Lawyer Limelight: Johnine P. Barnes

Johnine P. Barnes takes a business-minded approach to her employment law practice, working closely with executives to implement structures and policies that will keep them compliant while supporting the larger goals of their companies. And her experience as a litigator goes beyond labor and employment – she’s tried cases over trade secret and property interest disputes, among others – which gives her deeper insight into the potential effects of certain decisions and enables her to help clients make the best strategic choices. She is based in the Washington, D.C., office of Greenberg Traurig.

Lawdragon: Will you describe for our readers the mix of work you do within the employment arena?

Johnine Barnes: I consider myself a true labor and employment lawyer. I had the good fortune of being mentored and trained by the first female to serve on and chair the National Labor Relations Board and serve as the head of the Wage and Hour Division, Betty Southard Murphy, during a time when employment discrimination laws were being developed. Thus, my practice has developed with a good mix of employment litigation, administrative/regulatory work and traditional labor work. Today, I continue to have a mix of counseling and compliance work, both labor and employment, and litigation work, including administrative claims, in my practice. However, the majority of my work tends to be more counseling and compliance in employment discrimination laws, and in the government contracting area.

LD: What first drew you to develop this type of practice?

JB: I grew up in the Midwest when the steel and manufacturing industries were robust. My father worked in a steel mill for 46 years, holding positions on the line and in management throughout his career. The steel mill at which he worked was one of the first steel mills with an ESOP [Employee Stock Ownership Plan]. I had the opportunity to see first-hand the inner-workings of labor/management relations, and how industries change over time. This, along with the hilariously inappropriate work jokes that my father would tell at the dinner table (and make my mother cringe) sparked my interest in labor and employment law. It is this mix of people dynamics and business that interested me in developing a labor and employment practice.

LD: What are some aspects about this work that you find professionally satisfying?

JB: I enjoy practicing in the area of labor and employment because it encompasses a human aspect intertwined with business and law and thus, is continually evolving and changing. Additionally, I like that there is a good mix of transactional and litigation work in the practice area.

LD: Out of all the work you’ve done in your career, is there one matter that stands out as particularly interesting or memorable?

JB: I have worked on quite a few interesting matters throughout my career. One of the most interesting matters on which I have worked is the representation of a foreign sovereign in a matter involving a foreign sovereign employee who had misappropriated money and laundered the same to U.S. citizens. The matter involved representing the interests of the foreign sovereign in the criminal prosecution of the foreign employee in the United States, as well as an internal investigation into the manner in which the money was misappropriated and to where it was laundered. My work also involved assisting the foreign sovereign in changing its policies and procedures to put in safeguards against such employee misconduct in the future, and to bring the same in compliance with U.S. law to the extent the same would apply to certain relationships.

LD: Have you received any recent recognitions that have been particularly meaningful to you?

JB: I was honored and humbled to be listed on the Human Resource Executive 2019 report as one of the “The Nation’s Most Powerful Employment Attorneys – Top 100." I know that this recognition, in part, is due to the opportunity that I have to provide legal services to clients, and to practice law collegially with other great attorneys and executives. Likewise, I always appreciate when a client contact asks and wants me to interface with his or her Board and/or executive management team when addressing human capital issues in regard to strategic goals or outlooks of the client. I have been asked to do so twice within the last 18 months.

Additionally, I appreciate when a client asks me to work on the planning and preparation for an event at which the client is being honored, like a gala. In this instance, I feel like the client has garnered enough trust in me through my legal work for it and thus, trusts that I also will make sure that all professional matters for the client are successful. And, I am appreciative to be included in the celebration of the client's achievements.

LD: Are there any trends you are seeing in your employment practice in terms of the types of matters keeping you busy these days?

JB: Review of employment policies and procedures are keeping me busy these days. With Congress not passing needed amendments to current employment laws, the Courts have been left to address many changing areas of law. Unfortunately, this has resulted sometimes in inconsistent interpretations of laws across jurisdictions. For national and international business, this requires constant changes and review of existing policies and procedures.

Additionally, administrative matters are also increasing. Again, as ambiguity or lack of expansion of employment laws exist, administrative agencies have attempted to enforce new and/or existing regulations absent statutory mandate.

LD: What does your current workload look like?

JB: In addition to my consistent client advice and counseling matters, I am currently handling whistleblower and employee misconduct matters. Additionally, due to my trial experience, I also am involved in litigation that does not involve employment issues. One beneficial experience, that I thought was a burden at the time, but my mentor required I have in developing my practice, is trial experience. Because discrimination and harassment matters were (and are) rarely tried, I developed my trial practice trying medical malpractices cases, in addition to employment litigation. I was put on medical malpractice cases because they rarely settle and more often than not, will contain most issues that arise in complex litigation.

LD: Did any experience from your undergraduate work push you towards a career in employment law?

JB: As I mentioned, I always had an interest in labor and employment law due to my upbringing. However, my participation in the Washington Center program solidified my desire to practice labor and employment law, as opposed to being a public servant. My undergraduate degree is in political science and economics. At one time, I entertained the thought of being a public servant. After interning in Congress as part of my participation in the Washington Center program and seeing the bureaucracy of government, I finalized my decision to attend law school with aspirations to practice administrative law in the labor area.

LD: Did you have any jobs between undergrad and law school that influenced your law career?

JB: I worked while I attended college and also through law school. I interned at a law firm in Northeast Ohio after my junior year in college. This experience helped solidify my interest in the practice of law. During my last year in college, I interned for the City of Cleveland City Council Chairman. This experience, coming after having interned on Capitol Hill in the Washington Center program solidified my interest in going to law school, as opposed to working in the public sector.

LD: What advice do you have now for current law school students?

JB: I advise current law school students to get as much professional experience while in law school as possible. Because the law is ever-changing and businesses are global, it is important that lawyers not only know the law, but also his or her client's business and trends impacting the same. Thus, when doing a legal analysis, lawyers now must be able to give clients legal and practical advice based on the law.

Additionally, for law students who know that they want to practice in litigation, it is imperative that they take a clinic and/or several writing classes. I was fortunate to take trial tactics from Professor James McElhaney while in law school. I still have his trial notebook text, and Strunk & White, on my bookshelf. There are several trial tactics and preparation methods that are tried and true, and these should be learned and practiced in law.

LD: You mentioned a couple of influential people who led you to your current practice. Will you talk more about the mentors who helped shape the course of your professional life?

JB: I have been blessed to have great mentors throughout my professional career. I have tried to navigate my life like the law; to build on knowledge previously espoused. One of my first professional mentors was Owen Heggs. Among other professional accomplishments, Owen was a partner at Jones Day. When I looked at summer associate programs during law school, Owen did not encourage me to come work with him at Jones Day. He did not for two reasons. First, he thought that I would get first hand professional experience at a smaller firm. Second, he was not able to be a champion for me at Jones Day, as he was suffering from an illness that tragically took his life before I graduated law school. Owen explained to me that an attorney needs to have a champion or supporter to help him or her develop and succeed in a law firm. His reasoning for what I should look for in law firm employment was good advice, also as to some elements needed to develop a successful law practice. The training and mentorship that I have received over my professional career have been invaluable. And, I have kept that knowledge bestowed by Owen and other mentors with me.

LD: How would you describe your style as a lawyer?

JB: I describe my style as a counseling partner with clients. I think that it is important to know your client's business and trends in their industry. When I counsel clients, I give practical legal advice that will help the client achieve its objectives, and also advise as to potential liabilities. Additionally, having trial experience is very valuable because I have a different perspective on the potential effects or liabilities of the implementation of certain policies and procedures.

For instance, one client wanted to change the culture of its workforce and make the workforce more productive and forward thinking. In doing so, the client implemented new policies and procedures that worked toward these goals and were going to be enforced. This was different from the past practices of the client. In assisting the client in this process, I advised the client that given the litigious nature of society, the changes would result in an increase in administrative claims, as well as increased claims within its internal grievance procedures. And, it did. Throughout this process, I was mindful of the need to keep the client’s legal fees down as this would be an area of scrutiny in the management. So, as part of the implementation on the new policies, I trained the client to be able to address certain administrative claims on its own, for example, workers' compensation claims, and also assisted in revising its internal grievance procedures to make it more effective to resolve most employee grievances internally. It is that full-circle practical legal advice that clients need in today's cost pressure environment.

LD: What do you do for fun when you’re outside the office?

JB: I like to spend time with my family, engage in extreme sports, adrenaline rush activities such as sky-diving, and traveling. I ran the 2019 New York City Marathon, my third marathon.

LD: Are you involved in any pro bono or public interest activities?

JB: I enjoy working with programs for disadvantaged youth and also mentoring programs for young women. I work or have worked with several organizations to help empower African-American youth and young women in particular.