California Bar Journal
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Johnson takes reins, seeks to stabilize bar
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The largest state bar in the nation now has women holding the top two leadership positions on its staff: Judy Johnson (left) as executive director and Marie Moffat as general counsel.“She has the advantages of both an inside candidate and an outside candidate and will be the strong manager that the bar needs.”

Johnson’s immediate goals will be to continue to stabilize the bar, shore up its infrastructure, fill holes in the executive team, and begin to re-establish some of the programs that were discontinued during the recent financial crisis.

Following Gov. Wilson’s veto of the bar’s funding authorization in 1997, it laid off more than 500 em-ployees and shut down or cut back almost all its operations. Nearly a dozen top executives resigned. Executive director Steven Nissen and acting executive director Jeffrey Gersick both left to join the Davis administration. General counsel Marie Moffat was named acting executive director in February but did not seek the top job.

Through a Supreme Court-ordered special assessment for the discipline operation and with the reinstatement of funding this year, a slow rebuilding has begun.

“It’s been a roller coaster of a ride,” Johnson, 51, acknowledged.

She strongly believes in the bar’s role in protecting the public and providing services and support programs that encourage ethical, competent practitioners. At the same time, she does not think it’s terribly important that its members like the bar.

“It’s important for the State Bar to be a success,” Johnson says. “We need to show members that there’s a value people receive for their fees, that we have efficient, well-run programs that address a need.”

In addition to jump-starting programs, Johnson plans to devote some time to restoring the bar’s credibility with the legislature. She hopes to convince skeptics in Sacramento that “we are not hiding the ball, that we are straight talkers, that we are keeping faith with the commitment we made in Sacramento and with the fee bill.

“If not, heads will roll. I’m not going to stick my neck out in contravention of a clear legislative mandate [to run an efficient, cost-effective bar].”

Johnson brings to the new job a career that includes 17 years as a San Francisco deputy district attorney in the consumer fraud unit and a history of bar activism that began with a stint on the Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission and culminated with a three-year term on the board of governors.

Experience as both a volunteer and a practicing attorney has given her the ability to build consensus by bringing people together to work toward a common strategy, she says. “I hope I have credibility as a practicing lawyer and will not be perceived as a career bureaucrat,” Johnson said.

Palmer Madden, who chaired the executive director search committee, said Johnson was the unanimous choice of the board for the top job, and won out over 46 candidates. The committee wanted three qualities, he said: management experience, experience running a state bar, and the ability to take a fresh look at the bar and generate new ideas.

Johnson met all three criteria, Madden said, by having an insider’s familiarity with the bar, almost six years of running the discipline operation, the bar’s largest office with the biggest budget, and “she has a lot of creative ideas I thought would bring new energy to the bar.”

A native of Richmond, Johnson attended Stanford University before enrolling in law school at the University of California at Davis.

While working for a Model Cities poverty program in Richmond, she realized that as a political activist, she was most interested in social change and how to improve people’s lives. “Law seemed like a way to do that, to make change, and I wanted to be a part of it,” she said.

Working for Legal Aid in Oakland after getting her law degree, John-son sued the police department for its “arrest avoidance policy,” charging that officers’ refusal to arrest batterers violated female citizens’ equal protection rights. The case settled and led to better protection of battered women, Johnson said.

She joined the fledgling consumer fraud unit in the San Francisco DA’s office after a year with Legal Aid and ultimately became principal attorney, handling both civil and criminal consumer fraud cases.

As the bar’s chief trial counsel, Johnson presides over a staff (when fully funded) of more than 200 and a $28 million budget.

Johnson, the youngest of four daughters, lives in the East Bay with her 87-year-old mother, Bernice, a retired cannery worker, and Jeremi, her 15-year-old daughter. Her father, now deceased, worked in the Kaiser shipyards in World War II.

She does all the cooking and loves to entertain, she says, but time constraints make it all but impossible to finish reading a novel. “I’m overextended, overworked, don’t have enough time for my personal life,” Johnson laments.

But her mother, whom Johnson credits for her gift of gab (she des-cribes herself as the “queen of the extended metaphor”), provides a balance in her life. “My mom has a knack for aptly summarizing a situation and giving it a more balanced perspective. That perspective has helped me a lot.”