form of civil litigation except tax, with an
emphasis on personal injury. He logged
billable hours at what colleagues describe
as an enviable and exhausting rate. He
was often up at 3 a.m. and at work by
4: 30 a.m. In record time, says Murray,
Peterson was promoted to partner.
Johnson is typically brief in his
summation of the period. “It turned out I
enjoyed personal injury litigation, and was
reasonably good at it,” he says.
Curiosity, quiet confidence and the
potential for greater independence, fueled
by the encouragement and restlessness
of senior partner Don Peterson, gradually
took hold. In March 1982, Peterson,
Johnson and Murray, along with attorney
Mary Wolverton, left to form their
Months later, Johnson found himself
working in Madison, knee-deep in a case
that would change his career.
In 1975, during an early September
football weekend in Madison, a former
fraternity house fellow invited a hometown
friend to join him at the Chi Psi Lodge on
Iota Court near Lake Mendota. People
wound up doing what they do in Madison,
on Greek Row, on a football weekend.
In the early-morning hours, a small
electrical fire started in the third-floor library
where the out-of-town guest slept. Johnson
recounts the case as though he just tried it
in the summer of 2012, not 1982, detailing a
tragic combination of factors that culminated
with the guest falling from a third-story
window onto a concrete staircase.
The case came to the new firm in fairly
routine fashion, through an insurance
carrier client, and ultimately involved
approximately 40 trial lawyers and 63
defendants. Johnson first worked to
get the national fraternity, which had a
commercial general liability (CGL) policy
with one of Peterson, John & Murray’s
clients, dismissed on a motion for summary
judgment a few months before the trial
began. In court, he represented the Iota
Trust Fund. The trustees had paid for
renovated portions of the house, including
the library, leasing them back to Chi Psi
without cost to the fraternity.
Neither the trustees nor the trust fund
Johnson represented were dismissed
from the case, although the amount
of liability as a group— 19 percent—fell
below that of the plaintiff.
“The case had a modest impact on the
firm’s finances, but it made a significant
difference in my career,” Johnson says. “I
became acquainted with representatives of
a significant legal malpractice claim here
in Wisconsin. And I believe as a result of
that acquaintance … [I] started to get work
Johnson’s approach to this work is a
basic one and hasn’t changed much in
30 years. No surprise, he’s a conservative
appraiser of his own work.
“I see so many good lawyers,” he says.
“People’s view of how good you are as
a lawyer, it comes from longevity and
notoriety as much as skill. I don’t say that
to be self-effacing. I have a realistic view
He does admit to having a good memory
and being a quick thinker, two qualities he
says can’t be overvalued in trial law.
“You don’t have to be extraordinarily
smart to be a good trial lawyer. You have
to be smart. But more than smart you have
to be quick,” he says. “If you don’t think
quickly, and if you aren’t confident about
making the right decision, the opportunity
is gone before you make up your mind. If
there’s a right question to ask, you’ve got
to ask it now. If there’s an objection that
has to be made, if that next question gets
asked, you might as well not make the
objection. It’s gone.”
Again comes the pause, the one that
often follows any question compelling
Johnson to assess his own abilities. “I am
that,” he acknowledges. “I’m quick.”
Kasieta, who has often seen Johnson
in action, agrees. “That quickness comes
through in everything he does: phone
conversation, negotiation strategies, in
front of the jury,” he says. “That makes
him aggressive, but it’s not a conventional
aggression. It’s never mean. When some
lawyers are aggressive, they get angry.
That’s their aggression. With Terry, he finds
vulnerability or weakness and he exploits
it. That’s his aggression.”
In every malpractice claim he takes on,
while experts are talking in hypotheticals
about what a lawyer might have done or
should have done or didn’t do, Johnson’s
initial move is to get an insider’s opinion.
He goes straight to the opposing attorney.
“[Often] the only other relevant lawyer in
the case is the lawyer on the other side of
the lawsuit,” he says. “If the other lawyers
are well-disposed to you professionally,
if you’re decent, reasonable, polite, the
chances of getting him to be cooperative
and helpful are a lot better than if he hates
your guts at the end of that first lawsuit.
BU T 37 YEARS ARE 37 YEARS. JOHNSON
talks, in vague terms, about reducing his
caseload in the next three or four years.
He now “sleeps in,” occasionally, waking
closer to 5 a.m. than 3 a.m. He’s still in
the office before 6 a.m. Seven days a
week. No coffee required.
“Maybe a part of him wishes he were
winding down a bit, but he’s still got a
passion for it,” says Johnson’s son, Nate.
“I’ll believe that he’s winding down when
I see it.”
The younger Johnson, now a decade into
his career and a shareholder at Peterson,
Johnson & Murray, knows exactly what
skills he aspires to inherit from his father.
“Attorneys can be really long-winded. I
hope that what he’s taught me is get to the
point, don’t waste time. That goes hand
in hand with who he is. And everyone is
happier because of it.”
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JOHNSON ON THE IMPORTANCE
OF LAW YERS REMAINING CIVIL
WITH EACH OTHER