Letter from a Lifer: D’Ann Johnson

Letter #1 in our “Letter from a Lifer” Series. This series features open letters full of experiences, wisdom, and advice for those who are just getting started in the legal aid community. If you’d like to write a Letter from a Lifer or nominate a “Lifer” we should reach out to, please hop on over to our Get In Touch page to share your insights.

Dear legal aid community,

First things first: Your legal career won’t turn out like you think it will. I am recently retired, and reflecting on my work for this letter has shown me that, while conditions for lawyers (especially women and minority lawyers) have changed, the core values and motivations behind the work remain the same.

When I went to law school, I was newly divorced with two children, one still nursing. It was hard, but mentally invigorating. I was active in the Women’s Law Caucus and worked on the national Women in Law Conference in Austin. I earned an induction into Friars, a group of UT students who have made a significant contribution to the university, and a group that would help me later in my career. While in school, I clerked at Legal Aid, the ACLU, and a private vanguard firm that hired women and wasn’t shy of single mothers. When I graduated, I thought a clerkship would be the best way to get a broad overview of the laws of Texas.

“Can you get a babysitter?” was one of the interview questions I faced in 1987, asked by a justice sitting on the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Justice Aboussie, who had been on the court for only a short time, chastised the other justice for asking me an illegal question. At that time, the application form listed a space for spouse and children’s names. So, even though I graduated with honors and my resume looked good enough to merit an interview, the male justices balked at the blank spouse column. The next interview for another Supreme Court clerkship raised the same question. As I looked around the table at the nine men interviewing me, all I could think was, “I graduated from UT Law School and they don’t even know how their socks got in their drawers this morning.” I decided suing the Texas Supreme Court for discrimination was probably not the best way to start my legal career, but I did think about it. These interviews felt like a huge setback and I wondered if I had made the right choice.

Whether you work full time for a legal services program or volunteer through pro bono programs, you will gain valuable experience, perform important work, and help people who would otherwise be lost without you.

After the clerkship idea fell through, I considered working in the private sector, but found the parties were mainly fighting over who owed whom money and, in my heart, I didn’t care who won. I approached another UT Friar and managed to get a position in civil litigation for the county attorney. Almost immediately, I was in charge of mountains of tax collection cases, animal cruelty charges, driver’s license suspensions, mental health commitments, jail overcrowding—all types of cases except eminent domain. It was never boring, and I was proud that my ethical obligation as a government attorney was to see that justice was served.

I was recruited to join the Texas Banking Department, where I handled administrative matters. Then I was transferred to the Office of State-Federal Relations in Washington, D.C., which functions as the lobbyist for the state. The banking work was very different from anything I thought I would ever do in my career. I learned how to read financial statements and got board certified in administrative law.

I kept my righteous indignation alive by participating in community and political activities. I supported Volunteer Legal Services and was a founding board member of the Political Asylum Project of Austin, now American Gateways. Immigration law at the time allowed the United States to indefinitely detain Cubans who had committed criminal acts and were ordered deported but couldn’t be deported because the U.S. and Cuba did not have diplomatic relations. I managed an all-volunteer Cuban Detention Project for eight years until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the extended imprisonments unconstitutional. We helped over 70 detainees during this time.

Volunteer legal work kept me sane because it allows you to meet new people outside your daily social circle, energize yourself, and remind yourself that you have an opportunity and education limited to a privileged few. As a lawyer, you can pay that privilege forward.

After I vested my pension with the banking department, I began to look for a position that better fit my personal goals. Legal Aid received funding for a community development position and I jumped at it. Fourteen years had passed since I was first licensed, but I was finally hired at the place I wanted to work in the first place. I didn’t regret the gap, though; I had gained experience in numerous areas of the law that proved invaluable in my new job.

In the public interest arena, I weathered insults from private attorneys who thought I wasn’t as smart or competent as they were, “otherwise I would be at a firm making real money.” However, I found that hubris to be to my advantage, and they soon learned that I was a fierce combatant.

At Legal Aid, you won’t earn what you are worth. Legal Aid lawyers make half of the salary of a first-year private attorney, even after 30 years of practicing. Program funding is a roller coaster: I experienced layoffs, pay cuts, and a drought on pay increases. We had one lawyer for every 10,000-20,000 eligible clients. The value of a Legal Aid position is the satisfaction of the work and loan forgiveness programs.

Every day I went to work with co-workers as passionate as I am, knowing I made a difference in the lives of people whose daily lives are in crisis and whose fundamental needs such as shelter, food, transportation, and income depended on the performance of their attorney. Our clients were often very different from me in terms of age, income, race, education, and physical or mental limitations. The work is to empower and advocate for them. This may be accomplished one case at a time, such as preventing the eviction of an elderly man from public housing, or through coordinated and strategic litigation, such as that used by TRLA and LANWT in representing fundamentalist Mormon mothers after the state’s roundup of all their children.

Sometimes just showing up at board and council meetings can remind policy makers of a higher moral ground. I’ve found the law to be a powerful tool to combat disenfranchisement and disadvantages. Creative lawyering can turn archaic legal notions into precedents that change the dynamic.

There will never be enough lawyers to represent lower-income persons. While there are many ways to volunteer in our communities, only lawyers can fill the justice gap. Whether you work full time for a legal services program or volunteer through pro bono programs, you will gain valuable experience, perform important work, and help people who would otherwise be lost without you.

All my best,


1 thought on “Letter from a Lifer: D’Ann Johnson”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.