Former Fieger partner starts new firm to keep helping 'the little guy'

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

When Ven Johnson walked into his super-sized Southfield office on May 13, he had no idea it would be his last day.

By all accounts, Johnson should have been very happy as a partner at Fieger Law.

He was, after all, second-in-command at the largest plaintiff's firm in the state.

During his 16 years at the prestigious and opulent Southfield firm, Johnson won more than $100 million in jury verdicts for his clients and settled cases totaling in excess of $200 million.

And in each of the past three years, he says he was without doubt the firm's top earner.

But on the 13th, Johnson decided to become one of nine attorneys who have recently resigned or given notice that they're leaving the firm headed by one of the country's best-known, most successful lawyers.

"I did not go into work that day saying that was the last day I was going to work," said Johnson, 49, speaking from his new office in downtown Birmingham. "At the same time, obviously there were some discussions between Geoff and I that day that did not go as well as I had hoped, but it is what it is.

"When it became apparent that I was no longer going to be happy with where things were headed and how things were being done, it was time for me to go. And I did."

It didn't take Johnson long to switch gears. By the following Tuesday, he'd formed and opened Johnson Law, PLC, a new personal injury law firm that will specialize in civil litigation, product liability, medical malpractice, automobile negligence and police misconduct.

"I've been practicing law since the second I left," he said. "Obviously I have a number of clients who are very loyal and I greatly appreciate them coming with me, and we're going to continue to rock and roll."

Through the years, Johnson has praised the talents of Fieger, once telling the Legal News that "love him or hate him, he had a vision for this firm and he gets results for our clients."

He's still a fan.

"Geoffrey Fieger for years now has been arguably the most successful civil trial attorney ever," he said. "And not just Michigan. Forget Michigan. In United States history. He is an excellent trial lawyer, plain and simple. So did it bother me to be associated with him? No. I was proud to be associated with him because he helped the little guy. And that's what I do."

Johnson said he wishes Fieger Law well and hopes they wish the same for him.

Fieger could not be reached for comment.

Johnson joined the Fieger firm in 1995 and became partner in 2001. On the company's website, Johnson was described as a tough negotiator but also "the quintessential gentleman -- always impeccably dressed and tremendously kind."

Johnson is proud of the fact that he helped build the company. When he was hired, there were just six lawyers. A month ago, there were 18.

He handled his own caseload and supervised the caseloads of six very busy trial attorneys.

"I'm kind of an all-or-nothing kind of guy," he said. "I'm all in or I'm all out. And I was all in the Fieger firm."

Johnson was a full partner in the firm, but when Fieger recently decided that the company would take on a more aggressive style, he balked.

"What I wanted to be was the type of partner where -- if somebody has an idea about implementing a new office policy or reinforcing an old one -- before they just go fire off a memo that I 100 percent disagree with and that I think might be somewhat unethical, or lead to a potential conflict of interest -- I want to have input into that process."

The majority of times, Fieger did consult with Johnson.

But on some recent issues -- such as imposing a $25,000 fine on lawyers who tried fewer than three cases a year -- he did not.

"Obviously it led to a lot of people ultimately deciding to leave," said Johnson. "And it wasn't just one memo or two memos. It was an entire management style that for lawyers 20 and 30 years out of law school are not going to be happy working in an environment like that, no matter how much money they make."

Johnson said his own management style will include putting rules in writing so people know what to expect.

"I don't need to threaten somebody to get them to do their job," he said.

Money is very important, but it is not the one and only goal, Johnson said.

"The number one thing you can do to make money is to treat your client well, and provide them with a great service," he said. "The other thing is to treat your employees and staff well, and make them happy and want to work in a happy, healthy environment. That's exactly what I'll be doing."

Johnson, who is single and the father of a daughter and son, makes no apologies for being a personal injury attorney. He is proud of his profession because it helps people who don't know their options at a vulnerable time in their lives as victims of bad circumstances beyond their control

"These people need help, and they need help in so many areas of their life," he said. "I'm very excited about the opportunity to spend the kind of time that's required to help these people in other areas of their life, such as their finances, such as what type of care they're getting, and from whom."

Johnson worked on a number of high-profile cases, including the Jenny Jones civil case that was played out on Court TV for six weeks, the case of Foster v. City of Royal Oak that involved the police shooting of an unarmed man, and Capaldi v. Baby Trend, the first baby play yard suffocation case tried in the U.S.

Johnson has said that the happiest day of his life was June 2, 2008 -- the day he was acquitted on all counts of campaign finance violations. The high stakes federal case had alleged that he and Fieger had reimbursed 64 employees, family members, and others to contribute $127,000 to the presidential campaign of Democrat John Edwards.

During the two-month-long trial, Johnson was defended by Steve Fishman of Detroit. The jury deliberated three days. On the night before the verdict, Fishman cautioned him that juries don't typically deliberate three days to acquit, so he should prepare for the worst.

A guilty verdict would have meant jail time as well as the loss of his law license.

"Was he scared?" asked Fishman, when contacted by the Legal News. "Of course, he was scared to death. After all, he played tennis. Not basketball."

(Fishman was a University of Michigan basketball player in the late 60's while Johnson was one of the best tennis players in the state in high school. Fishman continues to kid his close friend about not playing a contact sport, but running around in little white shorts and a towel. At 6'4", however, Johnson also excelled in basketball.)

Fishman believes that Johnson's long history of winning high-profile cases and record-breaking verdicts contributed to the international recognition of the Fieger firm.

"I think he'll be wildly successful for at least three reason: He's a great lawyer. He has a terrific reputation in the legal community. And there will be a line of lawyers ready to refer serious cases to Ven because of his track record."

The support from the Detroit metropolitan legal community these past two weeks has been overwhelming and humbling, said Johnson, who has spent every day recently considering associates from the many applications he's received in the past two weeks.

"I'm super proud to be a lawyer and a plaintiff lawyer and I know for a fact that I'm very blessed," he said. "God has graced me with the ability to help people and there's no better feeling in my life than knowing I've helped make someone's life a little bit better."

"I'm looking forward to continuing that, and doing it in a brand new way."

Johnson Law is located at 390 Park, Suite 110, in Birmingham

Published: Mon, Jun 6, 2011

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