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Leadership in the Time of Crisis: Chris Wagner Takes the Helm as CBA President

May 5, 2020

By Leyla Shokoohe, director of communications at the CBA.


Wagner pictured at the Hamilton County Courthouse Law Library.
When Chris Wagner started on the path to becoming president of the Cincinnati Bar Association, he couldn’t have anticipated assuming the role during a global pandemic. But the longtime public sector attorney is up for the challenge.  

“We are all now faced with the knowledge that this will be a long solution and we will have to deal with the consequences for quite some time going forward,” said Wagner of the coronavirus outbreak.  

In March of 2020, the city of Cincinnati and the state of Ohio took precautionary measures before much of the country, shutting down non-essential businesses and changing the landscape of practice for many professionals, including lawyers. Legal services were deemed an essential business, and both lawyers and the CBA continued to operate, largely remotely, during the crisis.  

At the time of publication, several of our courts had issued orders restricting inflow to courtrooms, and many pivoted to virtual settings. But access to the law and legal services never stopped. The legal community and the CBA are no strangers to remaining calm under fire. The 148-year-old organization has, as Wagner pointed out, stood the test of time in this country.  

“Within context, we should all take comfort that our Cincinnati Bar Association has suffered through the Spanish Flu outbreak, two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Great Recession, and all the other conflicts, and our profession has come out stronger than it did before, as long as that is what we want to do,” he said. 

A graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Law, Wagner wanted to be a lawyer from the outset.  

“I always wanted to go to law school,” he said. “As a small child, I was very fascinated in our constitutional system, the history of the republic, the intersection of constitutional law and individual freedoms, and enjoyed studying classes even in undergrad about constitutional law.”  

Upon graduation from Xavier University in 1997, the West Side native first took a job as a financial broker before following in his family’s footsteps (his maternal uncle and great-grandfather both went to UC’s College of Law) to law school.  

While there, Wagner met his now-wife, Nora Burke-Wagner, now assistant dean for international programs at the same law school.  

“I took negotiations with my then-fiancé, now my wife. She outscored me in the class,” he said. “So, when we went to go buy our first car, I looked at her and said, ‘A+, why don’t you take the lead on this one?’” 
(They bought a Toyota Corolla.)  

The pair married in December of 2000, just after Wagner was admitted to the Ohio bar. He took a position as law clerk for Judge Ann Marie Tracey at the Hamilton County Courthouse before taking a job as the assistant prosecutor in Cuyahoga County, Cleveland.  

“I was working in the courthouse and really became completely enamored with trial practice, under both civil and criminal matters, the whole pace and flow of a courtroom and a courthouse,” said Wagner. “At that point, I knew I wanted to be a trial lawyer, and going into criminal law as a prosecutor or public defender is a great way to get a lot of trial experience.”  

Wagner started off in the juvenile division of the prosecutor’s office before moving over to general felony, followed by a stint as a community-based prosecutor, taking select cases and working exclusively with the Cleveland’s Sixth Police District and their vice unit, as well as community groups.  

From there, he became a major trial prosecutor, eventually becoming cross-designated as a special assistant U.S. attorney, running a gang and drug task force in Cleveland, where he tried two cases in federal court against those gang members for drug conspiracy.  

“It takes a toll on anybody, because you’re dealing with people’s emotions and their pain — and there’s usually pain on both sides. There’s usually a victim; even victimless crimes have a victim somewhere along the line,” Wagner said. “When people speak frankly about what’s happened to them, what the effect is on them, that can be very powerful and awe-inspiring.”  

By this time, Wagner and his wife had two children, Collin and Claire. (Their third child, Ryan, was born in 2008.) He took a job as managing attorney of the Cincinnati office of the Ohio attorney general, and moved the family back to Cincinnati in 2007, settling in Anderson Township. Wagner became a CBA member before he returned to Cincinnati.  

He met fellow CBA member Eric Combs, a litigation attorney with Dinsmore and Shohl, who coached their sons’ basketball team.  

“I asked him about [joining the board] after I saw an article in the CBA Report looking for people to volunteer,” said Wagner, who is now the chief compliance officer for the Hamilton County Clerk of Courts, working for Aftab Pureval.  
Combs was thrilled.  

“I thought he was a natural fit for many reasons,” said Combs, who also served as CBA president, 2015-2016. “For one, we didn’t have many lawyers on the board at the time that were on the public sector, meaning working for government. The other things were, I got to know Chris and knew he was really smart and really hard-working, and thought, ‘Man, this guy would be great, if he’s willing.’” 

Wagner has served on the CBA board every year since joining. 

 

“My parents taught me by example the importance of volunteering,” he said.
He started with two two-year terms, then served in one-year terms as secretary, vice-president, president-elect, and now, president.  

“I think [the CBA is] a fantastic organization, with a strong history of community involvement and then promoting professionalism and civility in the legal profession,” said Wagner. “As a person who has been a trial attorney and practiced all throughout Ohio and the federal courts in Ohio, I understand the importance of such an association to promote civility and professionalism.” 

Those are two tenets Wagner feels strongly about upholding during his term as CBA president. The notion of civility, of courteousness and respect, is essential to the practice of law, and the success of a collegial legal community. Without respect, the bedrock of law, the mutual belief in the profession’s responsibility to determine right from wrong, is undermined.  

Other professions might have a more defined “enemy”, as it were — doctors fight disease, illness; yes, the coronavirus. Lawyers protect our collective and individual liberties, our rights that form the foundation of our country. It’s not an easy gig, but it is integrally important to a healthy community and country.  

“There’s been a lot of pressure on the legal profession in recent years, and on the legal professional associations as well, and upon law schools, and when you believe very much in the importance of those — the legal profession, what people it serves, the people, the importance of a strong law school to produce new lawyers, an association to speak on behalf of lawyers — you want to make sure you’re doing your part. It’s a great privilege to be a lawyer,” said Wagner.  

As president of the CBA, one of Wagner’s passion projects, prior to the pandemic, included establishing a legal assistance program through the Bar Association. This program would function similarly to other help centers that exist within different court.   

In light of the global health crisis, Wagner acknowledged his priorities as president would necessarily shift in focus, especially in the coming days when people can again openly congregate.  

“Our profession has always made a disproportionately strong contribution to our community, and I don’t see that ever changing, so long as our membership is strong and our commitment to the community remains,” he said. “My priority is keeping the CBA strong for future generations of lawyers.” 


 

Photography by Marlene Rounds.


CBA Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Chris Wagner is currently running for judge on the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas. The CBA does not endorse any political candidates.  
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