Ven Johnson ’82: Fighting for diversity in law

Ven Johnson '82 (Photo by Marek Dziekonski, Dziekonski Photography.)
Ven Johnson ’82 (Photo by Marek Dziekonski, Dziekonski Photography.)

The logo for Ven Johnson’s law firm is a pair of red boxing gloves. The message? He’ll fight for you.

He’s also battling in a major way for the institution of the law and his recent gift of $100,000 to Detroit Mercy Law shows his commitment to that fight.

“We have to have the law reflect our society,” he said. “The only way, to me, that the law will ever change for the better is if it represents as many views as possible.”

His donation to the School of Law will create an expendable scholarship to be used to attract underrepresented minorities to the University and the field of law.

“I want our school to be more racially diverse,” he said. “We need more people of color and people from diverse backgrounds and people who have alternative lifestyles. The law is for everybody and the people who make up the field must represent the population as a whole.”

It’s like Johnson to fight for what he believes in: When asked why he chose the field of law, he said: “The short answer is, I like to argue.” So after earning his undergraduate degree from Kalamazoo College, he applied to Detroit Mercy Law.

“No one in my family worked in law—my father was a principal and my mother was a teacher,” he said. And I really didn’t know anything about Detroit,” he said, aside from a couple trips to see the Tigers play. He knew even less about the University of Detroit.

“My parents took me to school and I moved into housing and on the Sunday before classes were to start I found out the law school was downtown, and I was living at the McNichols campus,” he said. “I had to take the bus to classes.”

All that was to change, Johnson said. “I fell in love with the city,” he said. He eventually moved to an apartment just blocks from the School of Law and was invigorated by the energy of the city. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I wanted to be downtown.”

The move also had the advantage of putting Johnson right in the middle of the legal world in Detroit. While still a student he clerked for an attorney whose office was in the Buhl Building and he said that job was the only reason he made it to the second year of school.

“Books are not my passion,” he said. “But with clerking, I got to see the fruits of my labor and I realized that law was the right thing for me.” He also found great value in the mock trial program at Detroit Mercy Law and found professor Pat Keenan an inspiration in the way he made the law come alive. “He made me love the law.” Later, an internship with Michigan Court of Appeals Judge John H. Shepherd cemented that feeling.

“It was a huge deal,” he said, “especially for someone who was in the bottom third of his law class to work for someone thought to be one of the brightest legal minds in the state.”

Upon graduation, Johnson thought he’d pursue a career as a prosecutor, but no one was interested in him. He began at a small Detroit firm, practicing in all areas of personal injury before moving to Kohl, Secrest where he was mentored by John Secrest, who Johnson calls “one of the best legal minds I’ve ever seen. I was blessed to have him as a mentor.”

Johnson said Secrest showed him how to be himself and to separate the lawyer from the person. Eventually he joined the firm of Fieger, Fieger and Schwartz, where he worked with noted attorney Geoffrey Fieger as a plaintiff’s attorney: “You can say what you want about him, but he’s good and if you want to learn, you should learn from somebody like him.” He won multi-million-dollar jury verdicts and case settlements before leaving the firm in May 2011 to start Johnson Law.

Today the firm has nearly 40 employees in offices in Grand Rapids and downtown Detroit, in the Buhl Building where he had his first position as a law clerk. Still a fan of the city, despite its hard times and the bankruptcy, Johnson knew that was the only place to run his firm. He doesn’t regret it one bit.

“Everyone asked me ‘why go downtown, there’s nothing there?’” he said. “But I followed my gut and decided to start reattaching myself to all the good that’s available down here. And today, look at all the construction down here. It’s alive again.”

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