For more than three decades William F Johnson of Sausalito has been one of the most accomplished family lawyers in Northern California. That's a distinction little known beyond the Bay Area, since for years he's practiced largely under the radar, a location he prefers. But peers throughout the region, from Silicon Valley to Sacramento, all know Bill Johnson well, and admire and respect him as a fine attorney. They say Johnson could be "America's Best Least-Known Divorce Lawyer." Ever energetic and easy-going, Johnson remains what he started as: A skillful, independent lawyer who's kept his dignity and stature intact, while practicing in an affluent, competitive and sophisticated region. Residents of Marin County may be loath to compare their community with Greenwich or Palm Beach, but divorce cases there are no less financially or psychologically high-stakes. Johnson's practice, a Frisbee toss from Sausalito's sprawling marina, projects an unpretentious steadiness and expertise that's attracted clients for years.
Johnson's personal story helps explain his success: He grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, ("A world where everyone came from a nice family") the son of a Michigan State professor. His father, an industrious Scandinavian of rural stock, would earn extra money teaching summer school at such campuses as USC, Pepperdine and Boulder. The Johnson-Larson clan boasted plenty of physicians, but the young Johnson, inspired in part by an aunt (Olga Steig, one of Washington's D.C.'s earliest prominent woman lawyers), went on to law school, at Berkeley. After a clerkship with Federal District Judge Thomas J. McBride in Sacramento, he was recruited by the prestigious McCutchen firm (now Bingham McCutchen), where he worked "long enough to know a large firm wasn't for me - they were great lawyers and it was a great experience, but there were too many committees and little autonomy." He jumped to the small litigation firm founded by A.P. Giannini's personal attorney, Angelo J. Scampini, one of San Francisco's legendary, larger-than-life trial lawyers (Melvin Belli, Joseph Alioto, come to mind). Johnson draws inspiration from that legacy: At the Scampini firm, Johnson handled his first divorce cases, and he was on his way.
Johnson continues to handle some entertainment and contract work ("Like going on vacation compared with some divorce cases"), but family law has been his focus. He shies from professional groups ("I'm a little like Groucho Marx that way"), but he stays close to colleagues of the bar, many of whom he counts as friends. Moreover, many of his clients become lifelong friends as well. Clients remember Johnson's wry remarks cutting the tension of a meeting: "I can't understand why you're worried. It's only the rest of your life we're talking about!" For nearly a decade now Johnson has practiced with his daughter, Ingrid Carbone. "She's a very, very good lawyer, and on the cases we work together there's no falloff."
Johnson and his wife Carol have five grown children between them ("We've meshed very well"); they live in nearby Mill Valley. He enjoys an occasional round of golf, and spends time away from the office at a family home on the coast of Southern Oregon.
Johnson says he is blessed to be earning a good living well into his career when other lawyers have faced forced retirement from their firms or simply run out of steam. He handles some cases without fee for clients who can't afford the rates of any attorney, much less his, as payback for his own good fortune. Some of these clients are selected by circumstances - they've run out of money in the course of their cases. Johnson calls such work ad hoc pro bono.
Still youthful and of great stamina, Johnson says he has no plans of slowing down - or letting his natural optimism fade. Says he: "More than once I've been accused of being a too-positive person. But I can live with that."