In the past 33 years, there have only been three members of the Nebraska Bar Commission from Northeast Nebraska.
Two of the three have been from Norfolk — Dan Jewell and Mark Fitzgerald. The other was Tom Maul of Columbus, who served 12 years as the representative of the Northeast Nebraska judicial district.
Now for the first time in recent years, the chairman of the commission is from Norfolk.
Fitzgerald, who is in his second term on the commission, was chosen by the Nebraska Supreme Court to succeed Patricia Freeman of Papillion. He is a member of the Norfolk law firm of Fitzgerald, Vetter, Temple & Bartell.
Bar commissioners administer and grade the State Bar Exam and, when issues regarding an applicant's character or fitness to practice law arise, it investigates, holds hearings and makes recommendations to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
One lawyer from each of the Nebraska Supreme Court's six judicial districts serves on the commission, as selected by the justices.
Fitzgerald said he remembers when he received a call from then-Justice John Gerrard, who once practiced law in Norfolk, asking Fitzgerald if he was interested in serving.
"I said, 'I am,' " Fitzgerald said, "because Dan Jewell had been a commissioner when I was a young lawyer."
Jewell, who died in 2013, practiced in the same firm as Fitzgerald when he began his law career in Norfolk.
Fitzgerald said he knew how much work it would be from Jewell, but he also knew how important the work was. Fitzgerald was appointed in 2007 and has served on the commission ever since.
Terms last six years, which means that Fitzgerald will serve through 2019. He became chairman of the commission on Nov. 1.
The 57-year-old Norfolkan and his wife, Jacque, have three children, including daughter, Kate, who works as a deputy prosecutor in Sarpy County.
"The year she (Kate) took the bar exam, I didn't grade any bar exams," Fitzgerald said. "That definitely would have been a conflict of interest."
Actually, the identities of the applicants are secret so the commissioners don’t know whose exams they are grading.
There's no quota on how many pass or fail. (One year 100 percent of the University of Nebraska Law School graduates passed the bar exam.
Shela Shanks, who serves as director of attorney admissions of the Nebraska State Bar Commission of the Nebraska Supreme Court, said the work Fitzgerald and the other members of the commission does is important. That’s especially true because they review all attorney applications for admission to practice law for Nebraska, she said.
“Our job is to protect the public in determining whether or not someone has the education and/or experience, depending on how they are being admitted, that is required as determined by the Supreme Court, meting the standards,” Shanks said.
It also requires lawyers to have the proper character and fitness to practice law, such as being trustworthy and the fitness to be practicing the law to be representing the public, she said.
Serving on the Nebraska Bar Commission also has made Fitzgerald knowledgeable on other issues, including the ever-increasing costs to attend law school.
Fitzgerald said some law school graduates have at least $100,000 and sometimes up to $200,000 in debt — just from law school.
One way to address that is through a new program that pays some or all of the debt of lawyers if they agree to serve in a rural area after graduating.
"Sometimes people don't think this is true, but at least in the rural part of Nebraska, there's a lawyer shortage. You could have to drive several hundred miles to talk to a lawyer," Fitzgerald said.
For Fitzgerald, the weeks following July and February bar exams are especially busy. That's when Fitzgerald is helping to grade the essays of the law school graduates.
In addition, there are ongoing meetings and hearings if someone has an issue with an application.
Lawyers are regulated by the judicial branch, which is the Nebraska Supreme Court. Members of the Nebraska Bar Commission get a stipend and expenses for their work
"I do enjoy it. I consider it important. It is interesting to me in both reading the essay questions and answers and being involved in the application process and the character and fitness part of it," Fitzgerald said.