Managing Partner, Johnson & Johnson LLP in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Area of Practice: Intellectual Property
Year Graduated: 2000
As an entertainment lawyer in Southern California, Douglas Johnson lives the dream of many law students. His clients are creators: actors, directors, producers, writers, recording artists, production companies, models, and professional athletes, many of whom are well known to the public. Mr. Johnson represents them in cases that implicate a range of issues; among them are a fair number that involve intellectual property, most commonly copyright. Often the stakes are high — large sums of money are on the line, and this fact makes Mr. Johnson's work all the more exciting. Indeed, the glamour of Mr. Johnson's Beverly Hills law firm and celebrity clientele can easily obscure the hard work behind his success.
Eleven years out of law school, Mr. Johnson is now a founding partner of the law firm of Johnson & Johnson LLP, where he has experienced widespread success handling cases in the entertainment industry. For six consecutive years, from 2005 to 2011, he has been among the attorneys named as Super Lawyers "Rising Stars" in the area of intellectual property litigation.
Mr. Johnson's professional relationship with his partner, Neville Johnson (who is of no relation to Mr. Johnson, despite their shared last name), goes a long way back. It began when Mr. Johnson was an undergraduate student studying political science at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. As a junior in college, Mr. Johnson — inspired by a family friend who was a judge ("a really cool, smooth, diplomatic guy" whom "everybody looked up to") — took on an internship with lawyer Neville Johnson. Neville was, and still is, a well-known entertainment lawyer who was pursuing a high-profile right to privacy case during Mr. Johnson's internship, a case that the California Supreme Court eventually resolved in favor of Neville's client. "I went to depositions with him, to court with him. He would take me everywhere ... And I realized right there that I wanted to be a trial lawyer; I wanted to be a litigator," Mr. Johnson recalls. "It was really watching another entertainment lawyer do his thing. I found it very fascinating."
After he graduated from USC, Mr. Johnson started a construction company with his brother, but he knew from the start that he would leave before long to pursue a law degree. Indeed, after about a year, Mr. Johnson left his brother with the business so that he could commence his legal studies at McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific. During law school, Mr. Johnson continued to work with Neville, serving as a clerk for his mentor and now-partner. He also took advantage of McGeorge's trial advocacy program, and when he secured his first million dollar jury verdict in a copyright case less than two years out of law school, he was glad to have gained trial advocacy experience in the classroom. "Trial Advocacy helped me a lot," he observes. "I wasn't afraid to get in that courtroom ... It was one of the best things that I did."
Having seen the plaintiff side of civil litigation through his work with Neville, Mr. Johnson decided to give defense work a try after law school. He started at a firm of about seventy-five lawyers near San Francisco but found that he "absolutely hated defense work." Mr. Johnson kept in touch with Neville during his one-year tenure at the defense firm, and they planned his exit so that he could join Neville's law firm in Southern California. The rest is history.
Together, Neville and Mr. Johnson decided to focus their practice on entertainment work: copyright cases for music, theft of idea cases for television and movies, right of privacy cases, and contract cases. It's a decision they don't regret. "We have a long line of clients," Mr. Johnson explains. "In this town, there are so many disputes all the time. It's very difficult to negotiate here without a lawsuit being filed." Every day is different for Mr. Johnson: "When I was a younger lawyer, I did a lot of research and writing. As a senior lawyer, I go to court, I take depositions, and I determine case strategies. I do a lot of negotiating, and I do all the mediations ... I'm in mediation a lot, and generally I love doing it. I love brokering a deal." He also spends a decent amount of time filing motions and resolving discovery disputes, which are often very long and involved due to the fact that about a third of Mr. Johnson's cases are classified as complex.
As the managing partner at Johnson & Johnson, Mr. Johnson has a lot of day-to-day responsibility for the business side of the practice, in addition to his client work. This gives him a chance to use his acumen as a businessman to make sure that everything runs smoothly for the firm from a business standpoint. For example, it is up to Mr. Johnson to determine which cases the firm should take and which cases it should turn down. "I focus on profit margins a lot," he says. Mr. Johnson also dedicates time to supervising the firm's younger lawyers and guiding them in their careers, taking them into court and to depositions, like Neville did for him. He explains, "I had a real mentor. I try to do that for my lawyers. I try to show them how it's done." Sometimes Mr. Johnson misses the relative simplicity of being only a lawyer, as opposed to a lawyer-cum-manager, but he also finds it "fun to not just practice law every day."
Appellate arguments, Mr. Johnson says, are simultaneously the most difficult and most rewarding part of his practice because "they're fun, but they're extremely challenging." He also enjoys the human aspect of his work and the thrill he gets from making the right moves to advance his case. "I definitely like doing the David and Goliath fighting, taking on the beast," he notes. "I kind of look at it like a sport. I'm running offense, making my plays, and I love that part of it ... I want to get to the truth. It's extremely rewarding because you're dealing with human beings who are at the end of their rope ... I love their faces at the end of the day when we win, and we get them what they want, and their life gets back on the road."
Mr. Johnson recommends that students who are interested in intellectual property law, especially in the context of entertainment law, make themselves known to lawyers who practice in that area. "Get out there, meet as many people as possible, and don't be afraid to roll up your sleeves," he says. "Something's bound to happen." He notes that the Beverly Hills and Los Angeles bar associations host more events for intellectual property and entertainment law than others and suggests that students take advantage of these opportunities if they are eligible for student membership. Moreover, as one of the attorneys who review employment applications and interviews candidates for job openings at his firm, Mr. Johnson emphasizes the importance of a strong work ethic, an agreeable personality, and a demonstrable interest in the subject matter of the practice. "I want a go-getter," he explains, "someone who's really into what they're doing ... If you can really understand copyright well, you will have a leg up. If you've written articles on copyright issues, that's really helpful. Somehow you have to show that you have more than just a general interest in entertainment law. For example, you've got to be up on things, like events in the entertainment and copyright arena."
Most of all, Mr. Johnson recommends that young lawyers find an area of law in which they will enjoy practicing; "Do not practice something that you know your heart is not behind," he advises. That being said, he notes that starting out as a lawyer is not easy and encourages new lawyers to stick with the profession once they find an area of law in which they take pleasure. "Experience comes with time, and everything gets better with experience," Mr. Johnson observes. "It gets a lot better. Just be patient."