Georgia Legal Awards: Best Mentor: Deborah Johnson

According to her nominator essay, Deborah Johnson recently retired from the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, where she worked for 30 years, first as an attorney and then as managing attorney for the Southside and Decatur offices. According to her profile, her practice areas included administrative law, child abuse cases, family law, general practice and military law.

Johnson was honored for her skills in educating young lawyers at the company, which, according to her essay, has sought to retain her as a mentor even after her retirement.

“Deborah has a special gift for recognizing a person’s unique abilities and making them shine,” her essay says. “Senior lawyers who were once mentored by Deborah still turn to her in times of crisis. When she began her career at Legal Aid, Judge Roshonda Davis-Baugh was one of Deborah's mentees.

“Davis-Baugh shared that the decision was difficult when she was given the opportunity to move up, simply because it would mean that Deborah would no longer be her manager. To this day, Davis-Baugh says, “Whenever I have a big decision to make, I have Deborah on speed dial.” And Deborah never turns down a call for help.”

Since 2018, Johnson and fellow attorney David A. Webster have co-authored “McConaughey's Georgia Divorce, Alimony and Child Custody,” which, according to her essay, is considered “the bible of Georgia family law.”

In her essay, Webster discussed the compliments Johnson often receives from mentees for her “empathy, compassion, extensive experience, and ability to quickly translate theory into practical solutions.”

“Whenever I read praise lists for such lengths,” he said, “I notice that the author is trying too hard to find abstract superlatives.” But in Deborah’s case, it’s all true.”

The Daily Report asked Johnson the following questions:

Who was your mentor at the start of your career and what did he or she mean to you?

Many people have mentored me during these many years of practice. A very special mentor was my long-time colleague at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, Donald Coleman. Don has had a long career at Legal Aid, where he has filled many roles. He is currently an attorney at Legal Aid's DeKalb County office.

When I moved to Georgia in 1991 to work in the Southside office of Atlanta Legal Aid, Don was the lead attorney there and so on [he] became my new boss. I had moved here after practicing for ten years in my home state of Michigan. Suddenly my self-esteem took a bit of a hit because after being a lawyer for ten years, I couldn't even call myself a lawyer anymore until I took and passed the Georgia bar exam. And I also suffered a culture shock because I had never lived in the South before.

Don guided me through this major transition. We talked about clients and cases and repeatedly went to court together. His willingness to assist me and his trust in me helped me regain my confidence in a new and unfamiliar legal environment. He always treated me like my ideas were worth hearing. And since Don had grown up in the South, his acceptance of me showed me that I wouldn't always be an outsider, even if I hadn't grown up here.

What does it mean to you today to “pass the torch” and mentor others?

I had only been practicing law for a few years when I suddenly became the highest-ranking attorney in my law firm in Michigan. Although I was not very experienced myself, I began mentoring and mentoring other lawyers as well as paralegals and support staff. When I moved to Georgia, supervision and mentoring continued to be an important part of my work at Legal Aid.

During so many years as a mentor – including many years when I was relatively new to the practice – I didn't feel so much like I was “passing the torch” as much as I was passing on new torches Light your own and then send the other torchbearers on their own.

And it was wonderful. It was absolutely amazing to light all those torches and watch so many torchbearers run their own races so well over the years.

Last month I retired from legal aid in Atlanta. So now I have actually passed the torch. I think the work I did as a mentor was almost certainly the most useful work I've done throughout my career.

This article was updated at 10:14 a.m. June 16 with Johnson's answers to questions in the Q&A.