with the workload, Patrick M. Brady, now on the Marathon County Circuit Court bench.During those years, Bradley practiced personal injury law, mostly on the plaintiffs’ side. She wasn’t running into many women in the courtroom, she says. Bradley was told that she was the first woman attorney in Winnebago County in a civil jury trial there, and one of the first in La Crosse County as well. The few women whom she did see at the counsel tables tended to be assistant district attorneys or public defenders, rather than civil litigators like herself.While the barriers that she faced seem to have largely disappeared for women attorneys these days, Bradley observes that some challenges still remain. For example, there still aren’t many women partners in the state’s large- and medium-sized law firms.
Judging: a marvelous profession
In 1985, Gov. Tony Earl appointed her to the bench as the first female judge in Marathon County.“For me, one of the joys of going on the circuit court was that I could still be involved in the litigation process, but from a different perspective,” she says.Both the legal community and the community as a whole seemed supportive of the appointment, she says. “It was a job that was well-suited for me, and I think that many others felt that way, too. And those who were skeptical, hopefully, were quickly converted,” she says with a grin.Still, she was aware that a woman judge was a relatively unheard of phenomenon back then. Bradley recounts that when she presided over a high-profile, emotionally charged murder trial in Price County, the local newspaper’s coverage mentioned the color of her shoes — because “the idea of having a woman judge, in a trial that so absorbed the community, was quite remarkable.” Bradley loved the trial bench, and continues to speak highly of the position for anyone considering it. “It’s an absolutely marvelous profession,” she opines. “When you’re a judge, you have such an opportunity to touch people’s lives in ways that you can’t even imagine.”She speaks of an incident where she came across a man at a gas station in his early 20s, and it dawned upon her that she’d seen him many years earlier in her courtroom. He had been involved a very serious case in the community, and she had felt intense pressure on what should happen in the matter. But she went her own way, took a risk, and was very hard on him. “In my mind, what I did saved him,” she remarks.Judging is a profession that brings with it an awesome responsibility — to do justice on a daily basis. It’s also very difficult at times because judges typically see people at the worst points of their lives. And sometimes it’s tough to sleep at night, she adds. “You don’t always do the right thing, but you have to be able to come to terms with, ‘I did my best.’ ” After a decade as a trial judge, Bradley decided that she was ready for the next challenge: the Wisconsin Supreme Court. She was elected to a seat on the state’s high court in 1995.
Focusing on family
Bradley’s life these days is “A Tale of Two Cities” between the Wausau area and Madison, she says — at least when the court is in session. She maintains an office in Wausau, and commutes to Madison two or three times per week.The Bradleys have four children, two of which are high school freshmen, with the older two now attending the University of Wisconsin. It goes without saying that when the children were younger, it was difficult for Bradley to balance her family with her career, but she and her husband “made it work,” she says. At one point, they had four children under the age of five, and, “When you add to that mix two very busy professional people, you make the most of every minute of the day.” Bradley employed some creative strategies to use every minute wisely. She notes that for a while, she got into the habit of grocery shopping at 4 a.m., because she knew that she could get it done sooner with only herself, the cashier, and “the guy spraying the produce” in the store.Her children are all involved in many activities, and attending them is one of Bradley’s greatest pleasures. She also enjoys getting together with her two elder children at least once a week for dinner when she’s in town. When asked if she’s one of those people who can get by on four or five hours o
f sleep, Bradley laughingly responds, “I need more than five hours, but I don’t always get it. Sometimes I’m go, go, go. But I sometimes need to stop, stop, stop.”