chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Litigation Journal

Spring 2024 | Joy

Choosing Joy

Johanna Kelley


  • I am a lawyer by deep passion and love. 
  • That’s why I got in so much trouble in Colombia and had to run for my life. 
  • It is also why I have had so much success. It is what motivates me to get up and fight, for myself and my clients, every single day. 
Choosing Joy
PhotoAlto/Alix Minde via Getty Images

Jump to:

Most people probably do not think about “joy” and “law” being used in the same sentence. But over the course of my career—and my life—I have found immense joy in the practice of law. More than that, I have learned that joy is not necessarily innate or spontaneous. It is a choice. And choosing joy has profound personal and professional consequences. Joy, I believe, is a vital tool in the litigator’s tool belt.

I was born and raised in Colombia. I have some doctors in my family. My mom wanted to be a doctor, too, but that path was foreclosed to her. So, instead, she tried to persuade me to pursue medicine, buying me medical-themed toys, persuading me that I should follow in my uncle’s path. I believed her.

When I graduated from high school, I took a year off. I spent the first six months with my uncle, who was like a second father to me, to understand what being a doctor would entail. One day, he took me to the morgue to teach me about anatomy. I found the experience unsettling. I could not stop imagining that the bodies would all wake up and try to eat me.

My uncle asked me what I thought of my anatomy lesson. I told him I honestly could not focus because I found the bodies so creepy. He laughed and said, “This might not be the profession for you. You want to find a path that gives you butterflies. You want to go into a field that makes you feel excitement and curiosity and a burning desire to know more. If you just thought zombies were going to eat you, you might want to look into something else.”

I was very worried. I had no idea what to do with my life. Until, that is, I got into a fight with my then boyfriend. He told me that if I loved to fight so much, I should be a lawyer. I thought, hey, that is not a bad idea. And I enrolled in law school.

The Joy of Law School and Early Career

My first semester, I studied Roman law—Justinian’s Code—the foundation for the legal system in all civil law countries. Sitting in class, listening to the professor, reading my books, I got those butterflies my uncle told me about. I felt that burning curiosity to know more. My professor was amazing. I think I fell in love with law because of how he taught it. He made the law seem romantic: the basis of humanity, civilization, these beautiful principles about justice, fairness, fighting for the voiceless. I knew, in my bones, that I wanted to be someone who practiced law.

Those butterflies stayed with me throughout the five years I studied law (in Colombia, there is no undergraduate system, and law school takes five years). Each class was more interesting than the next. Every class, every assignment, every test was exciting.

I graduated in 2001. My first job was as the police inspector for a little town in Uraba, right in the middle of the jungle between Panama and Colombia. A police inspector is somewhat equivalent to an administrative judge. We resolve disputes between the community and the authorities, disputes in the operation of businesses, and small conflicts (like family law issues). Everything is extremely local and requires earning the trust of the community. The position is second-in-command to the mayor, and when I started, I was 23 years old.

From there, I was hired as the general counsel of a lumber company that processed wood and sold it for export. At the time, it was a major business. They picked me for the position because the entire region was embroiled in the conflict between the guerrillas (on the far left) and the paramilitaries (on the far right). The company had to work closely with the community and both sides of the conflict. My experience as police inspector had taught me how to build connections with the local community and how to stake out a middle ground between competing interests.

Soon I began working as a consultant for a number of private-sector businesses trying to navigate the conflict, including palm oil, plantain, and banana exporters. They hired me to represent the community’s interests before the Colombian government and the international community. I established relationships with the U.S. embassy and other embassies and nongovernmental organizations supporting the communities. I represented my clients before the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for human rights violations. I designed and developed projects to assist displaced populations, promote education, and expand legal empowerment. My career began to focus on law and development. I started teaching at the local university. I was barely older than my students.

I still had those butterflies. I remember asking my old professor how I could kill them—they made me feel unprepared when I went to court to represent my clients. My professor told me not to kill them—that I should pray they survived. Having those butterflies, he said, means you care, that this is your passion. Feed the butterflies. Enjoy them. So I did.

Rewarding and fulfilling as my work was, it was also very dangerous. Eventually, I was targeted by entities on both sides of the war. Both sides—the guerrillas and the paramilitaries—wanted to kill me. At the time, you had to choose whether to be on the right or the left. I wanted to be in the middle and have open conversations with everyone to achieve the best results for the local communities and businesses that were trying to survive in the midst of a war zone. But, back then, there were no middles in Colombia.

I filed a number of criminal reports against both sides when I discovered their violations of international law, human rights law, and Colombian law. That earned me enemies. The guerrillas came for me first. They tried to assassinate me several times. Once, they sent a 17-year-old to my office. He pulled out a gun and pointed it at my head. His hand was shaking so badly that I knew he did not want to hurt me. I started talking to him and showed him a picture of my baby girl. I told him. “I have a daughter, and if you kill me, she will be all alone. You know that there is no one like a mom.” I told him that I could help him. He was a little boy. He was recruited and forced into this position.

I reached out to the commander of the local Colombian army unit. He was one of the most amazing people I have ever known. I put him on speakerphone, and he promised to help this kid. We moved him and his family to a new location and got him back in school. He gave up guerrilla weapons locations. I hope he took the opportunity to forge a new, more peaceful, life.

For me, personally, things kept getting worse. At one point, the guerrillas tried to kidnap my daughter. I survived another attack when I was four months pregnant with my second child, in the jungle getting evidence of a local guerrilla group’s criminal violations that I could bring to court. I almost lost my baby. I moved to Bogotá, where I was surrounded by security, but I kept getting threats.

Because of the nature of my work, I interacted extensively with officials at the U.S. embassy. They saw my work, and they knew about the threats I endured. Eventually, one of my contacts suggested that I apply for the refugee program.

I was 28 years old and extremely sad to leave. I had status and an interesting job, and people were saying I was on track to be minister of justice. My future was bright. I was fighting for justice. I was helping my people.

And then I had to leave—to just wake up one day and disappear. It was so painful. I remember packing my life in two suitcases, picking memories, photos, pictures.

A New Beginning in the United States

Due to my previous experience in Colombia, I was offered a job in Washington, D.C., so I could continue my work, but I was too traumatized. I wanted to start from scratch. The refugee program sent me to Greenville, North Carolina, for a new beginning.

It was a beautiful place. I was very lucky. The local church provided me with a house for six months. But I fell into a deep depression. Instead of fighting for justice, representing the voiceless before domestic and international courts, or advocating in government agencies, I was cleaning bathrooms and waiting tables. I thought my career as a lawyer was over. And I thought all my joy was gone.

I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, where I got a job with Acorn. I know the organization had issues later, but, for me, the experience was amazing. I learned a lot about the U.S. immigration system. I did surveys to learn about the immigrant community’s perspective. The skills I acquired at Acorn helped me secure a job as a secretary for Legal Aid.

We still struggled financially. We did not have enough heat, so I had to buy my daughters special pajamas so they would not freeze at night. I counted pennies, used social services, found subsidies for day care. I took advantage of every program I could find, but I also worked really hard.

For my first five years in America, I cried all the time. I missed my life in Colombia. In the United States, things were so hard—even though I spoke English and had an education. I felt discrimination all day, every day. I started to believe that I was inferior. No one cared that I had been a successful attorney in Colombia. In the United States, I was nothing.

Then I finally got a decent job as the director of programs for El Centro Latino in Carrboro, North Carolina. They were excited about my work in Colombia with nonprofits and development, my experience with Acorn getting to know the local immigrant community, and my understanding of immigration law. That job changed my life.

People in Carrboro were open minded. So many doctors and lawyers and professors from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke came to the center to volunteer and practice their Spanish. I was learning again. I felt hope.

But I still did not think I was going back to the law. I thought the butterflies were dead.

Instead, I started a job as a case manager for a mental health organization in Durham, North Carolina. I explored how to become a therapist. One of my daughters has special needs, and I was able to apply what I was learning to her life.

Then I met a criminal defense attorney from Durham. He volunteered at El Centro Latino. He told me I should be a lawyer in the U.S. He started hiring me for translations and interpretation work. He motivated me and reintroduced me to the law in America.

He told me about the LLM program. An LLM allows someone with a foreign law degree to get a master’s in American law and (in some states) sit for the bar. My mind was blown. I thought I could never be a lawyer again without starting over. But here was a new possibility.

My husband helped me research various programs. He told me that if I was going to go for it, I should go for the best. We applied to Harvard, Yale, Duke, Stanford, Columbia, and New York University. I got amazing letters of recommendation from my network in Colombia. And I got scholarships to pursue a degree at Stanford and Duke.

I decided to do an MA in public policy at Duke first. Then I started my LLM at Duke Law School. We had a family in North Carolina. The girls were settled. And it did not make sense to move again.

When I graduated, I started studying for the New York bar. It took me three years to pass, but I was determined. I had to validate all the time and effort I had spent on my new education. It was grueling because as a working mom, I did not really have enough time to study. And I had to change my brain. In Colombia, our tests do not have a “best answer.” There is a “right answer” and a “wrong answer.” How was I supposed to teach my 32-year-old brain to start looking for “best answers”? The first two times I took the bar, I ran out of time because I kept debating which answer was the best.

Everything was like that for me in America. Everything took me two or three times longer. Everything took two or three times more money, time, and effort. I think that is why immigrants are so grateful for what we have in America. We appreciate it because we have to work so hard for it. And we don’t complain because we cannot. But this is what is amazing about America. An immigrant like me can go to Duke and graduate with two degrees. As long as you try.

So what does all this have to do with joy and the law? I believe life is hard. And for some people, it is harder than for others. But I also believe that in the end, we have the ability to choose how to handle the good and bad experiences. We can be survivors. We can be builders. We can be mentors. Or we can be destroyers.

I choose to do good. I choose to survive. I choose to build. And I choose joy.

After graduating, choosing joy led me to a supervisory role at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Initially, it was great. But then President Trump was elected, and I faced a lot of internal conflict because I felt that I was being asked to follow policies that were not constitutional.

The Joy of Returning to Law

I decided to leave the government and open my own firm. I would fight Trump from the outside and become a defense attorney and defend my immigrants. I started calling people and going to churches and nonprofits to build up my client base.

I made that decision because I knew it would bring me joy. And the joy I still feel heading into court, gearing up for battle, readying my arguments—that joy makes me a more effective attorney and advocate. I do not back down. I do not give up. I kick ass and love every moment of it.

As I kept choosing joy, kept winning in court, kept representing causes I cared about, my self-esteem returned. And, with it, my belief in myself came back.

I had always dreamed of opening an international law firm. This was my moment to do it. I still had my Colombian law license. The conflict was settling down. And I could go back to my roots in a better environment, one with less violence. So now I do immigration work in the U.S. and international commercial law in both the U.S. and Colombia, largely focusing on cross-border disputes between U.S. and Colombian companies. I have a blast applying what I learned in the U.S. in the Colombian court system. People do not know what to do with me: a Colombian with a gringa last name and a U.S. degree. I think differently, now, than most of my Colombian legal peers. I am even more creative than I used to be because I have experienced so much. I use the lessons that I learned across my life to construct winning arguments. And I feel I have unlimited potential.

When I was very young, I used to fall in love with every boyfriend. One time, I was crying because my boyfriend left me. My grandmother told me not to cry. She said what is yours is yours, and no one can take it from you. If this guy is your true love, he will come back to you.

Well, that guy was not my true love. But the law is. I am a lawyer by deep passion and love. That’s why I got in so much trouble and had to run for my life. It is also why I have had so much success. It is what motivates me to get up and fight, for myself and my clients, every single day. It is what inspires me to take on new challenges and try new arguments.

I know now that the law cannot be taken from me, because it is mine and because I choose it again and again.

Johanna Kelley can be reached at info@jkelleylawgroup.