Michele Johnson is a partner in the Orange County office of Latham & Watkins and a member of the firm’s Executive Committee, which is responsible for setting the firm’s strategy and providing leadership to the firm as a whole. In this Q&A, Michele discusses her background, career, and advice for law students and new lawyers.
Can you tell us about your background and upbringing?
I was raised in a conservative household and was homeschooled through high school, back when homeschooling was not particularly common or understood. I attended community college at Mesa Community College and financed my tuition by working at Taco Bell. I then transferred to Arizona State University. When I began college, I realized that by not having the opportunity to participate in typical high school activities, I had missed out on much of our shared culture. This absence of a common experience shaped how I learned to connect with people. I learned how to act as if I were comfortable even when, in fact, I was not.
Developing this skill likely helped me in my legal career. Much of what we do is to assimilate complex circumstances and unique problems under extreme pressure, and walk our clients through each step until we develop solutions. The ability to portray confidence, calm, and comfort while doing so—even before we perhaps feel any of these things—is a critical skill.
How did you decide you wanted to be a lawyer and end up at Latham & Watkins?
I have to confess to a complete lack of a strategic plan. No one in my family had a professional degree. I ended up in law school because a good friend was walking across the ASU campus to sign up for the LSAT and wanted me to walk with him. I did, and decided to sign up for the LSAT myself. I applied to Georgetown—and decided to go—because I had heard of the school. I had never been on a campus visit for any school (unless you count Easter sunrise services at the Mesa Community College football field).
During my 2L summer, I pursued public interest work at a non-profit and had the opportunity to write a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court. Realizing, however, that I needed to find a way to pay off my crushing student loans, I interviewed with big law firms as a 3L. I applied to Latham because a friend had been a 2L summer in Washington, DC and loved the experience. I, accordingly, thought I would apply to the firm’s DC office, but was interviewed by a partner from Orange County. She convinced me to meet the folks there, even though I had no plans to interview with any other firm in California. I loved everyone I met during my callback interview in Orange County, and accepted Latham’s offer on the spot. That is one of the reasons I have stayed at Latham throughout my career—the people.
Please describe a personal struggle you encountered and how you overcame it.
Growing up, my family taught me traditional gender roles. Even though those values are not my own, sometimes the message I heard growing up casts seeds of self-doubt, even today. Whether or not they had a similar upbringing, I am certain that many people in this profession, junior or senior, doubt themselves—their abilities, their skills, their talent—for countless reasons. While much of this job is engaging and complex, with the heightened responsibility comes significant pressure. To add self-doubt to the mix can be debilitating. To me it is important to focus on what I believe. I believe in myself, I believe in the equality of women and all people, I believe in my daughter, I believe in the meritocracy and opportunity of Latham. And rock and roll. I play keyboards in two bands, including one with all (incredibly talented) Latham musicians, and they are an important part of me.
What was a defining moment in your career as a junior lawyer?
As a young lawyer, I worked on a team that was defending against a lawsuit that sought to enjoin a U.S. public company merger. Such suits are common now, but at the time they were relatively more unusual. We were opposing a preliminary injunction motion that sought to put an end to the deal. I accompanied my supervising senior partner to the hearing on the motion, and, on our way to court, he told me he had not yet decided which of us would argue the motion. I was nervous, but less nervous—and prepared, but less prepared—than if I knew I was going to be the one arguing the motion. After the plaintiff’s attorney presented her argument, my supervising partner turned to me at counsel table and said, “OK, you go.” I stood up, and got out of my own way. I probably did better than if I had time to stew over it. I was able to point out some great pieces of evidence for us, and the judge ruled in our favor. My supervising partner’s vote of confidence gave me a genuine boost and made me realize, I can do this.
What advice do you have for law students, especially those that aspire to join a big law firm?
Take the long-term view. When you have been studying or practicing for just a short while, everything feels like a much bigger deal, given that you have only a small sample size for comparison. To achieve some perspective, seek out people in the profession who have careers you would like to have. But remember, many people look at partners in big law firms and think to themselves, “I could never do that.” Those partners started out as first-year law students, too. When they started, they probably felt overwhelmed or worried about the future, or had not yet learned how to manage the challenges of the practice. Learn from them.
Relatedly, be patient. If you are up until 2 a.m. reading cases or stuck on a document review, you may think to yourself, “I’ll be doing this forever.” But, things get easier as you figure out your work, your profession, and yourself. When I was a first-year associate, working extremely late one evening (morning), I decided that I could no longer do this job—and wrote the word “Enough” on a Post-It note and put it on my wall, so that I would remember to quit the next day. I didn’t get around to it. Whatever the hardship you are facing, it is important to remember why you are investing in your career—and to be kind to yourself.