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Margaret Z. Johns, Class of 1976

Margaret Z. Johns ’76 will receive the 2020 King Hall Distinguished Alumna Award at the Celebrating King Hall event on March 12. Margaret taught at King Hall from 1980 to 2018, directing the Legal Writing program from 1984 to 2001. While at King Hall, she co-authored four books and published several law review articles. In 1993, Margaret founded the King Hall Civil Rights Clinic.

In 2000, Margaret received the UC Davis Distinguished Public Service Award for her extensive work reforming the courts, promoting civil rights, and providing pro bono legal services. She has received public service awards from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals; the U.S. District Court, Eastern District; and the YWCA. King Hall honored her with the UC Davis School of Law Distinguished Teaching Award, and UC Davis honored her breadth of accomplishments with the James Meyer Distinguished Achievement Award.

What have you been doing since you retired?

My main volunteer activity has been at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. My job there is getting people where they need to go. The hospital has several buildings, so it can be confusing. And people are stressed, often late, with a sick pet. I tell them where they need to be, and then the most wonderful part is when I say, “I’ll walk you over there.” It’s such a small thing to do, but it gives them enormous relief. I also get to be around the animals.

I’m also on the board of directors of the Prison Law Office. It’s a public interest law firm that handles civil rights cases. We’ve been involved in big class actions, including the recent overcrowding case that went to the Supreme Court. A lot of the time, we’re fighting for medical care and mental health care. Some prisoners are in solitary confinement, which is a major contributor to mental illness in prisons. Some aren’t getting their medications. Brutality cases are less common, but we do have them.

While teaching at King Hall, you also devoted much of your time and energy to public service. What kinds of public service work did you do?

For many years I chaired the US District Court Pro Bono Panel and I was District Coordinator of the Pro Bono Project for the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. My most valuable contribution was chairing the Advisory Committee on the Rules of Practice and Internal Operating Procedures for the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. There were six of us on the committee, including three Ninth Circuit judges.

Every federal court can supplement the federal rules with complementary local rules. Fifteen districts, from Montana to Guam, had completely different local rules. We reviewed all of them and recommended changes.

The most dramatic rule change had to do with sentencing reports. After a defendant is convicted, they receive a report, and then have a certain amount of time to respond to it before sentencing. For most courts, that was sixty or ninety days. One court only gave defendants five days. They can’t respond in five days!

We sent a thousand-page report to the Ninth Circuit on all of the local rules. Before recommending revisions to the Ninth Circuit, we told the district courts what they needed to do. The district court judges voluntarily made almost all of the changes we recommended without us needing to bring them to the Ninth Circuit. We only had to go to the Ninth Circuit with about fifty, out of the hundreds of rules we changed.

Why did you first come to King Hall as a student, and why did you come back to teach?

As a student, I came here because I love the University of California. I graduated from UC Santa Barbara, and my dad taught in the UC system.

I came back because I loved this law school. I loved my teachers. I loved my classmates. I loved the law. I had been practicing civil litigation at a wonderful firm with wonderful people. It was not for me. Civil litigation is acrimonious, and it was all about money. I’d lay awake at three in the morning over somebody else’s money.

At the time, my husband was also practicing civil litigation, and he hated it too. He agreed that if I got a teaching job, he would quit and find a new job too.

I asked Dean Dick Wydick if he would write me a recommendation for the L.L.M. program at Berkeley. He asked why, and I said I thought it would make me more marketable for teaching jobs. Instead, he offered me a nine-month contract teaching at King Hall. For the first seven years, the school kept giving me nine-month contracts, and then I became a permanent lecturer. My husband went to wine school here at UC Davis and became a winemaker.

Teaching at King Hall was as great as I thought it would be. Public service opportunities opened up to me because I was here. I have been very lucky in my career. I also worked hard, but I’ve been very lucky.

What is your favorite King Hall memory?

I have dozens of them. My favorite memories are of hearing from students the things they valued about my teaching. Their sweet letters and evaluations make my heart warm. The students here are so generous in their appreciation. It happened hundreds of times. I had a favorite moment every semester.

They were of two types. Sometimes the students told me they valued what they learned in my class. But so many students said they were thankful that I told them how scared I had been when I was a student starting law school. It gave them so much hope. They thanked me for being emotionally supportive. And sometimes it was both.

One thing I heard most often was from former students who had just taken the bar exam. They said they could hear my voice when they were writing their essays for the bar.

What is the biggest change you saw in your time at King Hall?

The building! When I went here, I thought it was nice. It’s gorgeous now! The students haven’t changed. They’ve always been wonderful.

What are the most important qualities for someone who wants to teach law?

You’ve got to love the students. If you do that, and work really hard, you’ll be a good teacher. The students know, and they appreciate it. We all make mistakes. If they think you’re being fair and that you care about them, they’ll be forgiving.

Did any of your professors particularly inspire you?

Jim Hogan and Dick Wydick. They were such great teachers. As a student, I knew they were great teachers and great lawyers, too. When I was a student, I wanted to be like them as a lawyer. As a teacher, I wanted to be like them as a teacher.

When you were a student, did you participate in extracurriculars?

I was on the Women’s Caucus. I mostly externed in Legal Services and at the Attorney General’s office in consumer protection.

Of what accomplishment are you proudest?

The UC Davis Distinguished Public Service Award, because it included my work for the Ninth Circuit and chairing the pro bono programs. I kept recommending myself and my firm for pro bono appointments in civil rights cases, because I didn’t have anyone else to recommend. I knew I needed to find more people. I thought, “You know who would like to do this work? Students!” At the time, about twenty-two years ago, there were federal grants for law school clinics. Dean Bruce Wolk gave me permission to pursue one, and I got it. I founded the King Hall Civil Rights Clinic.

I’m proudest of my public service work because I would teach for free. Public service is work. I don’t feel particularly virtuous about teaching. It’s just fun.

Do you have any advice for current law students?

Work hard. Make your own outlines. Take a variety of courses, even in subjects you don’t expect to like. You never know what you’re going to end up liking. Anyway, you’ll be well-rounded, which will make you a better lawyer.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

How grateful I am to have had this opportunity: both my education