The social worker

LeBoeuf’s James Johnson loves the London life but after six years he is looking forward to returning to New York, despite the different working style

Stepping into James Johnson’s office at LeBoeuf Lamb Greene & MacRae is like stepping into a New York lawyer’s office as you would imagine it to have been about 50 years ago.

A burgundy leather suite dominates the room, but the floor-to-ceiling view of London on two sides and the collection of insurance company crests on another belies the room’s location in the heart of the City.

Johnson – usually known as Jeff apart from on his business card because he needs to be distinguished from the other three members of his family who are named James – is retiring at the beginning of May and returning to New York.

He first arrived at LeBoeuf’s London office in 1980 to become the office’s first managing partner, before returning to New York a year later. He moved to the UK permanently in 1995, when relaxed Law Society regulations allowed his firm to open a multijurisdictional practice.

The suite came with him, he says, and his current office was finally granted to him after several office rejigs in which Johnson always took the last office left. But soon he will be packing up the armchairs and taking the scenic route home on the QE2 which, he explains, was the only way he could prise his wife away from London.

Johnson has spent his career, as the crests imply, working on insurance regulatory and formation issues and was originally brought over to London to service the firm’s Lloyd’s customers.

But despite the time he has spent in London, Johnson never requalified as a UK lawyer. “I think if I were a client, and I have always put myself in the place of a client, would I rather go to a UK lawyer who has qualified here or a US lawyer who has passed a few exams? As a personal point of view I would rather go to a UK-qualified lawyer.”

Besides that, he points out that of the 60 lawyers working in the LeBoeuf office, there are only six US lawyers, so he could always go to his partners on a point of UK law.

So how has the London market changed between his first and second spells here? He says: “The legal market has changed enormously. It’s become a lot more competitive and I think that lawyers work a lot harder and that has raised all sorts of tensions within law firms.”

Ironically, one of the things that Johnson says that he will miss about London is the lifestyle. And lawyers’ hours is something that he obviously feels strongly about. “I would like assistants to bill 1,600 hours a year, while the firm likes to see 2,000 in New York. I am no longer the managing partner here and the new management’s view may be different, but I think if every assistant billed 1,600 hours they would be working very hard.”

Johnson says he does not know how hard assistants work in UK firms but argues that a straight comparison with their counterparts in the US would not tell the whole story. While stressing that every associate should bill ethically, he says that the difference is between the attitude of US and UK partners towards what you can bill for.

Not only will the London market not support the US style of billing, where every waking moment spent thinking about a client can be billed, but assistants are expected to do much more in the way of non-billable extra-curricular activities, such as client parties, that US assistants would not be expected to attend.

“If you put in eight solid billable hours a day that is a lot of time and you are going to be exhausted,” says Johnson. “If you work weekends too then you are going to get even more tired and then there is going to be a danger of a malpractice suit.

“People must have a happy home life to be a successful lawyer and to be a good lawyer you have to have outside interests and if you’re working all the time then where is the time to develop those interests? Someone who sits there and spouts the law the whole time is very boring and won’t do very well with clients.”

If Johnson comes over as paternalistic then he is merely reflecting what he believes LeBoeuf’s character to be. He recounts second-hand stories of the original Mr LeBoeuf, who was always known as such, handing out turkeys in a Dickensian-style gesture.

But don’t be fooled, Johnson is not a cuddly character – his image fits very neatly into the stereotypical senior New York lawyer slot and he comes over as quite stern. On a couple of occasions I interrupt him to try and catch a point of interest before he moves onto something else, but he disregards my interjection as if it is a pesky fly. (And after a couple of attempts at a passing joke, which receive a small delayed smile, I give up.)

Johnson says that he will miss the never-ending social whirl of the London office, where any birthday or anniversary is marked by a trip down the pub. He says that is something which just does not happen in New York. “I’m in favour of not only having those [social events] but also paying for them,” he says, adding that getting the lawyers to mix was much easier when the firm took up only one floor of Minster Court. It now occupies two and a half floors and it is necessary to force them to break out of departmental friendships.

He explains that in New York, there was an annual office outing to a country club, but after a while the partners stopped going. This meets with Johnson’s disapproval; he thinks that it is important for partners to be seen at social events.

While he expresses regret that he will have to leave a city that he loves, the move will take Johnson back to his beloved baseball team the New York Yankees. Some of our more sensitive cricket-loving readers may choose to look away at this point, but Johnson believes that baseball is very similar to cricket.

Obviously, cricket is a far more subtle, and some not a million miles away might say dull, game, but Johnson points out that both revolve around statistics and the probability that nothing exciting will happen but with a slight chance that something spectacular will.

But back to work, the most noticeable change that Johnson has seen in his 35 years at LeBoeuf is its size. When he joined the firm it had only around 10 to 15 lawyers and now it has 725 lawyers worldwide. “We had two offices and three lawyers practising in Washington and now we have 24 offices,” he says.

Women have obviously increased their presence within the firm as well since the days when Johnson had only five women in his Yale Law School class. “It’s perfectly natural now to have women partners,” he points out somewhat unnecessarily, since the first Leboeuf female partner was made up in 1973.

But then LeBoeuf, he says, has always been open minded. Never a whiteshoe firm, Johnson says that even when he joined it had representatives from “all the religions”. “Catholic, Protestant and Jewish,” he says. “Which was very unusual.” Times have indeed moved on.
James Johnson
Senior partner
LeBoeuf Lamb, Greene & MacRae