California Bar Journal
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Right person, right time
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Judy Johnson’s selection as executive director (pronounced CEO, chief executive officer) of the largest state bar association in the country is, and looks to be, remarkable and momentous for a variety of reasons, the first of which has already occurred.

Christine A. BurdickIf you had a trained ear, at the moment the State Bar Board of Governors hired Judy Johnson, you could have heard a sweet sound of glass shattering: the virtually impenetrable glass ceiling for women and racial and ethnic minorities in the world of bar association executives. No doubt the board of governors was not aware of that significance, and better they were not, since that should not be, and clearly was not, the reason for Judy’s selection.

Nonetheless, it is a milestone that should be acknowledged. Though women, most of them lawyers, have made inroads in their selection as executive directors of large metropolitan bar associations, the same is not true of state bars and, in particular, the largest state bars in the country.  The ranks of those executives have been almost exclusively white male attorneys. Of the large state bar associations, only Texas has been led by a woman executive director in the last decade, and that was during the first four years of the 1990s. Ethnic and racial minorities are startlingly absent from all the ranks of bar association executives.

At this anticipated time of revitalization and rebuilding of a new state bar, California should, once again, assume its leadership role in the legal community, both state and nationally, for this new century.   There is no better or fitting beginning, no matter how unintended, than for the board to have selected an African American woman as executive director.

Two messages should be loud and unmistakable: the leadership of the legal profession, as well as members of the bar, should reflect the diversity of the population it represents, and the ranks of bar association executives, local and state, should reflect the diversity of their memberships.       

Though we should recognize the significance of Judy’s selection in this regard, the reality is that Judy was selected for this position on the strength of her skills and personality, rather than her race or gender. She has many unique strengths for the position of the bar’s executive director, including:         

Judy has seen the State Bar from all sides. In the 1980s, she was a member of two of the bar’s highest profile volunteer entities, the Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation and the Committee of Bar Examiners (which she chaired). She then spent three productive years as a member of the board of governors, setting policy for the bar.

Then for the last six years she has served as chief trial counsel, one of the highest executive positions in the bar. In those roles, she has had to relate well with bar volunteers, board members and bar employees. We expect she will extend those skills to rebuilding relationships not only within the State Bar structure, but with the State Bar’s most important constituents, its members, who are represented in large part through the local bar associations.

Judy knows Sacramento. A significant part of the role of the bar’s executive director is maintaining good relations with the legislature, which controls the bar’s purse strings. Judy has been confirmed, not once but twice, by the Senate Rules Committee as the bar’s chief trial counsel. She brings good diplomatic skills to the table, which will serve her well in Sacramento.

Judy is very independent. Never bashful, she is quite direct in making her opinion known. She has a strong personality, which will help her in defining the appropriate line between her role and that of the board of governors. That line needs to be clearly drawn, and the new executive director will do it.

Judy’s focus is on public protection. The overwhelming task of the State Bar is the attorney disciplinary system. Since Judy has headed that effort for the last six years, her priorities will likely be on bread-and-butter public protection issues.

James ToweryAnd no one knows them more intimately. That is likely to be a welcome posture to several of the bar’s constituencies, including the Supreme Court, the legislature, and, of course, the public.

We applaud the State Bar for choosing Judy as the executive director. The State Bar has been on a real roller coaster since the veto of its dues bill in 1997 by Gov. Wilson.

Now that funding is restored, the new bar is slimmed down and more focused. The State Bar must quickly build itself into a new century bar association, with many relationships to mend.

It truly needs a deft touch from the executive director, and Judy Johnson is the right person at the right time for this challenge.

Christine A. Burdick is executive director and general counsel of the Santa Clara County Bar Association. James Towery, former State Bar president, is a partner in Hoge Fenton Jones & Appel of San Jose.