A conversation with Dean Jennifer Johnson
September 22, 2014
Although Jennifer Johnson is new to the role of dean, she is not new to the law school community. Johnson has been a professor since 1980 and a key member of the faculty administration, most recently serving as chair of the faculty budget committee. Her students describe her as a fun and energetic professor who, in the words of one, “made Business Associations class really interesting, even to someone who had no interest at all in business.”
Johnson was honored by the Class of 1984 with the Leo Levenson Teaching Award. She has also received the Burlington Northern Foundation Award for excellence in teaching. In 2008, Johnson was named a Jeffrey Bain Faculty Scholar, in recognition of her exemplary teaching and scholarship in business law. She was installed as the Erskine Wood Sr. Professor of Law in 2011.
I was grateful for the opportunity to sit down with the dean to find out a bit more about her background, and her goals and ideas for her new role. I have to say that “energetic” is the right adjective to describe her personality as well as her approach to the job ahead of her.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
I’m a fourth-generation Oregonian. After graduating from South Salem High School, I left for the Bay Area to attend Mills College, where I earned my B.A. Then, I moved to Connecticut to study at Yale Law School—a big step for a small-town Oregon girl!
I met my husband, Paul Francis, at Yale. We came to Portland to clerk for federal judges. I clerked for Judge Ted Goodwin on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and Paul clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Gus Solomon. Although we briefly considered moving back east, we loved our year in Portland and decided to stay. We’ve been here ever since.
Paul and I have two sons, Tyler and Zach; two fantastic daughters-in-law, Melissa and Allison; and the cutest granddaughter on the face of the planet, Lily, who is a year old.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a lawyer?
I can’t remember a time when I did not want to be a lawyer. But I don’t know how I first decided on that. No one else in my family practiced law. It may be that my parents were impressed by my skills in arguing with them.
Did your time as a judicial clerk help you in your practice? As a professor?
All good lawyers must have persuasive communication skills. Clerking provided an opportunity for me to witness great—and not so great—written and oral advocacy, as well as the chance to hone my own research and writing abilities. Clerking also exposes you to the inner workings of the judiciary and can help make that first appellate argument a little less intimidating. Although, I will say it did little to make teaching that very first law school class less terrifying.
What do you see as the biggest difference between your law school days and the experience that Lewis & Clark law students have now?
When I was in law school, students rarely worked, except in the summers, and we had very few chances in school to gain practical skills. As students, we concentrated solely on classes, papers, and studying. In a sense, this was a benefit, given that our time was not split between jobs and school. On the other hand, today’s Lewis & Clark students have opportunities to gain practical skills that will help them hit the ground running after graduation. Lewis & Clark offers many opportunities for students to participate in clinics, externships, or internship seminars. Also, many of our students clerk part-time for firms, government agencies, or nonprofits.
What did you learn in private practice that made you a better professor?
I specialized in land use and real estate finance, and my practice included administrative hearings, trials, and appeals, as well as transactional work. While somewhat peculiar by today’s standards, the concentration then was on subject matter rather than skill set, which allowed me to experience many parts of law practice. I have at least an inkling of what students may face as litigators, appellate lawyers, or transactional attorneys. To this day, I cannot read a contract without recognizing if a certain term used in one way on page 1 is used in quite another by page 32. Students find this well-honed skill of mine quite annoying when I edit their papers.
What was the best part of private practice? Did you miss it when you began teaching?
Naturally, I missed the daily interaction with my fantastic colleagues in private practice. It takes time to create new professional bonds and friendships when you first enter teaching. As far as practice itself, in a sense, for me the best part was also the worst: I loved the excitement of working with other attorneys to complete a large real estate transaction or to prepare an interesting case, but that excitement usually stemmed from the intense time pressure. Cab rides home at 3 a.m. were not uncommon. Practice has highs and lows, and most professors will tell you they initially miss the highs. Soon, however, we get to know the great thrill of teaching students, and nothing replaces that.
What do you think makes Lewis & Clark stand apart from other law schools?
One word: collegiality. At Lewis & Clark there is a cooperative spirit among faculty members, students, and staff. The collegiality is almost tangible—you can feel it. Our students, while competitive, also help each other. For example, you never hear stories (common at other schools) about important materials “going missing” from the library before an assignment due date. Faculty members also enjoy a professional and collegial relationship. We don’t have the factions that can arise in many academic institutions. Here, two faculty members who argue intensely at a faculty meeting might meet after work for a glass of wine.
What do you see as the law school’s biggest challenge?
As is true for almost every law school in the country today, our biggest challenges are in admissions and graduate employment. The practice of law has been evolving, and the pace of that change accelerated rapidly due to the 2008 financial crisis and slow economic recovery. It’s a long, complicated story, but in the end this change has meant fewer jobs for new lawyers. In turn, this reality reduced the number of applicants to law schools nationwide.
As the economy continues to improve, so has the market for legal services. Business clients, who drive much of the demand for legal services, are once again healthy. Senior lawyers who postponed retiring in the face of declining retirement portfolio balances are now stepping down at more normal rates. We are all working diligently to help our graduates find meaningful legal employment, and we are having good success. This means that now is a great time to go to law school! We need to get that message out to prospective students.
What do you look forward to as the dean?
I look forward to getting out in the community to meet with our alums and other supporters, both to boast about our school’s great programs and initiatives and to hear their ideas. I also look forward to my role as a full-time administrator and to running the place well—or at least trying to. You’ve heard the adage that managing a law firm is like “herding cats”—well, try law professors!
What is your vision for the law school? What do you hope to accomplish as dean?
As I mentioned in my letter for this issue of Advocate Magazine, I believe the whole of Lewis & Clark Law School can be better than the sum of its parts. Lewis & Clark has many nationally known programs. We have the top-ranked environmental law program in the country, where students can obtain not only a J.D. but also an LL.M., or master’s in law. We have the nation’s premier program—and offer the only LL.M.—in animal law. We have a first-rate business law program that hosts a small-business transactional clinic and a low-income tax clinic. Initiatives in intellectual property bring in scholars from around the country. Our public interest program is one of the best anywhere. We are expanding in many areas of global law. So we have first-class offerings in many diverse fields, and we will continue to excel in these areas.
I am interested in the “whole” of the law school. One of my primary goals as dean will be to work with the faculty to explore meaningful ways to combine our strengths. Legal practice today is not as siloed as law school courses might lead students to believe. For example, today’s successful environmental lawyers must be well versed in real estate law, business law, and the workings of corporate America. Successful corporate attorneys must guide their clients through the morass of environmental regulations. Sustainability, which once was championed solely by environmentalists, is now good for business. I believe by creatively pooling our resources, we can create innovative programs that will not only attract great students, but will place the entire school on the national stage.
What will you miss about your days as a professor?
I will miss teaching students on a regular basis. Teaching is the very best part of a law professor’s job. I hope to fill in when needed in my colleagues’ classes, and I plan to teach a securities seminar in future years. I will not miss grading exams.
You’ve probably stayed in touch with a number of your students over the years. Does it feel different to meet with “alumni” rather than “my former students?”
I don’t know yet, but I doubt it will. I have always considered my former students to be our alums. Now I will have the opportunity to meet with many more alums; I just hope they forgive me for not remembering each of their names! In my 30-plus years at Lewis & Clark, I have taught hundreds and hundreds of students—and often I can remember where they sat in class, what they said in class, but not their names. Go figure!
What are some of the most important things alumni can do to support Lewis & Clark Law School?
Alums can support our school by staying connected and participating where they can in programs and initiatives to help current students. We need alumni assistance in helping students find jobs in this challenging market, both in the Northwest and throughout the country. We need alums to serve as mentors, to help students navigate law school and their future careers. Finally, we need financial support from alumni in whatever amount is comfortable for them, especially for student scholarships. I hope that our alums who have the capacity for charitable giving will include the law school in their plans. I really want to hear from alumni about initiatives that are important to them and programs they may want to support.
Are you planning on traveling to meet with alumni?
I hope to meet with as many alums as possible during my deanship. Many live in the greater Portland area, but we find our alumni in every state of the country. My tentative travel plans for this first year include the Bay Area, Sacramento, Central Oregon, Southern Oregon, Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver, Boston, and Washington, D.C.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Spare time? That may have disappeared! But I like to play golf, cook, take walks with my dog, and work out at the gym when I get motivated.
You’ve come to your deanship with a special aide-de-camp. Tell me about Baron, and how he feels about moving to the dean’s office.
Baron, my 65-pound standard poodle, has come to work with me almost every day since he was eight weeks old. I worried he would have trouble adjusting after 10 years in the same office, but no problems there: One sniff of his dog bed and the new office was instantly home. Baron loves walks in the park and leaning on visitors until they pet him. He is also an expert in ferreting out every person in the building who may have treats!
This content originally appeared in the fall 2014 issue of The Advocate.