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California Bar executive director Judy Johnson mills about the Fort Mason Officers’ Club in San Francisco, patiently awaiting her introduction to the crowd lunching a few feet away. She’s got a million things to do this day. But she’s not leaving until she pays homage to San Francisco civil litigator Edward Friend, whose loved ones are celebrating his 50th anniversary as a lawyer. Minutes later, Johnson hands the flabbergasted 80-year-old Harvard Law School alumnus an embossed certificate, honoring him for practicing law with integrity since joining the California Bar on June 20, 1950. “You are, sir, a hero to the State Bar,” Johnson says. “You are one of a legion of lawyers who have done honor to the profession.” The moment is symbolic. Johnson, two months into her new job, is determined to restore public faith in the California Bar, following a crippling, two-year funding crisis provoked by critics who called the organization too bloated and political. That will take time, but Johnson realizes that any act that puts a human face on the State Bar furthers her goal — even something as simple as reviving the organization’s almost-forgotten tradition of recognizing lawyers for long and noble service. “We have so many negative stories out there about lawyers,” the upbeat, 51-year-old says. “I thought it was time we started celebrating the lawyer heroes.” Johnson, the Bar’s first full-time female executive director, has embraced her new role with the fervor of a religious convert. Her management style is unique, combining a feel-good philosophy and classic Puritan work ethic with a speak-your-mind administrative manner that can be startlingly, but constructively, frank. “I don’t think I’m impolite,” Johnson says, “but I cut to the chase.” That showed early on when she matter-of-factly told her bosses on the State Bar board of governors that they shouldn’t meddle in day-to-day operations if she’s to get the job done. It was a bold move, one that nonlawyer board member Joe Hicks, the executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission, calls “the right note to send.” “Her leadership,” he says, “is what’s going to carry things here.” All will be for naught, though, if Johnson fails to win back the respect of the state’s lawyers, legislators and average Joes. In that regard, little things like taking the time to honor someone like Friend in person could go a long way. “We have a fighting chance to put the organization back on track in a way that keeps faith with [the profession's] core values,” she says, “but also heeds the voices of reform.” A VOICE FOR THE LITTLE PEOPLE Johnson’s baseball-loving dad named her after William Julius “Judy” Johnson, a Hall of Famer recognized as the finest third baseman in the Negro leagues of the 1920s and ’30s. So it seems natural that Johnson, the youngest of four girls, grew up in Richmond, Calif., attending major league games with her father and playing sandlot baseball. “I was a tomboy,” she says. Johnson never lost her love for sports — she adores Willie Mays — and frequently uses sports analogies to explain complex legal issues. It’s a habit Johnson says she acquired in the ’70s while trying to fit into a profession dominated by white men. “We could typically strike up a conversation on sports,” she says. “It’s the great leveler.” Johnson might also be the first State Bar executive director to have a taste for television soap operas, to the point of taping ABC’s “All My Children” daily. She got the soap addiction from her mom, who still lives in Richmond just a short drive from the Rodeo, Calif., home Johnson shares with a teen-age daughter. The family is close, friends say, and is the source of the sense of justice that has guided Johnson’s career — whether as a legal aid lawyer in Oakland, Calif., a consumer fraud prosecutor in San Francisco, or disciplining lawyers as the State Bar’s chief trial counsel, a post she had held the last six years. “She’s been instilled with a lot of nurturing of people, protecting the little guy against the bad guys,” says longtime pal Laurel Pallock, an investigator in the S.F. district attorney’s office. “She cares in a very deep way for people.” Pallock recalls one case, in particular, that Johnson took to heart in her prosecuting days in the ’80s. It involved Ruth Johnson, a reclusive 76-year-old woman who was bilked out of her life savings and the home she had lived in since childhood. Judy Johnson — no relation to Ruth Johnson — got the scammer sentenced to three years in prison. But she went beyond the call of duty by also arranging a conservatorship to care for the elderly woman. “Judy ended up really befriending this woman,” Pallock says, “and making sure she was OK and got good care.” Johnson still gets misty eyed when Ruth Johnson’s name comes up. “They basically dumped her and left her for dead,” Johnson says. “But she was the senior [citizen] who bit back.” ‘A FIGHTING CHANCE’ Fellow prosecutors say Johnson, a graduate of the UC-Davis School of Law, succeeded because of the aggressive determination she brought to her work. The same trait apparently helped her department weather the Bar funding crisis when she was chief trial counsel. “She could see beyond the crisis of the moment and know that the future of the discipline system would be recreated out of the ashes,” says former State Bar executive director Steven Nissen, who’s now a special assistant to Gov. Gray Davis. “She was just the right person to do it.” Acting chief trial counsel Francis Bassios says Johnson kept the prosecution wing functioning by setting realistic goals. “Her greatest strength,” he says, “has always been that she can take some very complicated ideas and make them very, very simple.” It helps that Johnson has a deep understanding of the Bar. She served three years on the organization’s Judicial Nominees Evaluation Commission, four years on its committee of bar examiners and was on the board of governors from 1990-93. “She probably has a broader range of experience than anyone ever in that [executive director] position,” Nissen says. She’s viewed as the most candid commander in chief ever. “We have been criticized sometimes as an organization that obfuscates,” says State Bar President Andrew Guilford, a partner in the Costa Mesa, Calif., office of Los Angeles’ Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton. “And the way to clear that is to have a forthright person as executive director — and I already hear that in [Johnson].” For her part, Johnson — who’ll stare you right in the eyes while peering over the eyeglasses she’s pushed to the tip of her nose — says honesty opens the door for greater progress. She doesn’t like “lawyer weasel words,” she says, and thinks plain speaking gives a voice to the little people. “So much of what we all go through in life is about the sense of not having a voice, a fighting chance,” Johnson says. “And sometimes that’s all people want.” Los Angeles lawyer Diane Karpman, a frequent Bar critic who defends lawyers in licensure proceedings, was a Johnson fan early on. She recalls how Johnson once led a movement on the board of governors to establish a scholarship fund to help poorer students finance the Bar exam. “It never quite got far,” the Karpman & Associates partner says. “But it demonstrates that her heart is in the right place and always has been.” Johnson will need patience as well as heart to succeed, though. She not only has to run an operation of about 500 employees, she’s also got to deal with the competing demands of legislators, Bar governors, consumers wanting attorneys punished for every complaint and lawyers who think the Bar should be abolished. “You’ve got to realize that you are basically in the middle, and you are going to be buffeted from side to side,” she says. “But the Bar is a really important institution,” she adds. “It is important that it succeed. Failure is not an option.”

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