To Karl Johnson, transactional law is like poetry, “Transaction is about making and building. Poesia, the greek root of poetry, is all about making.”
That connection may surprise some people, but it makes sense to Johnson, a staff attorney for the Office of the Standing Chapter 13 Trustee.
Johnson studied creative writing and philosophy as an undergraduate and earned his master’s degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. His career nearly turned down a much different path.
“I finished the M.A. and was ABD, all but dissertation, for the Ph.D., but didn't really want to finish,” he said. He felt like his time studying English literature had run its course.
“You can do the English literature route and then switch to law school later in life. It's tough to do the opposite. It's tough to start a Ph.D. program when you are in your mid-30's,” he said.
Having always been curious about the law, he switched tracks and began law school at the University of Minnesota where he studied business law.
One would think that litigation would be a natural fit for Johnson because few classic works of literature are written about bankruptcy lawyers. However, Johnson views his practice much differently.
“[It] is really fascinating in a lot of ways that most bankruptcy practitioners don't really understand,” he said. “I look at bankruptcy as a social contract and this swinging pendulum. Where the social contract part of it is, you get discharged for all your debts in exchange, you bare your soul and disclose everything about your financial circumstances to prove that you've paid as much as you can.”
He also had practical reasons for focusing on bankruptcy law. “It's a great foundation for transaction because you always have to think 'what if'; Contingency planning, what if things go wrong?” he said.
His professional life took its own dramatic turn. After graduating at the height of the Great Recession, he struggled to find a full-time job. Only about half of the summer associates where he interned were offered full-time positions after law school.
He gained a clerkship with Judge Gregory Kishel where he found himself in the middle of Minnesota’s most well-known legal dramas: the Tom Petters case. Due to conflicts, he would be unable to work on any case related to Petters in the future. “It's really hard to find a commercial bankruptcy in this state that wasn't involved in Petters,” he said.
However, he eventually found work with the Office of the Chapter 13 Trustee, where he has been able to tackle a lot of challenges. In his current position, Johnson has been able to do a lot of building. This past year he has prevailed on three issues of first impression and successfully defended an appeal.
“To keep it interesting, I have to try to, within the parameters of what my client will allow, make new law, otherwise all I'd be doing is arguing about how much people can spend on food and gasoline,” he said.
That desire causes Johnson to approach his job like a poet. “I want to not necessarily push the edges, but explore areas that hadn't been questioned before,” he said.