James E. Johnson, Esq.
Debevoise & Plimpton LLP
New York, N.Y.
James E. Johnson’s approach to his white-collar criminal defense practice, characterized by exemplary investigative skills, clear ethics and sentience, make the Debevoise & Plimpton litigation partner one of the most highly regarded in his field. Indeed, Crain’s New York Business deemed him one of the country’s “Most Powerful Minorities.”
A former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Johnson centers his practice on internal investigations, corporate compliance, and corporate crisis management in connection with internal investigations. His foray into law began with the exposure his parents provided. “My mother was a secretary in a law firm. For many summers the firm hired me as a file clerk, and then later as a paralegal,” Johnson recounts. “My father was always interested in legal issues, particularly the very public side of legal issues. He arranged for me to sit in the chambers of a municipal judge one summer when I was about twelve or thirteen years old. That’s what kindled my interest in law.” That interest led to a Juris Doctor, cum laude, from Harvard Law School.
Johnson cites career influencers other than his parents, including Theodore V. Wells Jr., renowned white-collar criminal defense litigator whom he describes as “a phenomenal lawyer and a phenomenal human being”; and Mary Jo White, current chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who recruited him to Debevoise & Plimpton in 1984 and supported his appointment as assistant secretary of the Treasury for Enforcement in the Clinton administration in 1996. One of the biggest highlights of his career was his appointment by President Clinton, along with that of then-Civil Rights Assistant Attorney General Deval L. Patrick, as co-chairs of the National Church Arson Task Force to probe hundreds of church burnings in the South. Johnson’s work on the investigation contributed to a 34 percent arrest rate, double the typical 16 percent rate of arson arrests countrywide. A task force report to President Clinton said the probe’s three-part strategy into the investigation and prevention of church arsons “produced one of the largest series of arson investigations in history.”
Johnson also served on the 2009 Obama-Biden Transition Team, where he co-led the Agency Review Team for the Commodity Future Trading Commission.
He still has professional goals to attain, he confesses, and their objectives are the same as those he harbored in law school: making a contribution to the broader society and affecting the work spaces in a way that makes those he worked with glad that he engaged those spaces.
In 2007, The Legal 500 (US) praised Johnson’s “calm and methodical demeanor,” attributes that Johnson advises others to cultivate. Those who want to become white-collar criminal defense lawyers should “commit themselves to being students of the law their entire careers so that when legal developments arise they remain on the leading edge; develop the mental habit of looking at every side of a problem; and take very deliberate focus on developing the capacity to listen — not just to listen for factual accuracy but to understand the intent behind words to better understand different perspectives,” he says.