Bloomington attorney Lonnie D. Johnson is looking forward to serving as the new president of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana.
“The president of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana is sort of akin to the president of the United States – not in terms of power, but it’s sort of a pulpit to get to do whatyou want to do with it.”
Because he’s been gradually moving up the ranks to becoming DTCI president, he’s been collecting ideas from members to help him focus his priorities for 2012.
“What I’ve tried to do over the past two years is talk to people and see what areas interest members, what areas don’t,” he said. “Everyone who’s ever had this position has said: don’t try to do too much – pick two or three critical things and delegate. The one thing that I want to do is carry on the theme of civility that Scott Kyrouac started last year. I think that it’s important.”
Kyrouac said he was pleased that one of the priorities in Johnson’s ambitious agenda is to carry on the quest to promote civility in the legal profession.
Johnson explained that 13 years ago, DTCI was closely connected to the insurance industry. That was before insurance companies had in-house attorneys to handle litigation, so many DTCI members worked for insurance companies. Much has changed and, nowadays, many DTCI members have never worked on insurance cases. All of the different professional backgrounds within DTCI can make the organization’s lobbying priorities difficult to determine.
“There’s always going to be some disagreement about what we should do on a particular bill or whether we should file an amicus brief in a particular case, but I think most members would agree that we need to better define our purpose and standards by which to judge what our actions should be with regard to filing briefs and in the Legislature.”
To accomplish that goal, Johnson is organizing a committee to clarify what DTCI’s priorities are.
He said another goal is to launch at the state level an initiative developed by the Defense Research Institute.
“Tom Schultz and John Trimble, who are past DTCI presidents, are very involved in the Defense Research Institute initiative to support an independent judiciary and to try to inform the public to take a broader picture of judges and not determine the fate of judges based on one single issue,” Johnson said. “I think one thing attorneys all agree on … is that the judiciary should be independent from the other branches of government.” (See related story in this focus.)
Johnson didn’t start out wanting a career in law. He earned an associate degree in mechanical drafting, but quickly figured out that wasn’t the right job for him.
“I knew I wanted to go to college. I didn’t really know much about (professions) other than lawyers, doctors, accountants and engineers. I was close enough to engineering to know that I didn’t really have the mathematical mind for that or accounting. I don’t particularly like blood or hospitals, so I thought I’d go to law school.” He clarified that the answer he gave during the law school admission process was more elaborate.
Since being admitted to the bar in 1992, Johnson has found that what he enjoys the most about being a lawyer is the people and the practice of law itself.
“The cases I have, I usually have a lot of co-defendants from all over the state, and I really enjoy being part of the tradition, meeting lawyers, judges from all over the state and feeling like you’re part of that tradition,” he said. “You can have a case one day in South Bend and see attorneys that you haven’t seen in a while, and then the next day, you have a case in Evansville.”
But being a defense lawyer can have its downside, too.
“Most of us that deal in litigation, at some point you’re involved in cases that are very emotional because of the underlying tragedy. You have to learn over the years to put that to one side, do your job and deal with the emotions,” Johnson said. “That’s probably one of the most difficult aspects, just having those very trying, difficult catastrophes – that’s what so many lawsuits are based on.”
Johnson is a sportsman in his spare time.
“Fly fishing is probably my most time-consuming hobby,” he said. “I take a couple of trips a year to attempt to catch trout. That usually doesn’t work out so well. Mostly I fish in Indiana.”
He’s been married for 33 years and has two adult children. And he says people often ask him if he’s related to Lonnie Lee Johnson, an attorney with Taft Stettinius & Hollister. He’s not.
“That causes a lot of confusion,” he said. “I had a case with Taft and I was at their office on Monday, and there were a lot of funny stories about the two names. In fact, in my early involvement in this organization, when I was on the board of editors, somebody said, how come you haven’t done any work on this? We’ve emailed you like five times.
“But it wasn’t me – they were emailing the other Lonnie Johnson.”
Respect of his peers
Johnson is a Fellow of the Litigation Counsel of America, an honor that is extended by invitation only after being nominated by a peer. Martha Hollingsworth of Bingham McHale and Gary Price of Lewis & Kappes nominated him for that honor.
Trimble said Johnson has a keen understanding of the issues that affect defense lawyers.
“Lonnie is a lawyer who brings very broad practice experience to his position at DTCI,” Trimble said. “It will give him the perspective to understand and address the issues that are important to all DTCI members and their clients.”
Having served on the board for three years before moving up through the officer ranks, Johnson is up for the challenges of serving as president.
“Your first year as treasurer is probably more difficult because you have the responsibility for putting on the annual meeting,” he said. “By the time you become president, you know the organization pretty well.”•