An ode to the departing bar chief
By Bill Hebert
President, State Bar of California
When the State Bar hired Judy Johnson as its executive director in May 2000, Judy gave one of her few interviews with the press. In the California Bar Journal, when asked about her new position, she bluntly replied, “The job does not come highly recommended, but I felt as if it was my duty to do it.” Her conclusion was understandable at the time. The bar was notoriously difficult to run and her predecessors had all been short-timers: she was the fourth executive director in just three years. Judy was taking the helm in the aftermath of Gov. Pete Wilson’s veto of the 1997 State Bar dues bill. She had just spent six years as the chief trial counsel, where she had to work through the tremendous pressures caused by massive layoffs and a skeleton crew of senior executives. But Judy did work through it, and as the first woman and first person of color to take the job, she worked hard for 10 years to make the bar a better place. And there is no question that she did.
Raised in Richmond, California, Judy was named after the great Negro League third baseman and Hall of Famer William Julius “Judy” Johnson. She attended Stanford University and went to U.C. Davis law school, where she graduated in 1976. From the moment she graduated, Judy dedicated her life to public service. She began her legal career in public service as a staff Attorney to the Legal Aid Society of Alameda County, and in 1977 joined the San Francisco district attorney’s office, where she quickly moved into positions of responsibility. Within a few years she was the chief of a unit that specialized in prosecuting high-profile, complex civil and criminal matters, including major fraud, white color crime and unfair business practices.
Judy served on the board of governors from 1990-1993 and joined the bar as its chief trial counsel in 1994. As chief trial counsel, she tried to move away from a simplistic system of focusing on the speed of completing investigations to a system where the focus became the severity of the offenses and whether an attorney was facing multiple complaints. She understood from the beginning, as she said in an article at the time, that public protection was the “paramount value and goal of the State Bar disciplinary system.” To Judy, public protection also meant prevention. She formed prevention centers to provide assistance to attorneys who were not intentionally trying to hurt clients, but who just needed help to do their jobs better. Subsequent studies proved Judy right: lawyers who attended State Bar “Ethics School” are less likely to be repeat offenders.
As executive director of the bar, Judy revitalized and rejuvenated it. When I think of Judy’s key accomplishments, three come to mind:
Judy has always been a strong voice on diversity issues. She didn’t just sit and complain about disparities between white men and women and people of color, she took constructive steps to do something to change the face and voice of the legal profession. At the bar, she championed issues relating to diversity. One of her greatest accomplishments is the Council on Access and Fairness and her untiring support for the Pipeline Diversity program. Because of Judy and her support for diversity in the profession, we are all better for it. We have more women and minorities in the profession, and we have more women and minorities on the bench. While the work to which Judy has devoted so much time is nowhere near finished, our courts now look more like our citizens than they did when she took over as executive director.
During Judy’s tenure, the bar increased the impact of lawyers on the provision of legal services to the poor. In 2006, the state created the Justice Gap Fund, which allows the State Bar to collect voluntary donations, on behalf of attorneys, to be distributed throughout the state to provide legal services in civil cases for the poor and underprivileged. While Judy has been the executive director, our profession has taken concrete steps to support free legal services throughout the state, and the State Bar helps make this possible.
Under Judy’s watch, the State Bar has done more with less. In 1997, before Gov. Wilson vetoed the State Bar fee bill, dues were $458 per member. Thirteen years later, the maximum dues are $410 per member, the same amount since 2009. Unlike the rest of the state, which is awash in debt, Judy leaves the bar without any long-term debt and with significant cash reserves on hand. During this most recent recession, there were no furloughs at the bar and no layoffs. When I think of Judy and how she has managed bar finances, I think about how she endured the shutdown of the bar in 1997 and how that must have impacted her management philosophy. She reminds me of our parents and grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression, and who always squirreled away money for a rainy day. Judy, likewise, always squirreled away money in this fund or that, and then drew on it when the bar needed it. The bar is much stronger today than when she took over.
In my work with Judy the past three and one-half years, I have observed a creative problem-solver and energetic manager. When asked for advice, she could draw upon her wealth of experience as an assistant D.A., a legal aid lawyer, a former member of the board of governors, a former chief trial counsel, and as a black woman working in a largely white, male profession. In times of crisis, Judy was the first person to suggest a course of action, and more than once the board or the State Bar president probably should have listened to her. Make no mistake, Judy is strong-willed. She has rarely pulled punches, and that can rub some people the wrong way. If you are thin-skinned, or have low self-esteem, Judy probably isn’t for you. But if you want someone who can discuss an arcane legal issue, suggest a solution to a problem, guide you through the procedures without making errors, or make a tough decision, then I’d go to Judy any day. She’s had a great 10 years at the bar and I hope she can equal or surpass her accomplishments in the next 10.