Image of Cindy Johnson, Class of 2011
Cindy Johnson '11

Published in the Graduate Report, Winter 2014

When Cindy Johnson ’11 began her studies in the evening division at UConn Law in 2007, she had 20-plus years of experience in software development on her résumé and a self-described “dream” of being a public interest lawyer – a dream, she says, that started when she took a Constitutional Law course as a part-time undergraduate at UConn nearly a decade earlier. “As part of the class, I read Simple Justice, the story of Brown v. the Board of Education,” recalls Johnson. “That’s when I decided that I had to be a lawyer…that I had to be part of something that makes a real difference in people’s lives.”

Today, Johnson is “making a difference” as a staff attorney for the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC), a privately funded nonprofit founded in 2009 to help veterans recovering from homelessness and mental illness overcome legal barriers to housing, health care and income – including such issues as evictions, foreclosures, consumer debt, divorce and child support, VA benefits, criminal pardons and tax issues. It is a job she began training for first as a volunteer and then as an extern during the fall 2010 semester. “Margaret Middleton (the co-founder of CVLC) came to speak at the Law School about volunteer opportunities right at the time I was thinking about quitting my [software] job and going to law school full-time,” says Johnson. “When I began volunteering at CVLC, I was also doing an externship at the American Civil Liberties Union in Hartford.”

As an extern at CVLC – the first legal services organization in the country to be located and staffed within a Veterans Administration community health facility – Johnson worked primarily with veterans facing consumer debt issues. She also used her computer science skills to help CVLC develop a sophisticated database, an assignment she first took on in her days as a volunteer. “I think Margaret kept me on as an extern for fear of losing her database,” Johnson says, laughing.

Despite enjoying her externship at CVLC, Johnson had her sights set on “making a difference” as a family lawyer. As a result, during her final semester at UConn Law she externed in New Haven Legal Assistance’s family law group, where she worked primarily on cases involving domestic violence. With three externships under her belt and law school coming to an end, it was time for Johnson to decide on what specific area of public interest law she wanted to focus on. “While I was at New Haven Legal Assistance I was still volunteering at CVLC,” she says. “In addition, at some point I decided I didn’t want to do family law, so it turned out that CVLC was the place I wanted to be. I started there on November 7, 2011, the very day I was sworn in [to practice law in Connecticut].”

Typically, Johnson spends four days a week at CVLC’s office in the VA’s Errera Community Care Center in West Haven and one day a week at the VA Hospital in Newington, where she provides legal advice and representation to veterans receiving outpatient mental health, employment, housing, addiction, wellness and primary care services. “Essentially, we are part of a medical-legal partnership that helps veterans recover from a crisis and get reintegrated into the community,” says Johnson. “We help remove legal barriers to that recovery process.”

Part of Johnson’s job also involves working with UConn Law students in her role as a supervisor of CVLC externs. “Our externs get to do client interviews, write briefs, do legal research and accompany our lawyers when we go to court on an issue like an uncontested divorce,” she says. “Sitting in a client interview and seeing how to manage a client’s expectations is a critical skill that one learns over time. Many of our clients want to tell you their entire life story, but there isn’t time for that, so you have to really focus on their legal issues. I learned a lot watching Margaret manage a client. I like to think that UConn Law externs are learning from me as well.”

Johnson adds that she really enjoys working with law students because they bring a fresh perspective to the table. “When we get stuck in a rut, it’s not unusual for an extern to think of different ways to solve a problem, just because they are in a different place in their head, so that’s fun…And taking on an extern also is a great way of determining who you might hire later on. If I hadn’t externed at CVLC I doubt Margaret would have hired me.”

Clearly, Johnson is pleased that her externship led to her current position. “I like a lot of what I do here, but talking face-to-face with a veteran is the very best part,” she says. “I’ve come to work in the worst mood possible and after meeting with a veteran over an issue that is important to him, my mood just turns around. I am in awe of the strength and power it takes for them to get up every day and go through recovery. It is amazing what they do.” Johnson pauses and continues. “My job is a dream come true.”