Interview: Eric Johnson on HLS’ slave roots, writing for the Record, and becoming a law prof


University of North Dakota law professor and Record alum Eric Johnson ’00 wrote an op-ed for this issue of the Harvard Law Record arguing that Harvard Law School needs to take into account the role of slavery in its history. The Record asked him a few questions about how he got interested in the topic, how writing for the Record affected his career, and how he became a law professor.

Record: How did you get involved with the topic of HLS and slavery?

Eric Johnson: It is something I have been thinking about on and off since I learned about HLS’s slavery connection through a presentation given by Professor Daniel Coquillette ’71 when I was in school.

How did the Record build skills you could use in your legal career/academia?

Journalistic writing is great training for legal writing. I learned journalism-style writing as an undergrad at Northwestern, both in class and by working on the student newspaper. I think that training has been invaluable to me as a lawyer and as an academic. I enjoyed the opportunity to extend that experience on the Record at HLS.

Do you have advice for aspiring legal scholars, especially those who do not have the “chip” of law review on their resumes?

I did not do law review. While it is helpful, law review is not a pre-requisite. Here’s my advice if you want to be an academic:

First, while you are still in school, write at least one publishable paper, and then get it published in an academic law journal. If you can do more than one, that is fantastic. You’ll need to publish to be a good candidate for a teaching job. So while you are still in school, you should take advantage of the opportunities you have through seminars and paper courses to start building your portfolio of scholarship.

Second, get good grades. Grades are even more important going into academia than they are going into practice. So keep working hard through 3L senioritis.

Third, get a mentor. Any professor is great, but a relatively junior professor teaching somewhere other than Harvard is probably the ideal. Legal academia has a much different set of expectations than practice – and much of the field’s conventional wisdom is unwritten.

Finally, get a good job in practice. The trend in legal education is to hire real attorneys with meaningful practice experience. So get as much as you can out of whatever job you take. Load up on depositions, oral arguments, trial work, handling clients, and negotiating or litigating smaller matters by yourself. No matter how amazing you are as a thinker, the practice of law will make you an even better teacher and scholar.