By ALAN J. ORTBALS
Jennifer Johnson didn’t set out to be an attorney. She was born and raised in Trenton, Ill., and majored in psychology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She realized, however, that a bachelor’s degree in psychology was not a passport to employment and decided to take the test for law school. She went on to earn her Juris Doctor degree at SIUC, working as a law clerk at the law firm of Heyl, Royster, Voelker & Allen along the way.
The partners at Heyl Royster liked what they saw, and upon graduation she was offered a position in their Edwardsville office. The Peoria firm, founded in 1910, opened its Edwardsville office in 1987 with a focus on asbestos defense.
As a rookie lawyer in 1996, Johnson said she did a little bit of everything. Today, however, her practice is about 80 percent asbestos defense but with a bit of a twist. She specializes in representing tangential defendants.
“Plaintiffs are always looking for new defendants and new targets, which sometimes have pretty tenuous connections to the litigation,” Johnson said. “I particularly love representing those clients because it’s not something that’s been done over and over. There’s always something new — a new defense to explore — and you have a lot more client interaction because it’s all new to them.”
Johnson explained that there are often dozens of defendants in an asbestos case and a proper defense often takes extensive detective work. A plaintiff might, for example, be claiming exposure from working at a plant decades earlier. The plant may no longer exist but witnesses have to be tracked down and old records exhumed. A lot of digging has to be done to ferret out the facts, she said.
“It’s challenging to be on the defense side in Madison County, but it’s a good challenge,” Johnson said, “and, if you’re going to do this kind of work, I couldn’t ask to work with a better group of people.”
When Johnson’s husband was transferred to Memphis, she left Heyl Royster, moved to Tennessee and had a son while working for a small firm there. She and her family returned to Edwardsville and Heyl Royster in 2007 and, she said, this is where she plans to stay. She has since had another son and is currently working part-time.
“Part-time for a lawyer is not like you put in your 20 hours and go home,” Johnson said, “but I have a flexible schedule and we have the technology now that, when the kids go to bed, I can log on and do what I need to do. Heyl Royster is a wonderfully supportive firm.”