He was the common lawyer for the common man.
For 57 years in the Auburn legal community, Zane Johnson was a personality many could count on to handle their case, however simple or complex it might be.
“I like to help people,” said the 83-year-old Johnson, reflecting on his long and rewarding career. “I mean, I used the law to help people over a rough spot in the road. That’s about what I did.”
And Johnson did it for so many people for many years, a gratifying career for someone who grew up in the area and appreciated the genuineness of the people he served. While other lawyers thrived on the higher-profile spotlight, Johnson preferred to flourish as a low-key counselor, someone who made a good, honest living on his reputation and work ethic. He handled all types of cases, mostly plaintiffs and maritime matters. He handled family law, bankruptcies, property disputes and much more.
He never had to advertise. He never bought a bold-line listing in the telephone book.
“It was fine,” he said. “I enjoyed it. If I hadn’t enjoyed it, I wouldn’t have done it, I suppose, for that length of time.
“My philosophy was always that people never came to see me unless they had a problem,” he said. “… And I always tried to treat their case especially for them, and gave them the attention they wanted.”
Johnson, who began his practice in Auburn in 1951 – including 35 years in partnership with the late Ernest “Ernie” Crane – decided only recently to retire. But he couldn’t just walk away. Instead, he stayed true to his work while helping John Torres establish his downtown law firm as a coveted case manager.
His expertise, wisdom and down-to-earth approach to business have proven invaluable to Torres.
“He came in as a senior advisor, but what I found him to be was a trusted peer – and that’s a testimony to him,” Torres said. “He taught me to trust my own intuitions … he allowed me to grow and become a better lawyer, how to do it the right way.”Johnson learned the importance of hard work and old-fashioned values from his upbringing. He grew up in Auburn, was part of a championship track team in high school, graduated from the University of Washington before finishing law school at Gonzaga.
Before he embarked on a law career, Johnson fought in World War II, part of the U.S. Army 10th Armored Division under General Patton’s 3rd Army. He was wounded during front-line combat in France and received the Purple Heart, or as he likes to call it “a German marksmanship medal.”
After the war, he began a long and reputable career.
In his very first case, Johnson defended a man being sued for $99. The plaintiff claimed the defendant had removed the stove from the house he bought from Johnson’s client. The judge dismissed the case because the stove was personal property and not included in the sale of the house.
In addition to his long practice, Johnson served in the district and municipal court systems. He served on the Civil Service Commission for 15 years, 12 as its chairman.
The Auburn boy went on to marry a Kent girl, Joyce, his wife now for 32 years. They raised a daughter. They live on the East Hill.
Johnson has no regrets, only the satisfaction of completing a long and interesting career.
In parting, his best advice for today’s young attorney is to stay true and communicative with their client.
“Keep them advised, because it’s the only case they’ve got,” he said. “You let them know what you’re doing and where you’re going. … I think that’s where most attorneys get bad reputations. They don’t follow through with their client, and keep them informed of what’s happening.”
Johnson made it a point of knowing his client’s business. That relationship worked.
“They wouldn’t come to me unless they had a problem,” Johnson said. “If I could help them out, I would be happy to do it.”
Mark Klaas, Auburn Reporter editor, can be reached at 253-833-0218, ext. 5050, or email@example.com