Quintin Johnstone
Quintin Johnstone (Gary Lewis)

Quintin Johnstone, an influential presence in Connecticut’s legal community for more than a half century and a longtime professor at Yale Law School, has died at age 99.

Johnstone was also a member of The Law Tribune’s Editorial Board from its inception in 1987 until 2011, and chaired the board, which produces opinion pieces for the newspaper, for about a decade.

A 1951 Yale law graduate, Johnstone returned to begin his teaching career at the New Haven school in 1955. He retired from full-time work in 1985, but continued on as the Justus S. Hotchkiss Professor Emeritus of Law. His academic focus was on property law, land transactions, and professional responsibility and the legal profession.

In 1967, Johnstone and Dan Hopson Jr., a law professor at Indiana University, published a 600-page volume, “Lawyers and Their Work: An Analysis of the Legal Profession in the United States and England,” that, according to one reviewer, had the ambitious goal of trying to “identify the problems of the legal profession and to suggest solutions to some of them.”

Johnstone was also a longtime member of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Ethics Committee and the board of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, where he advocated for pro bono legal services for the needy.

In 2011, the Law Tribune presented Johnstone with the newspaper’s Service to the Profession Award. At the same time, it renamed the award in Johnstone’s honor. The following is a feature story on Johnstone’s life and career written for the occasion by former Law Tribune Senior Writer Thomas Scheffey.

Man Of Few Words

When interviewers ask people to expound on their accomplishments, or their views of the world, the normal human tendency is to expound at length. After all, most people like to talk about themselves, if nothing else.

This is not the case with Quintin Johnstone, the 96-year-old Yale property professor who has quietly dedicated his life to improving the professionalism of the practice of law, from New Haven, Conn., to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

In his mid-80s, after serving on the Connecticut Law Tribune’s Editorial Board from its inception in 1987, he agreed to take the reins as its chairman, as position he held until a few months ago. His accomplishment in that role—and myriad others—is being recognized this week at Honors Night ceremonies.

Not only is Johnstone receiving the newspaper’s Service to the Profession Award, but the award is being renamed in his honor. Future recipients will get the Professor Quintin Johnstone Service to the Profession Award.

Johnstone’s path has been unconventional. He grew up in Chicago, in a large house in Hyde Park, almost on the University of Chicago campus. His early schooling, undergraduate education and law degree all came from that campus.

He arrived at Yale Law School in 1955, when it had only 19 full-time professors. Law schools were beginning to question whether their teaching merely served to reinforce the status quo of society’s institutions. Law schools, and Yale in particular, became a place to think about law as one way to make the world a progressively better place.

Johnstone brought new content to his property course, flavoring it with the disciplines of land use law and real estate finance. Working with the late Columbia Law School professor Curtis Berger, he coauthored the leading casebook, “Land Transfer and Finance: Cases and Materials,” now in its seventh edition.

When he began teaching, property law, a main feature of all bar exams, was a mandatory course at Yale, which is known for allowing its students to forage a la carte among a wide array of electives. Johnstone’s other subjects of choice were also topics a student could not leave law school without: They included ethics, professionalism and the law of lawyering.

His influence has been felt outside the classroom as well.

Sandra Klebanoff, executive director of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, calls Johnstone “a fierce defender of the need for pro bono legal services for the poor.” She notes that Johnstone was a board member for 28 years for the group, which raises money for legal aid agencies. He served as president from 1987-91.

Klebanoff has her own theories of the secret behind Johnstone’s energy and drive, even as a nonagenarian. “The story is that he ran track with Jesse Owens. He was athletic. I know he has amazing stamina.”

African Law School

During the Cold War, the U.S. dueled with the Russians in space, and on other more metaphysical battlegrounds. The U.S. Department of State had theories of peaceful ways to export American ideals. In the late 1960s, Johnstone taught law in Tanzania one summer. “Apparently someone thought I was an expert in African law, and I went there at a very important time. Ethiopia was extremely important in international relations involving the U.S.,” Johnstone recounted.

He said the State Department got the idea to “beef up this law school that had just been opened the year before” in Addis Ababa, known as the Haile Selassie School of Law. So Johnstone became the dean. “There was a shortage of law deans,” he explained. “My wife and kids went along” to Africa as Johnstone took a two-year leave of absence from Yale.

Far from being an educational backwater, the teenage Johnstone children attended an international school, where the teachers were primarily Oxford and Cambridge graduates. At the law school, Johnstone added French, Belgian and Ethiopian law teachers to the English-speaking faculty. “We had the best law school in Africa. It was a great experience and a pretty good idea,” he said.

A law school can be an intellectual and cultural spearhead for a developing nation, Johnstone found. “One way of spreading interest in a developed society of high standards is having a legal profession that adheres to those standards, and is producing law that is needed,” he said. “It’s a way of producing a response that is favorable to the culture of this country.”

In developing countries, economics make greed and graft a powerful temptation. Students can be taught to respect something greater than that, Johnstone said. “A good law school and law school programs could help develop that. And funding for that might be more useful politically than funding some other things,” he noted.

One Student’s Story

In 1975, after Johnstone had been back at Yale for six years, the law school admitted a Vietnam veteran with a planning degree from the University of North Carolina. Yale had phased out its planning school, and Dwight Merriam was an anomaly.

“I had Quintin for ethics, real property [and] land use classes, and an independent study research course,” said Merriam, a partner at Hartford’s Robinson & Cole and a member of the Law Tribune Editorial Board. Under Johnstone’s guidance, Merriam researched and wrote an article on the transfer of property development rights that was published in the North Carolina Law Review while he was still a third-year law student.

Partly due to Johnstone’s encouragement, Merriam says he’s combined academic teaching with his land use law practice. Johnstone “always wanted me to teach, and even though I’ve taught for 33 years, somewhere, he always sort of razzes me about it when I see him,” Merriam says.

Recently, Merriam took on the onerous honor of editing a voluminous casebook on land use planning, control and development. He dedicated it to Johnstone, whose reaction was practically stoic. “He just said, ‘Thank-you. … It looks like a good job,’” Merriam said.

True Fans

“Quintin’s not one to clang his gong,” says Wesley Horton, the only other charter member of the Editorial Board.

Horton has also served on the Connecticut Bar Association’s Ethics Committee, where Johnstone is a seasoned veteran. About five years ago, on Johnstone’s 90th birthday, the ethics board decided to surprise him. “We had a big splash for him, and a cake. He was not pleased. Quintin doesn’t like ceremony and show. He said, ‘Would you please go on to the next order of business, Wes?’”

Hartford Community Court Judge Raymond Norko, a seasoned former legal aid lawyer, is an unabashed Johnstone fan. “He’s the most energetic lawyer I’ve ever known,” said Norko, who also is a former president of the Connecticut Bar Foundation. “When Quintin speaks, people listen. He’s intelligent, balanced, and he’s done more for the legal profession than anyone I know.” In 2002, Johnstone authored a law review article that evaluated Hartford’s community courts program, and pronounced it a resounding success.

“He was well into his 80s, and he drove up from New Haven at least 15 times, to write about community courts,” said Norko. “He’s probably the most amazing man I’ve ever met. He came and watched everything, did interviews with the entire staff. No stone unturned. There’s no smoke in Quintin.”

Horton made a similar observation. “He may speak twice at a two-hour meeting,” Horton said of Johnstone. “Never more than 30 seconds, stripped of all adjectives and adverbs. Gets right to the point, and it’s good. At a meeting, you can move things along, but you never miss something essential, because he’ll see it. He’s lying there in wait, like a crocodile. And all of a sudden, pounce – if someone does something stupid.”

Taciturn, tart, crusty are all terms people use to describe Johnstone.

Attorney Susan Merriam, Dwight’s wife, knows him as a tender and thoughtful family man. Chatting at a bar function, she introduced Johnstone to a series of children’s mystery books that were set on the University of Chicago campus. After Merriam sent Johnstone an autographed set, Johnstone promptly devoured them and sent back a courtly letter of praise thanking her.

“What kind of law professor would do that?” she asks. Johnstone, Susan Merriam found, also has a soft spot for Boston terriers, and sometimes has had three of those dogs at a time: “He told me you should always have at least two, so they keep each other company when you’re away.”

Undimmed Scholarship

When he retired from full-time teaching in 1985, Johnstone’s Yale colleagues honored his considerable academic career. But in the intervening 25 years, he’s pursued scholarship, part-time teaching and community service indefatigably. His most recent article, published in March in the Cornell Law Review, proposes improvements to the profession’s delivery of pro bono services, and urges the American Bar Association to take a supervisory role.

Former colleague, Yale dean and U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Judge Guido Calabresi said he will always consider Johnstone as an educator, first and foremost.

“To somebody like me, Quintin is a teacher. He taught me in my first year in law school, and he has been teaching me ever since,” Calabresi said. Everything Johnstone does, Calabresi added, “is part of his teaching people what it means to be lawyers and what it means to be good ones. …

“Those two things in Quintin are inextricably linked: teaching in class and teaching by example,” Calabresi said. “It includes everything he has done for the Law Tribune, and everything he’s done in the school and in life.”