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Jenner & Block Partner Elmer W. Johnson recently revealed in a Chicago Tribune feature his early educational experiences and career lessons that have made him a “top instructor in one of the hottest areas in U.S. law today – corporate governance.”
“As one of the nation’s foremost governance experts,” noted the Tribune, Mr. Johnson “has advised many major American corporations experiencing boardroom troubles – even becoming general counsel at two clients, International Harvester (now Navistar International) and General Motors Corp.”
But the road to the top was not without its bumps. Mr. Johnson recalled being told by the head of Yale’s Colorado scholarship committee while a high school student that he wasn’t “Yale material.” But, through hard work and an intense study program, Mr. Johnson not only realized his dream of securing a scholarship to the prestigious university, but made the dean’s list every semester and graduated in the top 15 percent of his class. Mr. Johnson would receive a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Chicago Law School, where he later graduated in the top 20 percent of his class.
While in law school, Mr. Johnson was mentored by the dean, Edward H. Levi, who later became the university’s president and the U.S. Attorney General. “Originally I wanted to return to Denver after law school,” Mr. Johnson told the Tribune, but the dean “took a personal interest in me – he told me to start my career in Chicago instead.”
Mr. Levi introduced him to partners at several Chicago law firms, including Kirkland & Ellis LLP, where Mr. Johnson would begin his legal career and eventually serve as that firm’s Managing Partner for over 20 years. Mr. Johnson subsequently held various offices at General Motors Corporation, including those of Executive Vice President and Director. He also served as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Aspen Institute before joining Jenner & Block in 2002.
Mr. Johnson, a member of the Firm’s Corporate Practice, has most recently been counseling corporate leaders and directors who wish to focus on the ethical implications, not merely the legal requirements, of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.
“My true love is being an adviser to CEOs,” he said.
When asked about important lessons learned along the way, Mr. Johnson cited collegiality, mentorship and delegation skills as signs of a great leader. “If you learn how to delegate, people love working for you,” he said. “I learned how to provide oversight and still enable talented people to develop and grow.”
“From the time I became an attorney, my goal has been to be the best business and legal counselor I could possibly be,” concluded Mr. Johnson, who will celebrate 50 years of practicing law in 2006.