Tips From John G. Johnson, Philadelphia’s Greatest Lawyer

Over a period of more than 275 years, Philadelphia has produced a disproportionate share of America’s top lawyers. Beginning in 1735 with Andrew Hamilton’s successful defense of the printer John Peter Zenger against a charge of seditious libel in the courts of New York, the legend of the “Philadelphia lawyer” emerged. The phrase was originally a highly complimentary one, referring to an advocate who could win the most difficult cases. While Hamilton has been followed in Philadelphia by many other top trial lawyers with national fame, none was or is greater than John G. Johnson, who lived from 1841 to 1917.

Unlike many of Philadelphia’s other top lawyers, Johnson came from humble beginnings. His father was a blacksmith; his mother, a seamstress. He never went to college, but apprenticed at a law firm and attended lectures at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He also served briefly in the Civil War. Like another great lawyer, Thomas More, Johnson married a widow, treating her children always as his own.

Johnson was a general practitioner whose law practice was immensely successful. He was what would now be termed a corporate trial lawyer, starting as the General Counsel of the Pennsylvania Company. He handled over 10,000 cases in his private practice, representing many major national corporations as well as some sixty separate banks and financial institutions. J.P. Morgan was numbered among his clients, and reportedly was required to sit in Johnson’s law office waiting room and wait his turn to see the great lawyer.

Johnson was also a stellar appellate advocate. He argued 168 cases before the Supreme Court of United States, which still ranks as second among all individual practitioners. Among those Supreme Court arguments were included the most famous early decisions under the Sherman Antitrust Act, including the E.C. Knight Sugar Trust case, the Northern Securities railroadcase, and the legendary Standard Oil case which established the rule of reason approach to antitrust violations.

Johnson had such a legendary national reputation that both the Republican President James Garfield and the Democratic President Grover Cleveland offered him nominations to the Supreme Court of United States, while the Republican President William McKinley sought to obtain his services as Attorney General of the United States. He turned down all three offers.

Outside of his legal practice, Johnson is also remembered for his large and significant art collection. That collection numbered over 1300 paintings, including paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt, and Degas. On his death he left his art collection to the City of Philadelphia, along with his house and a $2 million bequest to maintain the collection. That collection later became the foundation for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which still displays the Johnson Collection prominently on its first floor.

Here are some tips for trial and appellate lawyers based on Johnson’s practice:

1. Start each deposition with a dramatic and unexpected line of inquiry, instead of the usual dull survey of past employment and the like. Johnson once began his cross examination of a witness with the opening comment “Now, Major, let me sharpen my teeth on you.” While such a comment would lead to the rapid imposition of sanctions today, sensitive matters relevant to the case can be raised right out of the box to take even the most prepared witness out of his comfort zone.

2. Tailor your cross examination to the specific witness and case. One size does not fit all cases, and general cross examination templates are of little practical use. Johnson’s biographer, Robert Bell, describes the Johnson approach to cross examination as follows: “his style varied with the case and the witnesses. He would help some witnesses and coldly destroy others. Some he would cajole, and others he would ridicule; some he would confuse, and others he would terrify.”

3. Be clear and, more importantly, be concise. One newspaper account of Johnson’s argument before the Supreme Court in the Northern Securities case referred to his “remarkable clearness and conciseness.” Robert Bell tells us that a common comment made about Johnson was that “few lawyers could say as much in fifteen minutes.”

4. Be conversational with jurors. Johnson was not a showboat. Like Lincoln and other great lawyers, he was usually understated in the courtroom. Robert Bell explains that “His favorite technique was to talk to the jury as he might talk to a neighbor over the back fence.”

5. Use humor and be optimistic. The newspaper account of Johnson’s oral argument in Northern Securities identified “the qualities of gentle warmth and a vein of humor which render it a delight to listen to him.”  The newspaper also compared Johnson’s approach with that of his adversary, noting that “Mr. Johnson was cheery, good-humored and optimistic while Mr. Knox was severe, and inclined to admonish and deplore.”

6. Select a key point and hammer it  home as your theme. Another prominent Philadelphia lawyer, George Wharton Pepper, said of Johnson that “In court he usually selected one point on which to stake his case and drove it home as if he were hitting a spike with a sledge hammer.”

7. Display real humility. Johnson, again like Lincoln, charged fees which were far lower than those charged by less notable practitioners, including his own co-counsel in the major antitrust cases mentioned above. In his personal life, Johnson avoided honors and awards, as well as all personal tributes and social events proposed to be held in his honor. He instructed that at his funeral there should be no pallbearers and no representatives of either bench or bar. Only his immediate family attended the funeral, and only a simple flat marker was placed on his grave site, inscribed with simply with his name and the dates as of his birth and death.

Johnson was 76 when he died. His law practice was so large that it ultimately led to the founding of several large law firms in Philadelphia. He could not be replaced by any single practitioner or law firm. More than any other individual, John Graver Johnson epitomized the “Philadelphia Lawyer” then and now.


Robert R. Bell, The Philadelphia Lawyer: A History, 1735 – 1945 (Selingsgrove,PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1992), 177-193.

Edward F. Mannino, Shaping America: The Supreme Court and American Society (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 93-96.

Roger K. Newman, “Johnson, John G.,” The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law (Roger K. Newman, ed.) (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 297-298.


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2 Responses to Tips From John G. Johnson, Philadelphia’s Greatest Lawyer

  1. E. Milroy says:

    Johnson is not listed as an alum of Penn — did he attend classes but not graduate? Other sources say he learned the law as an apprentice.

    • Ed Mannino says:

      Thanks for the comment.The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law says he graduated in 1863 from Penn Law. Bell’s chapter on Johnson says only that he attended lectures at the law school. He was an apprentice with a law firm after high school, as was common in those days. Like the judge I clerked for, Johnson never attended college.