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Meet 2023 Diversity Fellow David Alan Johnson

Meet 2023 Diversity Fellow David Alan Johnson

David Alan Johnson, a 1L at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, joins the firm this summer as one of our 2023 diversity fellows.

David is a recipient of Penn Law’s Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander Scholarship, an honor given to just five incoming students every year. Previously, he earned a master’s degree in public policy at the University of Chicago, where he received certificates in Global Conflict and International Development, and served as a research assistant for the Transitional Justice & Democratic Stability Lab. He was also a summer associate at Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C. through the SEO Law Fellowship, a national program that places high-performing, underrepresented law students at top firms before the beginning of their first year.

After graduating from Sewanee: The University of the South with a B.A. in Politics, David was one of 41 students nationwide to receive the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which funds one year of pur­pose­ful, inde­pen­dent explo­ration out­side the Unit­ed States. David created an original project focusing on transitional justice for past human rights abuses in Northern Ireland, Germany, Rwanda, and South Africa. He is a native of Brownsville, Tennessee.

When did you become interested in pursuing law?

While I was abroad for the Watson Fellowship, I spent a lot of time exploring how countries across Africa and Europe deal with past human rights abuses, specifically through legal mechanisms. That made me reflect profoundly on our legal system here in the United States, as well as the role I could play in changing it. Even when I studied those topics from a policy angle during my master’s program, I always felt that a law degree would be the right next step—it could put me into different rooms, help me explore different professions, and strengthen my ability to advocate for underrepresented populations.

You’ve done a lot of work in the transitional justice arena. How do you think this experience enhances your lawyering abilities?

It allows me to bridge gaps in experience and connect with people in a meaningful way. In my travels, I’ve been dropped into plenty of situations where I had nothing in common with the other people I was around, so I’ve had to learn a lot about different cultures, races, and sexualities. It’s exponentially increased my emotional intelligence and my understanding of the world around me.

As a lawyer, you need to be able to analyze things from multiple angles, not just your own perspective, and use that insight to inform the relationships you build. That goes for any scale and type of legal work. Whether you’re advocating for a vulnerable person or representing a multinational corporation, you’re much more likely to be successful if you’ve earned your client’s trust.

What drew you to SHJ?

Right off the bat, I was very impressed by the founding partners’ stories—how they leveraged their large firm experience to create a small, elite team that could tackle the same high-level matters with far greater agility. I’m from Tennessee, so it’s also cool to see a southern firm doing cutting-edge work on a global scale.

What’s one thing you hope to get out of your time at the firm?

I’m really looking forward to gaining substantive experience with legal writing and researching and seeing high-stakes cases in action. But I think I’m most excited about just getting to sit down with the firm’s lawyers and chat. They’ve amassed many accolades and years of experience in this field, so I’d like to pick their brain and learn some secrets of the trade. I’m hopeful that the relationships I build here will last a lifetime.

What does diversity in the legal profession mean to you? Why do you think programs like the diversity fellowship are important to implement?

It’s one thing to say you support diversity, and it’s another to actually put your money where your mouth is. While the legal profession has a long way to go in terms of achieving true DEI, I think these kinds of programs are moving the needle in a big way. It’s great to see that a firm like SHJ is continuing to invest in diverse talent however they can. Diverse legal teams unlock more powerful ideas and produce more creative solutions—it’s just a fact. That’s what happens when you open the door to people who have been barred from these rooms for centuries.

SHJ’s diversity fellowship offers two-weeklong summer fellowships to 1Ls from historically excluded backgrounds. Fellows work closely with our legal team on substantive matters, gaining firsthand insight into life at a boutique litigation firm.