Dennis Johnson, '80, Receives ND Association of Justice ‘Light of Justice’ Award
Watford City Attorney Dennis Johnson received the prestigious ‘Light of Justice’ award from the North Dakota Association of Justice (formerly the North Dakota Trial Lawyers) on May 11, in Fargo at an award luncheon honoring him. “Out of all the awards I’ve received over the years, this one is probably the most significant and special to me,” stated Johnson. “Because I was selected by my peers, all trial lawyers in the North Dakota Association of Justice. It’s a very big deal for me.”
The biggest qualification for the award that Johnson met was his service to the civil justice system. The award has only been given out 11 times since 1972. This was definitely a milestone for Johnson, who has been practicing law in Watford City since 1980. “I came back to Watford City in 1980, fresh out of law school and opened my office,” remembers Johnson. “My first office was actually in the basement of Larsen Service Drug. It was during the oil boom of the 80s and if it wasn’t for John Larsen finding a spot for me, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”
Coming back to Watford City wasn’t just about practicing law for Johnson. It was about running a local business as well. He says he was proud to be joining the ‘Stallworths of Main Street,’ the business owners who had been on Main Street for as long as Johnson could remember and ran good businesses on Main Street. Those included John Larsen, the pharmacist, Oscar Knutson Sr., who ran OK Implement, and Butch Shafer, who ran the grocery store. “I’ve always loved trial work and coming back to Watford City, I was a little worried because I wasn’t sure there would be enough work,” said Johnson. “But not only was oil booming, so was the criminal work.”
In 1982, Johnson became the McKenzie County State’s Attorney. At that time, it was a part-time position, which allowed Johnson to continue having his own civil practice. He would remain the State’s Attorney until 2013, when the position would go to a full-time position. Once the position was full-time, Johnson wouldn’t be able to continue to have his private practice. So, he decided to no longer be the State’s Attorney, and instead run his private practice full-time.
As Johnson’s private practice was doing well over the years and word-of-mouth was spreading, he decided to grow his practice from one lawyer to two lawyers. And in 1993, Johnson hired Ross Sundeen, and shortly after they became business partners and best friends. “Now we have four lawyers,” said Johnson. “Our little business that has been here since 1980, starting with one lawyer is now at four. Ari Johnson came in 2012, and Aaron Weber came in 2015. Ari is my son, and Aaron grew up on a hobby farm south of Alexander. We also have three full-time staff in addition to our lawyers, two that work for us here and one that works remotely from Oregon.” Johnson says his law firm practices all types of legal services. The only area they no longer practice in is domestic relations, or family law.
“Everyone here can do just about everything, we all help each other,” states Johnson, “ranging from title examination to complex litigation. If we’re known for anything, however, it would be our work in the oil and gas field and complex litigation both in business matters and personal injury.”
Johnson says his firm represents clients from all 50 states and several countries. As their trial experience in the oil and gas industry became more known, more people would refer to the Johnson & Sundeen law firm. “We primarily represent individuals and small companies,” explained Johnson. “However, we don’t represent big oil companies. That is by both choice and it would cause conflicts of interest. Our local clients are very important to us. We made a conscious decision to take care of our local clients, especially during the oil boom.”
Although Johnson was first in his family to go to law school, he wasn’t the last. Both his son and daughter graduated from law school, and he recently found out that there are family members in Macedonia that are currently practicing law. Johnson joked that it might just be a genetic thing. Johnson chose to study law because a great number of his childhood heroes were either attorneys or studied law. Heroes like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, both men Johnson looked up to and idolized. So, he chose to follow in their footsteps and study law, and he found that he loved it. He says it was more than just ideals, it was long hours and hard work, and he enjoyed that. But primarily, he loved law because he wanted to help people.
Throughout Johnson’s career, he’s had some landmark cases that will forever stand out in his mind. “In 1991, I was State’s Attorney and a civil practitioner,” remembered Johnson. “I took on the federal government for McKenzie County in a dispute over oil royalties. After going through federal court and the North Dakota Supreme Court, we won the case, which has resulted to date in $11.5 million coming to the county. The oil royalties we were able to have confirmed belonging to the county continue to produce today. In 2013, they brought in over $2 million alone.”
There were other cases, Johnson says, where people or their families who had been badly injured as the result of an oil field accident, agricultural accident, or automobile accident, and to see what we’ve been able to do for them has been very rewarding. “Because of our knowledge in the oil and gas industry, it has uniquely positioned us to understand and analyze the different situations when people do get injured,” said Johnson. “People in the oil field have taught me a great deal about how things are supposed to be out there so people don’t get injured.”
Johnson hasn’t just been interested in the oil and gas industry since he began practicing law. He’s been interested in oil and gas since he was a young boy. He remembers when he was five years old watching his grandmother negotiating an oil and gas lease at her kitchen table with a landman. Johnson says his family has deep roots in oil and gas in the community.
Johnson says even though big cases can be rewarding, sometimes the results of smaller cases can be rewarding. Like a case he didn’t give up on where he helped a client’s family member get into alcohol treatment and that person finally stopped drinking. Or a time when he represented a young Native American man who was a passenger in a vehicle that hit a cow in the middle of the night. Johnson was able to get a recovery for him, and because the family was so appreciative of his work, they held a special tribal ceremony for him where they gave him an Indian name and made him part of their Indian clan. “Those things are what’s very rewarding and you can see the difference it has made in their life and how it has helped them,” said Johnson. “I’m really honored by the recognition our peers have given us on the many different types of cases we have handled. I’ve even reached a point in my oil and gas cases that I’ve been hired as an expert witness or I’ve been asked to consult or mediate. That’s really an honor.”
Johnson says the fun part of his job is knowing that he was just a ranch kid who went off to school and came back and was able to have a business that helps people. And all the while, he gets to work with three really smart attorneys! He’s also really proud of his Watford City roots. On display in his office he has his Watford City High School diploma from 1974, from where it all started he says. He also has his degree from the University of North Dakota, as well as his law school degree from the same school.
Some of his major accomplishments include being recognized by the Legal Network as one of the top lawyers in North Dakota, being recognized by the National Academy of Personal Injury Attorneys as a Nationally-Ranked Top 10 Attorney, and being recognized by the National Association of Distinguished Counsel as the “Nation’s Top One Percent.” When Johnson isn’t busy being a top-ranked attorney, he loves to hunt, horses, riding motorcycle, and spending time with his two grandchildren. He is also a huge history buff of the county and western North Dakota.
He and his wife, Kathleen, who met in Grand Forks while Johnson was in law school, will be celebrating 37 years of marriage in July. Together, they enjoy traveling and spending time with their family. Many people ponder and ask Johnson if he is going to retire anytime soon. His answer? That’s not going to happen for a long time, he says. “It’s in the distant future for me,” says Johnson. “I really love and enjoy what I do and I enjoy the people I work with entirely too much!” Johnson will continue on working in his and Sundeen’s law firm as well as continue on with his other passions. He’s still full of life and not slowing down!