At the Table: Mushroom Lawyers Need Not Apply

Thursday, January 11, 2018 - 17:21

Gage Johnson is senior VP, general counsel and secretary of Paramount Group Inc., a New York City-based public REIT. His remarks have been edited for length and style.

CCBJ: How did you become a lawyer?

Gage Johnson: When I was a kid, there was a TV show called “Perry Mason,” a lawyer who helped people out of jams. Mason also always won and was fun to watch. My dad, a lawyer in Bowling Green, Kentucky, looked like Perry Mason. He became a judge, so it was natural for me to become a lawyer. I went to Princeton, which has an honor code. You held each other accountable, and it worked. That also went into my wanting to become a lawyer. Success and following the basic rules should not be mutually exclusive.

What led you to pursue an in-house role?

Johnson: I graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law, which is good at training practical lawyers, and I worked for 11 years at Paul Hastings, gaining experience in both the litigation and business practices. That set me up for being general counsel. A client, Equitable Life’s real estate investment management business, had been bought by an Australian company called Lend Lease. It was a good fit. My skill set was perfect for them, and I knew the GC didn’t want to work forever. I joined as, in effect, deputy general counsel, and became the general counsel a few years later.

When Lend Lease busted its investment management business up into nine pieces, I was absorbed by Morgan Stanley’s Prime Property Fund in Atlanta. I then moved to New York City to become general counsel at Citi Property Investors, with better pay and worldwide responsibility. During the financial crisis, Citi’s stock, which was $50 a share when I joined, went to $1. I started looking for a job and came to Paramount.

How has your experience prepared you for your current role?

Johnson: I switched departments at Paul Hastings twice, once because I was in a rut, and a second time because they hired a new partner in a new practice area who I wanted to work with. In retrospect, I realized making a lateral career move could turn out to be really good later. During those stints doing something different, I was gathering regulatory and litigation skills you can’t get as a corporate associate. You can’t plan these things out, but you can put yourself in situations where they’re possible.

How do you hire?

Johnson: Hiring is tricky. With lawyers, you have to find someone who’s legally smart and hardworking. You need someone who’s practical and works smart, not just filling hours like at a law firm. They have to be personable. You don’t want mushroom lawyers you put in a dark room, take out when you need them, and put back because you don’t want to deal with them. I want people with experience at a good law firm – the training is indispensable – and in-house experience. I opt for utility infielders. Jobs morph and people might have to do different things. You need team players with good attitudes you enjoy spending time with. I look for people with thick skin. I’m demanding and don’t shy away from constructive criticism. It’s good to have a meal with them, too, before you hire, and have others interview them to vet qualities, such as their ability to get along – important to their long-term success.

What’s are the biggest challenges you’ve faced as GC?

Johnson: When the business is going through something that’s beyond your control, such as a company that’s failing or no longer fits into the business plan of its corporate parent. Those are stressful situations. When Lend Lease busted up my business unit, I went with the Morgan Stanley piece, and then went to Citi, where they decided to sell the business. Rather than ride that out, I took the job with Paramount. Our IPO, the biggest U.S. REIT IPO ever, was a mountain of work with huge personal risks for everyone involved in it. It was a positive transformation that gave me the chance to become general counsel of a public company.

What’s the best career advice you’ve received?

Johnson: Your job belongs to your employer. They tell you what to do, when to do it, and as long as it’s not illegal, that’s what you need to do, without a lot of grumbling. But you own your career. You can develop a skill set that makes you more valuable. If your employer is smart, they’ll find other things for you to do. A good lawyer who can get things done is handy. People get stuck in the job and lose sight of the fact that it’s not your career. It’s just your job for the day.

What’s the best life advice you’ve received?

Johnson: There’s a phrase in Psalms: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” So be thankful for what you have. If you think about the good stuff, and not the stuff that bothers you, it’s a good place to be.