Christopher Van Wagner


Christopher T. Van Wagner is one of the top all-around criminal defense attorneys in Wisconsin. He has nearly 35 years of legal experience (but maintains his youthful zeal – and a full head of hair).Van Wagner has a record of positive results for his clients. He has devoted the past 30+ years of law practice to defending people charged with serious crimes, including Sexual Assault, Homicide (DWI/OWI Homicide, Vehicular Homicide, Negligent Homicide), OWI (including Causing Injury by OWI, as well as First, Second, Third, or other repeat-OWI cases), Assault, Battery, Drug Charges, Controlled Substance Charges, Embezzlement, Wire Fraud, Bank/Mortgage Fraud, Criminal Damage to Property, and Theft.These cases can be difficult to defend, given the nature of the crimes and the instant and widespread negative public reaction to them. However, even if it means taking a false or unfounded case to a jury trial, Chris Van Wagner will do all in his power to ensure that justice is served for his clients.

Mr. Van Wagner brings a wealth of life experiences to his criminal law practice. As one of 11 children, Chris was raised in a middle-class Irish Catholic family in the grimy, working-class scrabble of Trenton, New Jersey. Those days in the streets gave him insights into how people act. He was always more interested in human nature than some heavy scholastic tome. Due to his East Coast roots, Chris remains an avid New York Yankees fan and Red Sox enemy. And yet, despite his hard knocks education in Trenton, where he learned how to think on his feet, Chris – like his father before him – paid his own way through college. He went to St. Lawrence (New York State), earning honors in English Literature (BA, 1978).After graduation, Mr. Van Wagner next paid and worked his way into an Ivy League law degree, at Cornell Law School, where he was named an Editor of the Law Review, a high academic honor reserved for the top ten percent of Cornell Law students. Then, after Cornell (JD, 1981), Mr. Van Wagner worked in as clerk for a federal judge, the late Hon. Dickinson Debevoise (US. District Court of NJ)

After one boring, uninspiring year in a large NJ firm, Chris worked as a county prosecutor (in Trenton, NJ). He cut his teeth there in the mid-80’s, where he tried more than 50 felony cases to final jury verdict.Then, after a brief stint at a downtown Chicago law firm (Mayer Brown on LaSalle Street), for the second time went back to his first love, criminal law, as a federal prosecutor in Madison, Wisconsin. He handled dozens of federal cases.

In 1994, Chris Van Wagner went back into private practice, this time to commit himself to the defense of ordinary, everyday people who are accused of crimes. He focuses on those people, handling felonies and misdemeanors in both state and federal court. He also defends many drunk-driving cases in every shape and size. Through all of this, Chris has earned a stellar reputation all over the “left side of the State of Wisconsin” as a trial lawyer, not a “plea lawyer.” Prosecutors know – or soon learn – that Chris will not fold when advised to do so by them.

As a result of his fearless approach, his professionalism, and his ethical state-wide reputation, Mr. Van Wagner has achieved many dismissals at the courthouse steps on the eve of trial, for clients charged with all sorts of crimes. He has managed to do so precisely because he has tried and won many jury acquittals, for clients who were wrongly accused of crimes, and for those whom the State sought to punish well beyond any logical need to do so.

Now, after more than 30 years successfully defending criminal charges and nearly 35 years of practicing law all told, Mr. Van Wagner has chosen to practice again as a solo practitioner. This allows him to spend all the time necessary to obtain the best possible result. Chris eschews the notion of a high-volume, fast-paced criminal defense practice, where a client thinks he has hired a seasoned lawyer but ends up in court with some younger, less experienced, less able and less feared “newbie”.Van Wagner, having devoted himself once again to the in-depth and professional practice of law one client at a time (rather than just the “business” of law or the money to be made), now makes it a point to spend time getting to know each client and each case. When you meet with him – which does not cost extra, unlike at some firms – you won’t be greeted by some junior partner, some wet-behind-the-ears lawyer. There are none here. Chris is your lawyer. Chris will handle your case. Chris listens.

Not only does he earn respect from prosecutors across the state, but Mr. Van Wagner also holds an “AV” rating with Martindale Hubbell, the highest peer rating available. This honor comes from lawyers across the state and across the spectrum of practice areas. He is known as a “lawyer’s lawyer.”  He has also been recognized numerous times as a Super Lawyer, an honor given only to the top 5% of attorneys in Wisconsin. Additionally, Mr. Van Wagner has appeared as legal analyst and expert commentator on national shows such as Court TV, the Dan Abrams Report on MSNBC, the Today show, Good Morning America, ABC News as well as local shows such as ABC Madison Channel 27 and Madison Channel 3000 (C3K). He currently serves as the president of the Dane County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, where he puts his experience and knowledge to use daily as he mentors the next generation of trial lawyers.

Chris loves his work, as you will see in his passion for your case and his love for the law. Chris does not golf or play cards; the law is truly his hobby.  And he is thrilled to be your lawyer.3Practice Areas

  • Criminal Defense Federal & State
  • Criminal Law


  • English

Past Positions

  • Van Wagner & Wood S.C., Partner , 1999 to 2014
  • Mayer Brown (Chicago, IL), Litigation Associate , 1997 to 2001
  • U.S. Attorney, Madison WI, Asst. U.S. Attorney, 1991 to 1994
  • Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office (Trenton, NJ), Assistant Prosecutor , 1982 to 1987
  • United States District Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise (U.S. District Court, D-N.J.), Law Clerk, 1981 to 1982
  • Hon. Dickinson Debevoise, US. District Court of New Jersey, Clerk

Bar Admissions

  • Wisconsin, 1994
  • U.S. District Court Eastern District of Wisconsin, 1991
  • U.S. District Court Western District of Wisconsin, 1991
  • U.S. Court of Appeals 7th Circuit, 1987

Professional Associations

  • Dane County Bar Association, Member
  • Wisconsin State Bar Association, Member
  • National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, 1995 to 2015
  • Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, 1995 to 2015
  • Dane County Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association (“DCCDLA”), President (Since 2015), 1995 to Present


  • Cornell Law School, Ithaca, New York
    • J.D. – 1981
  • St. Lawrence
    • B.A. – 1978


  • Warrior of the Year, Dane County Criminal Defense Bar
  • AV Rated, Martindale-Hubbell
  • Lawyer’s Lawyer
  • Super Lawyer

Classes / Seminars

  • Teaching Faculty, Wisconsin Public Defender Trial Skills Academy (Lake Delavan, Wisconsin)
  • Teaching Faculty, NITA Trial Skills Programs (Northwestern Law School, Chicago)
  • Former Speaker, Wisconsin Criminal Defense
  • Fee Agreements for Criminal Lawyers (CLE Seminar), DCCDLA, 2015
  • UW Law School Lawyering Skills Faculty, University of Wisconsin Madison , 2012