Interview with Chris Johnston

By Lawyer Minds | Aug 12, 2020 | Interviews

Chris Johnston of Johnston | Martineau, PLLP is a personal injury lawyer practicing in Des Moines, Iowa. Chris has spent his career fighting to get injured Iowans justice and compensation they deserve. His drive to protect Iowans is abundantly clear in speaking with him and the pride he has in helping his community is unmatched. Chris’ journey to becoming a lawyer and his commitment to creating an interactive courtroom right in the heart of Des Moines highlights a few of the things that make our interview with him worth your time.

Lawyer Minds: Why did you decide to go to law school?

Chris: I went to law school a little bit later than many of my classmates in that I didn’t start until I was 29. The decision followed a decade-plus in the hotel business in which I managed hotels from Des Moines, Iowa, to Boston, Mass. Although I enjoyed my time in the hospitality world, I found it somewhat lacking in that, although guests were usually fairly happy to see me, the service I provided seemed to end at handing them a room key which wasn’t particularly fulfilling. It was this chronic feeling of slight dissatisfaction that forced me to reevaluate my life and my goals. Law was always on my “career list” but that thought was accompanied by the thoughts of dreary offices, long hours, boring meetings, and maybe a good income. However, I was fortunate enough to forge a semi-mentor/mentee relationship with a local attorney of whom I could ask the candid (“dumb”) questions.

At our first meeting, and me not particularly prepared, I asked, “What is the most important trait for a good attorney?” His response, “Creativity.” Not a mention of long meetings, research, or writing! As a somewhat non-traditional guy, this answer really resonated with me and I dug into the hows and whys of creativity in the practice of law.

Over time I learned that creativity was not only helpful in developing legal theories and guiding research, but it also comes into play in branding, growing your firm, identifying demographics, targeting advertising, identifying opportunities, and more. I ultimately settled on the law as a career as it not only allowed me the freedom to think outside of the box but even encouraged it.

Lawyer Minds: What kind of work did you do after law school?

Chris: I began law school with my sights set on becoming a real estate attorney – ideally with a hotel development company; then I got a job with a real estate developer. Fortunately, I was able to experience this while still in law school as I quickly learned that real estate may not be the best match for a somewhat impatient person – a year just for due diligence on a parcel?!

As luck would have it, and as often happens to aspiring attorneys, I had a friend who was clerking at a local personal injury firm of which she was quickly tiring. Thanks to her kind words and a short interview, I began working in personal injury of May of 2000 and that has been my practice area since.

I worked as an associate in private practice from 2000–2007 at which time my partner, Chris Martineau, and I opened Johnston | Martineau, PLLP in the Twin Cities and he and I have been here since. In 2015, we opened a second office, Law Group of Iowa, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Lawyer Minds: What types of cases do you handle now?

Chris: Personal injury remains the heart and soul of our practice. Our early caseload consisted of the typical straightforward rear-end crashes, a dog bite here and there, and slip and falls. From our Minnesota office, we still handle these types of cases but we now also handle product liability cases, medical malpractice, and consumer class actions such as TCPA. In our Des Moines office, we practice all types of personal injury as well as elder law, and estate planning with plans to add additional practice areas.

Lawyer Minds: How did you end up handling these types of cases?

Chris: Like many personal injury attorneys, I did not go to law school thinking personal injury! Rather, I needed a job and there was one available at an injury firm – and they were willing to hire me! I cut my teeth at an extremely busy firm which gave me the base to at least attempt some “heady” injury claims. Upon striking out on my own, I felt prepared to take on whatever came across my desk but early on, those that came didn’t require too much in the way of mental gymnastics. Over time, with experience and reputation behind us, we began to see a gradual increase in our case volume; the successful resolution of which emboldened us to take on ever more challenging case types.

Our foray into consumer cases was a creative outshoot from our injury practice. As often happens, our injury clients had unpaid medical bills that would, from time to time, find their way to a bill collector who would then find their way back to our client. This scenario led to us taking on Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) as a way to help our clients fight back against illegal and/or unethical debt collectors. Following success with FDCPA cases, and for similar reasons, we moved into Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) cases which he handle on an individual basis as well as via class action.

Our addition of elder law and estate planning in Des Moines, Iowa, came about as the result of our sincere desire to help Iowans with the milestones of aging which arose out of both internaland external observations of our practice. Internally, more and more, our staff’s family required assistance with Medicaid eligibility, Medicare open enrollment periods, and medical emergencies requiring urgent documents to be drafted. Externally, we had begun to document higher numbers of people calling for assistance with those same issues. The urgency with which they called weighed heavily on our consciences. If we can’t help them, who can?!

We decided as a team to take the next step and dedicate our firm’s resources to helping aging Iowans through our elder law and estate planning practice. We have assisted people of all backgrounds with helping their loved ones pay for specialized nursing homes, drafting wills and other estate planning documents, and currently we find ourselves having to redraft existing advanced directives. COVID has wrecked many existing advanced directives, commonly known as “DNRs” or Do Not Resuscitate orders.

The best part of entering this practice area is the response from the public. 

Our clients are extremely relieved when they realize they can talk to a compassionate group of attorneys about the intimate details of their lives. Contemplating death, mortality, family relationships—these are all challenging topics for people to discuss—but necessary for protecting the entire family. That’s where the real secret sauce of our firm is most evident. We embrace people’s emotional attachments and memories and fold it into the very documents that will someday be seen by a hospital or a judge.

We believe The Law Group of Iowa is different from other law firms for that very reason—we humanize and embrace the individual’s lifetime of memories and experiences when we counsel them.

Lawyer Minds: When you are deciding about whether to take a case, what factors are you evaluating?

Chris: Case selection is a moving target in the world of personal injury. As a young lawyer, my thought was to take every case that came in the door because: 1. You just never know! 2. Grow your client base. As time wore on, we no longer needed “every case” and could be a bit more selective. We could perhaps take a gamble with dicey liability but high damages or vice versa. As yet more time went by, we began to be able to select cases based on merely an interesting fact pattern if we so chose. Ultimately, we currently take injury cases, large or small, based on whether or not we believe we can truly help. If we don’t believe that, we don’t take it.

In many cases, this scenarios shows up with “smaller” cases, however, there have been many times in my career in which I have turned down an “easy” limits case as I have no interest in taking a fee on a case in which nothing more than a phone call is needed to secure the proceeds – I directly tell the potential client my opinion and the results have ranged from a simple thank you up to the party insisting to retain my firm due to our honesty.

I do know that some firms have “thresholds” that must be met in order for them to take a case. In an injury firm, some of the more common thresholds require property damage in excess of a certain dollar amount, a broken bone, a citation having been issued to the “other party” and the like. As a business decision, we have no such thresholds because – you just never know!

Lawyer Minds: What are some things you look for when first meeting with a client?

Chris: When meeting with a client, the first thing I look and listen for is whether or not I get along with this person. A case can have the “best facts”, strong liability, and high damages which does an attorney no good if they aren’t able to take the client from retention to settlement or verdict. Spending a week with a client at trial is challenging enough without having to fake the emotions you may have to if you don’t get along with your client. If I can comfortably communicate with the person across the table, the battle is 99% done.

Beyond that, I am determining if this person is credible. Are they Trustworthy? Is there criminal history? Interestingly, facts and damages come last on my list because, again, facts and damages don’t matter if the client comes up short in these other areas.

Lawyer Minds: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a new practice?

Chris: For those about to set up shop – I salute you! However, opening any business, let alone a law firm should not be taken lightly as the work is just beginning. In our Minnesota location, we have some available office space. Over the years, we have made that office available, at no charge, to several young attorneys looking to hang out a shingle. Not only do we provide free office space but we give our time for mentoring, we attempt to refer them cases, and we take care of all their office overhead. We have not had one person last longer than six months and, without fail, every one of them gave the reason for getting out as, “It’s too hard.”

I tell younger lawyers that just because the state sends you your law license, that doesn’t mean they send you money – it just gives you the right to attempt to make money as an attorney. You have to, inter alia: find your clients, control the costs, network, supervise your staff, resolve the cases, and repeat. It is not for the faint of heart and if you need a regular income to survive, I’d advise against it.

Be prepared to do whatever it takes to succeed. This is not a platitude nor a generalized business statement but rather a caution. By way of example, after 15 years of practice, my firm hit a slump. The cases weren’t there, the settlements weren’t there, but the bills were. As a result, I took my years of hospitality experience and started waiting tables… at night… at 46 years old… with my own law practice. When that wasn’t quite cutting it, I began working overnight security shifts at a local hotel to make ends meet. That time of my life is currently in the rearview mirror but I will do it again and again if needed.

In the thought process of starting a firm, ask yourself if you are truly willing to do whatever it takes because you will be doing it.

Lawyer Minds: You have undertaken a pretty significant construction project for your firm — can you tell our readers about that? How do you see your building and firm playing a role in the community?

Chris: I opened my law firm in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2015, with the trade name Des Moines Injury Law. While we began as injury firm, my plan from day one was to grow into a full-service firm and we have made incredible strides in that direction. We recently rebranded as Law Group of Iowa and, as mentioned, added additional practice areas with more to come.

Opening this new office gave me complete freedom to exercise my creativity. Not all practitioners are fortunate enough to design an office from the ground up but that is what I have been able to do and creative it is! As a (MSBA) Certified Civil Trial Specialist, going into the project, my one “must have” was my own courtroom for training purposes. Many of us have seen law offices in which a few desks and chairs are moved into a “courtroom” type setup. Not particularly creative. I was fortunate enough to purchase an entire courtroom at auction – benches, juror chairs, judges’ bench, and rail; all to be reassembled within my office space.

With an eye towards realism and authenticity, the artwork that adorns our walls includes pre-colonial jury summons and verdicts, Iowa specific antique documents such as an 1876 Circuit Court Schedule, antique judge “campaign cards”, advertisements in which a courtroom is a prominent part of the ad, and much more. It is my hope that this art will be not only interesting but educational as well.

For those of us in private practice, it is fairly common to walk into a “defense firm” and find yourself surrounded with brass, glass, and mahogany; less often are such amenities found in a plaintiff/consumer-oriented firm – this is not the case at my office.

As a plaintiff attorney, I decided that my clients (and employees) deserve the most professional environment I could afford. This mindset better helped me plan the office layout as it made me think beyond simple door and window placement and get into the nitty gritty of what my clients really need. If not for that thought process, I may have overlooked some of the “small things” that my office provides such as: wayfinding in the carpet and lighting, furniture that is designed for the elderly, screen placement (visual aids), AEDs, and website accessibility.

Although I am excited about my team using our facility to improve our trial skills, I am, perhaps, more excited about how my office space can help serve the community. With a little elbow grease, and a few hints of creativity, we have established a “Verdict in a Day” which is an experiential learning opportunity geared towards junior high and high school students. The students are “summoned”, sit through voir dire, hear a truncated case, deliberate and render a verdict – hands on experience with the trial system. We are also working with several Boy Scout troops in the area as our facility overlaps with several requirements found in their various “Citizenship” merit badges. Additionally, we have reached out to various non-profits to inform them of our facility and how they may find it useful. Lastly, stay tuned for several seasonal community events that we will be hosting!

In closing, through years of hard work and, yes, creativity, my firm, rather than being in the community, is part of the community.

Many thanks again to Chris for sitting down and interviewing with Lawyer Minds!