The curriculum vitae of William “Bill” Johnston, the new chair of the ABA’s Business Law Section, is certainly intimidating: associate and then partner with Young Conaway, Stargatt & Taylor for more than 30 years; past president of the American Judicature Society and the Delaware State Bar Association; past member of the Delaware State Human Relations Commission; and the list goes on and on. But, if you have the pleasure of meeting Bill Johnston, you quickly realize that he is not at all intimidating (outside the courtroom) but exudes a collegiality and warmth that makes him very approachable.
The other quality you immediately recognize in Johnston is his dedication to service. In fact, this is a theme that has been a constant in his life.
“I decided to go to law school because I wanted to be a part of the legal profession as a service profession,” said Johnston. “I had been inspired, and mentored, by a favorite uncle, Edgar J. Smith, Jr., who was an in-house counsel and later became general counsel.”
This emphasis on service is the skein that runs through Johnston’s legal career as well as his professional and community activities.
Starting a Career and Family
Johnston was born near the epicenter of business law: Wilmington, Delaware. He attended Colgate University and majored in English. “At Colgate, my favorite writer was Joseph Conrad. I read virtually everything he published, as well as his last, unfinished novel,” said Johnston. “I had planned to do an honors thesis that would have involved an (unabashedly presumptuous) effort to predict the completed version of that unfinished work.” Regrettably, the thesis never came to pass because of the untimely death of Johnston’s professor advisor, a renowned Conrad expert.
While Conrad, in his youth, chose the sea and novel writing, Johnston chose law school and attended Washington & Lee University School of Law. When he was starting his third year, he met his future wife, who was starting her first year. Although he well-remembered meeting her at the kick-off party that first semester, his wife has told him she didn’t remember meeting him.
But, of course, there was a happy ending and they have been married for more than 33 years.
In fact, his wife, the Hon. Mary Miller Johnston, is a judge of the Delaware Superior Court. They have two grown daughters, Ellen and Amy, and Johnston knows firsthand the pressures of balancing a legal career and raising a family.
“To be sure, this was a challenge,” said Johnston. “I can’t even imagine the challenge faced by a single parent in our profession. Our approach has been a partnering one, with each of us trying to step up to whatever has been needed on the home front while meeting our professional demands. Mary was at home with the girls for about four years after having become a partner. She then became Chief Disciplinary Counsel in Delaware and a Delaware Superior Court Judge. And, through it all, our daughters have been supportive, good sports.”
His oldest daughter, Ellen, graduated from Washington and Lee University School of Law in 2015 and is now working with the Delaware Department of Justice as a prosecutor, while younger daughter, Amy, is a buyer in New York City with the women’s retailer Tory Burch.
Justice for All and Community Service
When Johnston joined Young Conaway, Stargatt & Taylor in 1985, the legal profession was quite different. Johnston can recall fondly the shiny rolls of fax paper, and the IBM “Selectric” typewriter—now a museum piece.
The way the profession has not changed, in his view, is that top-quality lawyers and judges continue to provide, as best they can, access to justice for all. “The obvious challenge is to do our best to meet continuing needs, in the midst of diminished funding for legal services for the poor and others not able to afford legal services. Other challenges are the ones we face as a profession. They include client interest in ‘one-stop shopping’ or multi-disciplinary practice, and the insistence on 24/7 availability and instantaneous reasoned response.”
Johnston developed his own areas of practice concentration first through building on his law school corporate law course exposure in clerking with the Delaware Supreme Court in the early 1980s. He then had the opportunity to hone interests and skills through his involvement with the ABA Business Law Section’s Business and Corporate Litigation Committee.
“I literally wandered into a subcommittee of that committee that sounded like it was addressing a growing area of interest for me at the time—advancement and indemnification for directors and officers,” recalled Johnston. “Before I knew it, I was being asked to serve as vice chair and then chair of the subcommittee and to write and speak on that subject.” He went on to become Chair of the Business and Corporate Litigation Committee.
Johnston’s growing expertise was aided by his firm’s commitment to bar association work and leadership. In fact, he followed others at his firm, notably Bruce Stargatt, in serving as president of the Delaware State Bar Association. In addition, Johnston serves in the ABA House of Delegates (as State Delegate from Delaware), and he was president of the American Judicature Society from 2010 to 2011.
Despite all of Johnston’s firm and professional commitments, he believes strongly in service to the community. To Johnston, lawyers have an obligation to improve their communities to the best of their abilities. For the young or newer lawyer, Johnston suggests following his or her heart when it comes to pro bono legal work and other volunteer work in the community.
“You learn so much from serving the community,” said Johnston. “Yes, the community benefits—but so do you.”
The “Ultimate” BLS Experience
In September, Johnston became chair of the ABA’s Business Law Section and the leader of its 50,000 members. And, for many of his BLS colleagues, Johnston is the epitome of the business lawyer who also understands the responsibilities of his position.
“Bill is a wonderful person and has been a mentor to legions of attorneys in Delaware and in the ABA,” said Denise Kraft, a partner with DLA Piper. “He is a thoughtful leader who has always taken the time to make sure that the BLS ensures opportunities for leadership and growth throughout all its ranks and equally for all members, including minorities and women. I believe that his careful tending to these objectives is a big part of why the BLS has seen explosive growth in the past few years. During those years, he has been in the forefront (and sometimes in the background) pushing those objectives and making sure that the BLS is the very best it can be and utilizes all its strengths to move forward in a positive and powerful way.”
Johnston looks forward to partnering with the other officers of the Section, and with the governing Council, to implement and update the Section’s Business Plan and to be faithful to the Section’s Diversity and Inclusion Plan.
First and foremost, though, Johnston wants to promote the interests of the members and be diligent in pursuing the mission of the Section.
“There is great value in BLS membership on many levels,” said Johnston. “First, the Section strives to deliver on its ‘knowledge’ proposition, building on what law students, lawyers, and judges may be encountering day-to-day. Second, the Section strives to ensure a sense of ‘community,’ providing opportunities for gathering—whether in-person or ‘virtually.’ And, last, the Section strives to provide the ultimate ‘experience,’ with law students, lawyers, and judges partnering with one another to learn and connect to the betterment of all.”
Such high goals are often difficult to achieve. Yet Johnston’s career has demonstrated his commitment to family, community, and profession.
“All of us need to do whatever we can do to be as welcoming and inclusive as we can,” said Johnston. “That means re-imagining what we can do and will do, and who will do it. And, most importantly, we must empower the future leaders of our Section—and of the American Bar Association as a whole.”