"At the time, I knew that I didn't want to continue doing what I was doing as an instrument engineer," she said. "And I needed some kind of an advanced degree, and I was looking at an advanced technical degree or M.B.A. I hadn't really thought about law school until I met Jim and Anita Jenkins, and they said, 'Well, you should think about law school.'"
Johnson took her friends' advice and enrolled at William & Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law in Williamsburg, VA; she earned her law degree in 1984. Right after that, she began working as in-house counsel for Dow, and in 1985, she transferred to one of its Texas facilities, where she said she initially worked on "pretty much anything that came through the door." Then she began to primarily counsel the company's human resources department.
Johnson eventually chose to leave Dow and join a minority-owned firm—Wickliff & Hall—in 1990.
"I always knew that I wanted to try cases since from the time that I had been in law school and recognized that that was not going to be an option with Dow, which is why I ended up leaving and joining a law firm," she explained.
Johnson handled employment litigation at the Houston-based firm and became a partner in 1993. She left the firm in 2002 to join Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker as a partner in its Washington, DC, office.
She explained why she left Wickliff & Hall to join Paul Hastings:
"I saw it as an opportunity to join just a wonderful employment law department that handles phenomenal cases, has tremendous resources, and an incredible variety of clients with whom we do work," she said. "And also to join a real full-service law firm with lots of opportunities to get to know amazing attorneys who work on very different types of matters, whether it be international arbitrations or major corporate transactions."
In her practice at Paul Hastings, Johnson represents employers in various discrimination matters, wage and hour matters, and issues centering on benefits. She said her practice has changed from being comprised of more of a single-plaintiff caseload to one that involves more complicated complex litigation, collective actions, and multiple-plaintiff class actions. Additionally, Johnson regularly tries cases involving issues of race, age, gender, and disability discrimination, retaliation, breach of contract, and various employment torts in both state and federal courts. She also provides employment law advice to her clients.
"Recognizing that so few cases actually go to trial, it's also very important to help clients develop strategies for avoiding litigation to assure that they are in compliance with the myriad of laws that affect them," she said.
In addition to her employment law cases, Johnson has litigated ERISA, Sarbanes-Oxley, premises liability, toxic tort, environmental racism, and business tort cases.
She is also chair of Paul Hastings' Global Pro Bono and Community Involvement Committee, a member of the firm's Diversity Policy and Practices Committee, and on the Partnership Evaluation Committee.
Johnson discussed what she enjoys most about her job:
"I particularly enjoy litigation and the opportunity to learn to tell a story about a particular situation," she said. "Since becoming a litigator, I have learned that an important aspect of successful litigation is the ability to tell stories. And I mean that in a positive way, in that companies, like individuals, have stories, and I think to be successful you've got to be able to tell the company's stories through the company's witnesses."
Johnson said she "loves" to speak to law students. She has spoken to students at Georgetown University Law Center and William & Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law, as well as to a number of BLSA (Black Law Students Association) groups.
"BLSA is a very popular organization on virtually every law school campus," she said. "Also, BLSA has regional and national meetings involving students of color from a lot of different law schools."
Johnson said she speaks to law students about the profession and the opportunities they will have as attorneys. She also talks to students about how to do well in law school, especially when it comes to thinking "strategically" about law school exams and getting ready for them. Johnson said that what she enjoys most about speaking to law students is the "ability to make a difference in terms of someone's future and future opportunities and possibilities in the profession."
She had the following advice for law students:
"Other than what I said about the importance of thinking about law school exams strategically [...] there's a tremendous interest right now, especially among large law firms, in attracting minority lawyers," she said. "And so my advice is to look deeper in terms of the organization that's wooing them and to really understand what the possibilities are there for advancement and what kinds of culture and environment they're going to get into."
Johnson said the two people who influenced her the most in her formative years as a lawyer were attorneys Anthony Sadberry and A. Martin Wickliff, Jr., both of whom she worked with at Wickliff & Hall.
"Marty [Wickliff] taught me about the value of really just hard work and the reality that this is a very demanding and challenging profession," she said. "And with Marty, it was never about cutting corners and always giving the clients more than they expect and exceeding expectations in every way."
Johnson said one of the highlights of her professional career was joining Paul Hastings, a prominent international law firm, as a partner.
"So few people of color and so few female lawyers of color really have the opportunity to experience practice at this level in terms of the clients we serve and the sophistication of this practice," she said.
Johnson was born and raised in Hampton, VA.
"I'm the product of very hardworking parents and a very loving family environment, where I was nurtured by not only my parents but my aunts and uncles and the whole community," she said.
Johnson is married to a management consultant with his own firm. She has three stepchildren, one of whom is majoring in education at the University of Houston.
Johnson said that she has many hobbies and interests, including cooking, genealogy, community involvement, and fitness.
She discussed some of the goals she'd like to accomplish with her practice in the next few years:
"I'm looking to continue to take my practice to the next level in terms of the clients I represent and the types of cases in which I get involved," she said. "And I'm looking to help in developing the next generation of leaders for the firm...I just think that the development of and mentoring of younger attorneys is an important obligation that I have. So those are my primary objectives."