March 20, 2016

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson served as vice president and General Counsel of General Motors North America for the last seven years of his 20-year career with General Motors. In early 2011, his life radically changed. He took a mission trip to Mumbai, India, with his wife, Rhonda, and his church, and confronted the enormity and brutality of human trafficking through the eyes of its victims. “I learned how digging water wells and running preschool classes would help to break the cycle of generational poverty existing in the slums by sending children to school rather than allowing them to become future victims of human trafficking,” he said.

Johnson chairs the ABA Business Law Section’s Task Force on Implementation of the ABA Model Principles on Labor Trafficking and Child Labor (Implementation Task Force).

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Tell us more about your trip to India.

I had heard about human trafficking back in 2004 when I was the chair of ABA Africa. But then to see it firsthand and understand how it exists in the United States and in the supply chains of products that we eat, wear, and use every day shocked us beyond anything else we’d ever heard or experienced. We felt called by God to do something about the fact that at least 21 million people are in sexual or labor bondage. 

As a result, you’re the CEO of the Center for Justice Rights and Dignity.

My wife Rhonda and I cofounded this entity to consolidate our work in human trafficking and other affronts to human dignity. In addition to my Implementation Task Force work, Rhonda and I are also on the Board of the Michigan Abolitionist Project, a human trafficking awareness and education organization where I serve as president and she as treasurer and which was honored as the top trafficking organization in Michigan with the 2015 Liberty Award. We are also involved with another Christian human trafficking organization in Dallas called New Friends, New Life, which helps restore over 1,000 victims of human trafficking and their families every year through counseling and other rehabilitation services. 

Why isn’t there more public outcry over this issue?

Many people don’t understand the extent of the problem from either a sex or labor perspective. In my case, even though I was introduced to the issue over a decade ago, I hadn’t really taken the time to understand what was going on until that fateful trip to Mumbai. 

On sex trafficking, some feel that prostitution is an act between consenting adults – so what’s the big deal? But that’s not always true, especially with child victims who can’t consent (average age of entry 11–13) which some estimate are up to 40 percent of the victims. Until recently, the labor side has received less media coverage, and some feel its fine to pay a person who has nothing – or just a bit more than nothing (or nothing) – and/or have them work and live in unsafe conditions because in some cases they are better off than they were before. 

Another reason is that people might think it’s just too big of a problem. How do I get started? How do I do something about this? All of this is why awareness is so important. 

What can a business lawyer do in his or her role to address the issue?

There are already a lot of business lawyers doing something, including those on the Implementation Task Force. We drafted the Model Principles over an 18-month period and they were adopted by the ABA House of Delegates without objection two years ago. They provide some basic steps that corporations can take to clean up their supply chains. We are trying to work with lawyers at firms and corporations to help them understand the importance of this situation not just from a moral perspective, but from a business case perspective. (See my article in the fall 2015 edition of The Business Lawyer, “Business Lawyers Are in a Unique Position to Help Their Clients Identify Supply-Chain Risks Involving Labor Trafficking and Child Labor.”) 

In addition to Business Law Section members, members from other sections such as Labor and Employment Law, International Law, and the Center For Human Rights are involved. We have a website, and just received approval to move it externally from the ABA so it can function as an open exchange where all stakeholders, companies, NGOs, governments, and members of civil society can exchange ideas to address this area. 

There is a wonderful new ABA published book with significant information on this subject, Freedom for All: An Attorney’s Guide to Fighting Human Trafficking, by the founders of the Global Freedom Center. Similarly, the ABA Human Trafficking Task Force website is a great resource, as is the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Center, which has trained over a thousand lawyers to represent human trafficking victims. 

You had a long career in corporate law. What’s the intersection between corporate law and human trafficking?

You can start asking questions about what your corporate clients are doing to address slavery in their supply chain. It falls into the whole area of corporate social responsibility. California requires corporations that do business in California to disclose what they are doing in this area. The United Kingdom just passed a similar law. France is also discussing such a law, as are other members of the EU. President Obama just signed into law amendments to the Tariff Act of 1930, removing the consumptive demand exception, which previously allowed goods made with forced or child labor to enter the United States. Now, those goods may be held at the border. 

For 20 years, you worked at General Motors. What were some highlights from the experience?

One highlight was my work on the issue of diversity. In 2004 we started a pipeline program with Detroit and Pontiac public schools to identify and mentor promising young people from the inner city who were interested in law. We also established a summer internship program. In 2015, we had our first law school graduate from Cooley Law School, Kwame Rowe. People say, “Gosh, it’s just one out of hundreds of students,” but I say, “it’s one more than would have been.” In addition, there were many others who were positively impacted by those programs to seek other professional careers and who went on to college, thanks in part to GM scholarship money. 

We also encouraged our outside counsel to provide diverse counsel to GM, from a racial, ethnic, and gender perspective, in part through goals that we measured in assessing outside counsel performance. It wasn’t popular with some, but it achieved the objective of increasing diversity, and some of the firms saw that once they embraced it was really beneficial to them in terms of growing their client base. 

Thanks to a wonderful staff we were able to do our day jobs, all of these things and have a very active pro bono program. 

From a legal perspective, I helped lead the negotiation of the largest commercial contract at that time ($40 billion), the master service agreement between GM and EDS, when EDS split-off from GM in 2006.

You originally started at General Motors as a lead attorney for IT law matters. You quickly moved up the ladder. What advice would you give to any of the attorney trying to move up the ladder?

Take prudent risks. When I joined the staff in 1988, I took a risk and agreed to work in an area (computer law) that nobody else wanted to do. At that time it was not a big practice but over time, it became more important to GM. Hence I gained very good exposure with members of GM senior corporate and legal staff management, which helped me to get promoted. 

Also when you’re working in an area for some time, you should learn enough about the business that you can give strategic business advice to your client. I did that on a few occasions, and despite some strong initial pushback on one particularly significant matter, in the end, my views prevailed.

You taught at the Thomas Cooley Law School. But I understand you’re moving to Rutgers Business School. Why are you making the change?

I left Cooley, which is a wonderful law school, at the end of 2013 to focus my efforts on human trafficking. Rutgers Business School, through its Center on Market Advantage, agreed to assume the responsibility to design and maintain the task force’s website discussed earlier. I will work with the center on that project and others related to my work on the Implementation Task Force.

You attended West Point. What convinced you to go to this school?

My father was an army lieutenant colonel who I respected, admired, and loved very much. For a person considering a military career, West Point is the ultimate school. I went to a public high school in New York City, and when I told the career counselor that I wanted to go to West Point, she laughed at me and said, “You’re black, blacks don’t go to West Point. You’re going to be a plumber or an electrician, that would be a good career for you.” This, even though I had the third highest reading score in the school as an entering freshman.

What did you say?

I said, “I don’t want to be a plumber or electrician.” I knew that my father, mother, and my uncle Roy (see below) had overcome racial barriers to achieve success so why couldn’t I? Fortunately, I my parents took me out of that school and sent me to a private school, where I did very well, graduating as co-valedictorian, and I did graduate from West Point. 

How have the education and training you received at West Point affected your career?

It taught me about leadership and its most important attribute – integrity – which has remained a guiding principle throughout my career, because it is important in any career, but particularly the law. We have to deliver tough news to clients and sometimes that makes us unpopular. But West Point taught me to always do the right thing no matter how difficult. West Point also pushed me to my limit, academically, physically, and emotionally. 

You went on to serve in the U.S. Army. How did that experience shape you?

It helped me put into practice what I learned at West Point. In addition, I learned in the army the value of respecting everyone, regardless of rank. Some of my senior officers thought I needed to be tougher, but I felt I was able to get more out of the men and women who served under me because they knew I respected them as people and they respected me. This extends to people who are diverse in any respect, including people of all faiths, agnostics or atheists. In essence, without knowing it at that time, I adopted the servant leadership style of Jesus, which helped me in leadership positions throughout my career. 

On your résumé, you highlight your Christian faith. I wonder how your faith has shaped your life and decision making?

In reflecting back on my life. I can see that at every turn in my career and life that God was with me. Such as when I decided to leave a successful army career to go to law school or then to leave a Wall Street law firm to become a headhunter, or then to move to GM in Detroit where I had no family or connections, or to retire early from GM to seek a new career which I knew was out there, I just wasn’t sure what is was. God knew – it was human trafficking. He has also blessed me throughout my life by connecting me with some wonderful diverse people from my parents, to my wives, Sheryl and Rhonda, to my children, Erin and Chip, and scores of other family, friends, colleagues, leaders, teachers, secretaries, and others, from as far back as I can remember to the present. 

You also note, too, on your résumé the value of family. How has this value influenced your career decisions?

Many of my decisions were driven by family concerns. For example, when I was negotiating that very big IT contract at GM, my first wife, Sheryl, was about to go through a bone marrow transplant for breast cancer. I went to my boss and said the most important thing I had to do was take care of my wife and family. I said I could do the contract, but everything else, including the practice area I led, had to transition to others. He agreed, which was representative of how GM treated me and many others who have such pressing problems. 

You’ve been very involved with the ABA over the years. In your opinion, what’s the ABA’s impact in the world?

I respect and admire the ABA for connecting great lawyers to people who are the forgotten, marginalized, indigent, persecuted, and downtrodden, such as the work we are doing on the Implementation Task Force. Doing so will continue to advance the rule of law around the world. 

You’ve been very involved with the Business Law Section. How has this section helped you as a lawyer?

It’s a wonderful group of lawyers, striving for the excellence of lawyers advising businesses. I’m an advisor to the corporate social responsibility and compliance committees. These are areas where I am able to use my experience to assist in the development of programing and training for lawyers as well as be a mentor – and be mentored. 

You’ve had many awards. What one stands out for you?

The Spirit of Excellence Award. Coming as it did early in my tenure as general counsel, it not only urged me to push myself, and our profession further in the area of diversity but also caused me to strive even harder to achieve a higher level of personal performance. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yes, a bit of family history. My maternal grandfather was Italian. In 1907 he married my grandmother who was African-American. As you might imagine, that led to some significant difficulties for my mother and her siblings as they were growing up in Philadelphia. My mother became a successful teacher in New York City. Her baby brother was a baseball player, but in the 1930s and early ’40s had to play in the Negro League. Then he got his chance in 1948 one year after Jackie Robinson broke the color line. 

My Italian grandfather’s name was John Campanella, and my mother’s baby brother was named Roy. That’s correct, my uncle is Roy Campanella. As I mentioned earlier, his overcoming what he did to play in the major leagues and be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame was an inspiration to me as I was trying to overcome some of my own challenges growing up. 

Thank you so much!