A life in law, a love of giving back to others

December alumni spotlight: Brent Johnson

As a teenager, Brent Johnson knew he wanted to find a career that would one day be about more than simply making money.

Johnson, who graduated from the S.J. Quinney College of Law in 1989, realized the legal field might be a good fit after becoming a reformed writing student in high school and finding a passion for the importance of words to convey meaning in any situation.

“My interest in law school probably resulted from a convergence of three ideas. In high school I learned to love writing. (After I got a D in sophomore English.) I became fascinated by the power of words and how choosing the correct word for a given situation was very important,” said Johnson.  “I also knew from a very early age that my career needed to be more than about making money. I needed to contribute to society. And finally, throughout high school, my best friend and I would often go off and spend hours discussing, debating, and trying to figure out the mysteries of the world and the universe. Encouraged by my father, a law degree seemed like a logical choice to put those things in action.”

Since graduating from law school, Johnson has put his law degree to use as general counsel for the Utah State Courts. It’s a position where he serves as a jack-of-all trades, with new challenges arising weekly. He performs the traditional work of in-house counsel, such as reviewing contracts, assisting with human resources issues, and issuing legal opinions. But he’s also required to have a basic understanding of all case types processed by courts: criminal, civil, domestic, probate, etc. to execute his duties well.

“The decisions I make can affect how cases are processed and how litigants are treated and I hope that some of my opinions have resulted in more fairness. I represent judges and court employees in lawsuits that seek extraordinary and injunctive relief. Most of my work is in the Utah appellate courts, but I also have cases in the federal courts, and my job requires me to be licensed in the Utah federal district court, the Tenth Circuit Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Johnson.

He also teaches dozens of classes on a variety of topics each year to court employees and judges. He has written guides for judges, including a benchbook for justice court judges and a domestic violence benchbook for judges.

Johnson has held true to the ideals he hoped to find in a job when he thought about a future career as a teenager.  Outside of work at the Utah State Courts, he finds a time to give back to the community on a nearly weekly basis through cooking a meal with his wife for residents of Salt Lake City’s Homeless Youth Resource Center.

Sometimes, he’ll make breakfast, but most often he’ll make dinner (including a recent homemade specialty of curry), serving anywhere from 20 to 50 plates a meal. The couple purchases all of the ingredients themselves and prepares the meals onsite.

“We focus on comfort food and hopefully giving them something satisfying. I have been blessed with all that I need and there is always someone who can use my excess more than I can,” said Johnson. “I grew up in an upper middle class household. In some ways I won the lottery of birth and I want to give to others who have not found themselves in such favorable circumstances. What I do is a very, very small thing. It’s just a meal. But I am hoping to let these young people know that there are people who care.”

He’s hopeful all the small things will add up to make a difference —and grateful for the role a law degree has played in the journey to where he is today.

A favorite memory of Johnson’s from his days at the law school comes from a discussion in his constitutional law class about “the marketplace of ideas” stemming from Justice Holmes’ dissent in the Abrams v. U.S. case. (In that case, during World War I, anti-war activist and anarchist Jacob Abrams was convicted under the Sedition Act of 1918 for distributing socialist pamphlets. The Supreme Court upheld the conviction over a dissent from Justices Holmes).

“I took that concept to heart in that my job is about selling ideas. My job is to sell someone on why a particular idea is the best idea. I’ve tried to focus on that more than trying to convince someone that the other person’s idea is a bad idea,” said Johnson.  “If my idea is accepted, then great. If not, it’s my job to move on and sell the next idea. If we focus energy on tearing down others’ ideas–or, as sometimes is the case, attributing bad ideas to others–the best ideas are never really developed and sold.”