Leaving private practice after more than 20 years on his own, Al W. Johnson moved in 2016 to a new ministry — overseeing New Covenant Legal Services, for which he served as part-time director for the previous 19 months.
This pro bono and low-cost legal service aids the urban poor, representing people with cases involving racial or religious discrimination, financial exploitation, landlord-tenant issues, child custody and minor criminal offenses.
Johnson handles cases himself and also supervises 15 volunteer attorneys, interns and law students; in addition to representing dozens of clients at a time, they also conducted almost 300 consultations in 2019.
What makes you most proud of your law firm/legal practice?
At NCLS, we are proud of the fact that we aggressively recruit minorities as attorneys, law clerks, interns and volunteers. Currently, I have only one other attorney on my staff, Brandi Miller, who is a highly respected African American attorney with approximately 20 years of experience. Both of our interns, Kale Catchings from Harvard University and Keannah Moore from Saint Louis University, are also African Americans. One of our key volunteers, Michelle Marshall, is an African American.
Who has most inspired you in your work for Diversity & Inclusion, and why?
A few of the more significant influences: Pete Woods — a close friend who has always been a champion for racial reconciliation. I previously served with Pete on the Board of Reconcilers — an organization dedicated to racial reconciliation. Bruce Strom — a close friend from Chicago who is the executive director of Gospel Justice Initiative and who was the founder of Administer Justice, an organization that provides legal counsel to low-income individuals in the Chicago area. Bruce is also the author of an inspirational book called “Gospel Justice.” Brandi Miller — whom I hired as a legal assistant approximately 25 years ago and subsequently encouraged her to attend law school. Brandi took me up on that challenge, and since graduating from law school she has been a highly successful attorney in the St. Louis area for more 20 years. She is a former board member of NCLS and has been a terrific source of encouragement and also a sounding-board for racial justice issues.
What goal remains unfulfilled for you as an attorney and advocate for Diversity & Inclusion?
I would like to see NCLS expand so that we can serve more individuals. There is a tremendous need for capable legal counsel, particularly for individuals in the minority community who are the frequent targets of oppressive and abusive conduct in both the public and the private arena.
What must Missouri’s legal community do to promote meaningful and long-term diversity within its legal/justice system?
There are only a few organizations in the St. Louis metropolitan area that are providing pro bono and/or low-cost legal services to individuals who cannot afford legal counsel. There are an estimated 300-350 individuals who go through the courts in St. Louis City on a weekly basis without counsel. I believe that The Missouri Bar needs to require every licensed attorney to perform a set number of hours of pro bono legal services each year and require judges to attempt to appoint counsel for individuals in need. We also need to encourage the recruitment and placement of minorities as judges.