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Dixie Johnson’s early professional history doesn’t read like that of many of her peers in the largely white, male securities bar. She started out as a junior high school math teacher in Albuquerque. The New Mexico native was in night school earning a master’s degree in business when a professor first urged her to study law. She took his advice and in 1986 graduated from the University of New Mexico School of Law. Degree in hand, she joined the D.C. office of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. In 1993, Johnson made partner, and is now co-head of the firm’s securities practice, which she leads along with New York partner Carmen Lawrence. These days, Johnson represents the biggest of clients — from major investment banks to the New York Stock Exchange. Johnson represented Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc. in this year’s global settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the New York Stock Exchange, and the National Association of Securities Dealers over conflicts of interest involving research analysts at investment banks. The settlement requires 10 Wall Street firms and two individuals to pay a total of $894 million in disgorgement and penalties. (That sum includes Merrill Lynch’s $100 million settlement last year with the states, following an investigation sparked by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer.) Johnson, who — unlike many of her peers in the securities bar — did not do a stint at the SEC, also represented Golden Bear Golf Inc. and two of its executives in connection with a 1998 inquiry by the SEC into accounting discrepancies leading to a $25 million profit overstatement by subsidiary Paragon Construction International. Golden Bear, owned by golf legend Jack Nicklaus, was not charged in the investigation. Chief Executive Officer Richard Bellinger and Chief Financial Officer Jack Bates agreed to consent orders that prohibit them from violating SEC rules again. The general counsel of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Bernard, calls Johnson, 46, “a very bright and fabulous” lawyer. She represented the NYSE in an SEC probe into allegations that the exchange failed to detect and stop illegal trading by floor brokers from 1993 to 1998. In a 1999 settlement, the NYSE admitted no wrongdoing and received no administrative censure or civil fines, but the world’s largest stock exchange agreed to improve its oversight and surveillance of floor brokers. “She was asked to do a substantively difficult job in an extremely high-pressure environment in terms of how those events were affecting people here,” recalls Bernard. “She was also able to stand back from the events and extract important lessons about how we do our work here, and how we could change.” Today, Johnson, who chairs the American Bar Association’s Committee on Federal Regulation of Securities, seems settled in the nation’s capital. But in the mid-’80s, she had planned to stay only a few years in Washington to gain experience in securities law and then return to Albuquerque to practice. Soon after she arrived, however, she began working for the head of Fried, Frank’s securities practice at the time, Harvey Pitt. A former SEC general counsel who more recently chaired the commission itself, Pitt was recognized as one of the top practitioners of his craft. Johnson calls him a “wonderful mentor and friend.” She took over the helm of the firm’s securities practice three years before he departed Fried, Frank. Pitt says that, as a young lawyer, Johnson was a quick study, and now she’s mentoring the next generation of lawyers at the firm. “The goal is to get people started and teach them what you can and let them do their thing and experience the joys of practicing law,” says Pitt. “I thought Dixie was more than ready for the opportunity to be on her own, and I didn’t want to stand in her way.” Pitt adds that since Fried, Frank was known for attracting people in second careers, Johnson didn’t have a difficult time blending into the firm. And arriving armed with all the patience that a schoolteacher needs didn’t hurt either. “In having to deal with both some of her colleagues and clients, having been a seventh-grade teacher would have been helpful,” says Pitt.

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