Supreme Recruits: Joshua Johnson Recounts His Time Clerking for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

This is Part 1 in a series spotlighting V&E’s former Supreme Court clerks. To read the introduction to the series, click here.

What’s it like to work for a legal and pop culture icon? For the answer to that question, look no further than V&E counsel Joshua Johnson.

The Justice was so giving of her time. That encapsulates who she is, and just how much she really does care about her clerks.

It was June of 2013 – toward the end of Johnson’s clerkship for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – when Ginsburg would issue her dissenting opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, taking the majority to task for striking down a critical element of the 1965 anti-discrimination Voting Rights Act.

In response, then-law student Shana Knizhnik created a Tumblr dedicated to Ginsburg, catapulting the “Notorious R.B.G.” to Internet stardom and beyond.

“She really is a larger-than-life figure,” Johnson said. “What stands out to me is just how dedicated she is to her job, how hard she works. Clerking for her was an amazing experience.”

As a student at Yale Law School, Johnson originally envisioned pursuing a career as a federal prosecutor. But thanks in part to the efforts of multiple mentors, Johnson would end up serving as a law clerk at all three levels of the federal court system. Before his clerkship with Justice Ginsburg, he clerked first for Judge Nancy Gertner of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts and then for Judge David S. Tatel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  He also spent a year at the Appellate Section of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, before starting his clerkship for Ginsburg in 2012.

Johnson witnessed Ginsburg’s commitment to perfection in her own work, and her unflagging efforts to mentor her clerks. Ginsburg didn’t just revise clerks’ drafts; she would sit down with them and talk through each of her pencil-written edits.

“Sometimes she would totally rewrite a page and insert a lined sheet of paper with handwritten changes to the draft,” Johnson said. “Then she would go through the draft to make sure that you understood what changes she had made, and why she had made them.”

During his SCOTUS year Johnson also learned how to write well at a rapid pace, a valuable skill he puts to work in private practice.

“There is just a huge volume of work. You really have to learn how to separate the important things from the unimportant things and do a lot of in-depth legal analysis as efficiently as possible,” he said.

But Johnson’s Supreme Court clerkship was much more than hard work. There were regular social activities, including birthday celebrations for Ginsburg’s clerks and assistants. At one point, Johnson and his wife accompanied Ginsburg to the opera at the Kennedy Center, and they attended an after party where the performers treated Ginsburg like a rock star.

By the end of the clerkship, Johnson decided to focus on appellate work and started researching law firms. A friend noted that V&E was building its appellate practice, which included appellate star Jeremy Marwell.

“My friend said that if he was going to go to any large law firm in D.C. to do appellate work, it would be Vinson & Elkins,” Johnson said.

Sure enough, after joining V&E in 2013 Johnson jumped into high profile work including two appellate arguments. While still an associate, he argued an important appeal in the D.C. Circuit for a well-established V&E client, resulting in a complete victory.

“I have a broad base of perspectives on different areas of the law,” he said. “The value of that is that you can often take insights from one area of the law and apply them to a different area of the law.”

Over the years, Johnson has remained in touch with Ginsburg. Two years ago, he asked her if she would be willing to meet a foreign exchange student from Finland. Not only did Ginsburg agree, she spent over a half hour with the student showing her around her office and sharing her experiences.

“The Justice was so giving of her time,” Johnson said. “That encapsulates who she is, and just how much she really does care about her clerks.”