May 5, 2020
By Leyla Shokoohe, director of communications at the CBA.
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.
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.
“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.