True to His Schools

Eric Johnson gets gold stars from his school district clients

Published in 2007 Ohio Rising Stars — July 2007

Once a week, for part of the school year, Cleveland attorney and Junior Achievement volunteer Eric Johnson surrounds himself with eager-to-learn 5-year-olds. “You ask a question and 30 hands go up,” he says. “As a lawyer, it’s very rare that anybody is excited to see you.”

Law isn’t on the agenda when Johnson is in teacher mode. His task is simply to give the youngsters a few life lessons in basic economics—helping them understand, for example, the difference between a want and a need. “You need food; you want that teddy bear or toy,” he explains.

The classroom is a comfortable place for Johnson. About 50 percent of Johnson’s labor and employment practice centers on school law. “The mission [of education] is admirable,” he says. “People involved in education have such a commitment to doing what’s right for children.”

A similar commitment has governed Johnson’s life and career. “It was ingrained in my personal psyche from Mom and Dad to work hard and work as long as it takes to get the job done and done correctly,” he says. Johnson’s “tremendous work ethic,” as described by one of his school clients, might explain why, at age 30, he became the youngest partner at Walter & Haverfield since its inception in 1932.

“He’s clearly an extraordinary talent,” says managing partner Ralph Cascarilla. “When you see an extraordinary talent, you want that individual to grow and develop.”

Johnson became a partner on June 1, 2006; on August 25, he turned 31. He has compressed a lot into his career since graduating in 2000 from Duke University School of Law. Quickly snatched up by Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, one of the largest firms in the world, he had the chance to serve as lead attorney on various projects. “The more experience I had, the more I was able to take it to the next level.”

He came to Walter & Haverfield, a mid-size firm, to “develop my own practice,” he says. “There’s a certain entrepreneurial side of me. Basically, I wanted the challenge of growing something new, something in which I had direct control and ownership.”

That turned out to be Walter & Haverfield’s Education Law Group, which Johnson founded. The group sends out newsletters on topics important to people in the education field and provides in-service training specifically for education clients.

Many of his off hours are also spent helping kids. In addition to Junior Achievement, he provides pro bono legal counsel for Youth Opportunities Unlimited, which helps prepare underprivileged youths for the work world.

Johnson understands that the law profession is a service business, Cascarilla says. “He has terrific skills as a lawyer. He has the ability to develop relationships with clients and interact in a way they find constructive and valuable. That’s why he is widely expanding his practice.”

Johnson works on behalf of boards of education throughout Ohio as well as for such public- and private-sector clients as the Ohio Turnpike Commission; Kennametal Inc., a global supplier of tooling, engineered components and advanced materials; and MemberHealth Inc., a national prescription management company that’s the fourth-largest Medicare Part D prescription sponsor in the country.

Jane Koehl-Colling, general counsel for MemberHealth, is impressed with Johnson’s work ethic. “He’s available 24/7,” she says, noting she has known Johnson since he started his career. “He was our outside labor counsel when he was at Squire Sanders. When he left to go to Walter & Haverfield, it really made sense for us not to transition our work to someone else. He has seen our company grow. He took us from 30 employees to 175 employees.”

 

Born in Collinwood on Cleveland’s East Side, Johnson grew up in the suburb of Willowick and received a scholarship to Denison University in Granville, outside of Columbus. He was the first in his immediate family to go to college, and “there was no way I was going to fail,” having seen how hard his parents worked. His father, John, recently retired as a driver for Dan Dee, the snack food company (“We were a meat and potato chip family,” Johnson says); his mother, Judy, has worked for decades at Lake Hospital as an X-ray technician.

Coming from a middle-class family, he found an entirely different milieu at Denison. “It was a culture shock seeing 18-year-olds driving Saabs. I didn’t even know what a Saab was before then.”

Nevertheless, he thrived. “Education has always been an important factor to me: taking every opportunity to develop as a person and a professional.”

At Duke, he met fellow law student Kelly Barsham; they married in 2002. “It was very much a case of opposites attracting,” she says. “I’m a type-A person. He just taught me how to relax.” She also appreciates his sense of humor and his way of “endearing himself to whoever’s around him.”

 

Back when Johnson was starting his career, he had no intention of getting into labor and employment law. Then he spent a summer interning with Akin Gump, a large international firm in Washington, D.C., known for its practice in that area. “From the outside, it wasn’t an interesting area to me,” says Johnson, who had initially pursued international business law. “Once I got in, I saw how exciting the work could be.

“You deal with real people in real scenarios,” he says. “You deal with emotion. Everybody has or will have employment. You deal with issues that almost everybody deals with.” And he relishes being a trusted adviser who is asked for his opinion on business issues that sometimes have nothing to do with the law. “When that happens, you know you’re doing something right,” he says.

As attorney for the Chardon Board of Education, Johnson serves as a sounding board. “The door is always open for litigation from anybody,” says Joseph Bergant, superintendent of the Chardon School District. “He looks at the way we do day-to-day operations and has been able to provide guidance in what we can do to prevent problems.”

Clients like the Chardon School District are facing new problems as students across the country exploit cutting-edge technology inside and outside the classroom. Students can post offensive or defamatory Web sites, create mock MySpace accounts for teachers and use cell phones to take pictures of other kids in restrooms. Education law “really is an area in which you never know what’s coming,” Johnson says. “You think you’ve seen everything and something comes out of left field.”

That’s just one reason why, while Johnson is devoted to all of his clients, he admits his education practice has its own special thrills. “On the private side, you have employees, but you don’t have parents of employees calling and saying, ‘I’ve got a problem.’ You may have community problems, but you don’t have 36 taxpayers wanting to slaughter a board member.”

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