All in the Family: Leslie Johnson & Inga Miller
This is the third installment of Lisa J. Mendes’ interview with CCCBA member attorneys whose children join them in the practice of law. Past interviews included Skip Pfeiffer and his daughter Laura who practice family law and were featured in the October 2016 issue of Contra Costa Lawyer; and The Marchiano family with Justice James Marchiano (ret.), his daughter Karen, who practices franchise litigation at DLA Piper’s Palo Alto office, and son David who practices litigation and employment law at Archer Norris in Walnut Creek. The Marchianos were featured in the December 2016 issue of Contra Costa Lawyer.
Leslie Johnson had practiced commercial real estate law for more than 30 years when her daughter, Inga Miller, went to law school to advance her career as a journalist. While Inga worked for Leslie and her law partners during an externship, mother and daughter found a common love for the law that led to a job at the firm and carries on between them long after Inga started her own law practice.
I noticed at the inception of our interview that Inga referenced her mother as “Leslie” and not “Mom.” It threw me off, so I asked her to explain why that was.
IM: When I went to work for Leslie’s firm, I think we both felt more comfortable. How is this going to come off that we’re a parent and child in the workplace? There was really a discussion between us about trying to keep the workplace separate, and also the formality of being a lawyer in play. I mean, “I need to check with my mom to see if that settlement is going to fly?!”
LM: What did you think when Inga came to you and said she wanted to leave journalism to be a lawyer?
LJ: I was astonished. She was actually raised in a law firm literally, coming to work with me, crawling around on the floor. She had never expressed an interest. I was shocked at first. But she has always been very detailed oriented and inquiring, fabulous reporter. Great skills to have as a lawyer.
LJM: I am sure you are proud of her.
LJ: Yes, really.
IM: So after I took the bar my focus was, “I need a job.” So I was sending out my resumes to district attorney’s offices and was asking Leslie to be a reference on these applications. I remember it very vividly, you had a really strong reaction and said…
LJ: “Why don’t you apply with us?”
IM: It was sort of like, “Why wouldn’t you just stay here?” It was really thoughtful. Leslie made me feel like it made sense for me to stay working with her.
LJM: And how were the office dynamics impacted because of your mother/daughter relationship?
IM: In regard to family in the workplace, Leslie did really well in coming to the conclusion that her firm was not a family business with Leslie and Inga. It was a firm with her law partners and their associates. I think that was really important. There was a hierarchy to the firm. That was very cool.
LJM: Leslie, at the time Inga came to you and said she wanted to be a lawyer, you needed the help. But had you not needed the help, what would your thoughts have been?
LJ: I didn’t really have any input. From my perspective, the important thing in my mind was always when I started as a lawyer, it was a totally different world than when she came in. The practice of the law can sometimes, in certain practice areas, become negative and distrustful and so I am not sure that I would have been a big advocate of going into the profession.
LJM: So, because of how the practice of law has changed, and the perception of lawyers has changed, if you could have had a say, you would not have been a proponent of her becoming a lawyer?
LJ: I might have hesitated. I might have asked the question. But she did not ask. And I think I am glad for that. I loved being a lawyer, and I still love being a lawyer.
LJM: Since Inga had decided she was going to be a lawyer, did you give her any advice?
LJ: No, I don’t think so.
IM: You did! She really encouraged me to study for the LSATs, and to invest the time in learning my subject area. And while I was in law school, she gave me amazing advice.
LJM: You embraced whatever decision she was making with confidence. Did you ever feel like, “Perhaps I should not have her working for me, but I would definitely refer her to work for someone else?”
LJ: Definitely not. The funny thing is that perhaps as much by happenstance as intent, we ended up in a position to help each other during one of the most challenging times for real estate and lawyers, and in particular, real estate lawyers. Many transactional practices dried up, and we were very lucky in that our firm was diversified and we faced a deluge of business from title insurers looking to fix title so their clients could foreclose. We were understaffed and Inga was geared up and willing to jump in.
IM: It was the perfect job for a newspaper reporter – putting together a “paper trail” that painted the story of what had gone wrong: a borrower secures a loan against property, then sells it to his friend without anyone paying off the loan, and the friend gets another loan, and then when the bank comes looking for someone to pay, everyone disappears. Or, more commonly, a title officer busy with surges of business during the uptick missed the incomplete reference to the legal description discovered by the bank when it went to foreclose. It was fun stuff and the courtroom experience was unparalleled. But as I worked with Leslie more and more to learn the ins and outs of title insurance law, I knew I wanted to do what she did – transactional work. There, you are building something for your client – value in their real estate.
LJ: My practice essentially dried up during the downturn. There were no properties for my clients to buy. Sellers with quality properties were sitting on them. There were bargains to be had here and there and that was a source of business but not the fun stuff. The fun stuff comes when clients are excited about the perfect opportunity to do something new. And that started to come back in late 2012 and early 2013.
IM: I think because we trust each other – and intrinsically know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, we are able to pinpoint the best in our client’s ideas and also the possible weak points in order to shore those up. That is something that a parent-child team is specially positioned to do.