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The Johnson-Lario Family: Three Generations Pursuing Excellence in Legal Practice

Lario_family2Robert and Catherine Johnson sparked a Seton Hall Law dynasty – entirely unintentionally. They encouraged their daughter, Wendy, to follow her own path and career aspirations and she, in turn, gave her daughter, Courteney, the same guidance. Their journeys led them all to legal careers, with Seton Hall Law at the nexus. Pictured, from left, are Wendy Johnson Lario '92, Catherine Johnson, Robert Johnson '62 and Courteney Lario '14.

Robert Johnson '62, his daughter, Wendy Johnson Lario '92 and his granddaughter, Courteney Lario '14, represent three generations of lawyers who share an alma mater, Seton Hall Law. Yet their paths have varied greatly and their professional pursuits reflect the unique interests and talents they each discovered along the way.

For Robert Johnson, it was never a question of whether to be a lawyer. With a father and brother already in practice, he attended Seton Hall Law and joined his family in The Johnson Law Office in Middlesex, New Jersey, where he grew up – a shared office building with individual practices. Robert’s specialty is matrimonial law, which can be emotionally difficult but also extremely gratifying. As he explains, “I can help people change their lives for the better. For most people who walk through my door, it’s the first time they’ve ever dealt with a lawyer and they are scared. After years of counseling clients I’m in the position to tell them, when you leave here, you’ll be amazed by how you will grow and mature through this process.”

For Wendy Johnson Lario, watching her father during trials was a routine experience, with the courtroom becoming a home away from home. “I learned early on that judges are people, too,” she says. Wendy took the LSAT in college, but she first wanted to gain some corporate experience and entered AT&T’s rigorous executive training program. She worked in the marketing and human resources departments and traveled extensively, and within two years she had a staff of ten employees reporting to her.

During her third year at AT&T, however, Wendy gave birth to Courteney and her career path took a turn. “Having Courteney was the impetus for me to go to law school,” she says. With a supportive husband, Michael, and with her mother, Catherine, watching nine-month-old Courteney full time, Wendy commuted to law school every day as if she still went to the office: “I treated it like a full 9-to-5 job so I could be home for my family nights and weekends.”

Spurred by her own comfort in the courtroom, Wendy planned to become a litigator. At first she considered joining her father’s matrimonial law practice, but her experience in AT&T’s human resources unit drew her to labor and employment law.

Today Wendy heads up the New Jersey labor and employment group for Greenberg Traurig LLP. She has a first-hand understanding of the complexity and the gray areas of employment discrimination, where, she says, “the personal meets the professional.” As she explains, “When you examine 9 out of 10 [employment] cases for as many years I have, most are not genuine discrimination, or harassment, or even retaliation. More often it’s about personality clashes, perceptions, poor management decisions, or uninformed managers, with most people attempting to do the right thing and falling short.” Wendy’s legal practice includes defending corporations in all kinds of employment litigation, from discrimination and harassment to restrictive covenants and retaliation. Wendy also helps corporations draft policies and guidelines to avoid conflicts and potentially litigious situations from the start. She knows it’s the right path for her: “I love the area and I enjoy my clients.”

Courteney Lario’s first encounter with Seton Hall Law took place when she was three years old as Wendy brought her up on stage during her own graduation in 1992. Yet Courteney is the first to say she originally had no intention of becoming an attorney. “My mother and grandfather exposed me to every kind of law there is. But my mother never encouraged me to become a lawyer,” she says. She attended Georgetown University where she majored in Government and English and “was drawn to writing.” Soon her chosen course of study melded with her talent as a writer and editor. When she was named an editor of Georgetown’s newspaper, the Hoya, Courteney says, “everything clicked and it made sense that I would go to law school.”

Knowing she wanted to practice in the New York-New Jersey area, Courteney applied to schools throughout the region and soon realized that Seton Hall Law offered “a perfect fit.” She has enjoyed her internships at Horizon/Blue Cross, with State Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, and with Judge Faith Hochberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey. Now in her third year, Courteney is still making the most of her passion for writing, as Editor-in-Chief of the Seton Hall Law Legislative Journal.

Robert, Wendy, and Courteney share their view of Seton Hall Law as a challenging yet fulfilling experience - where sharing notes is commonplace and professors are available outside class to clarify points or to offer career advice. They all view their classmates and fellow graduates as extended family. “My alumni network is as strong as it was when we were in school,” Wendy comments, “and when I present in court, it’s clear that judges respect the Seton Hall Law name.” Robert and Wendy remain actively involved in the community; Wendy is a member of the Seton Hall Law Board of Visitors.

This Seton Hall Law family is supported by Wendy’s husband, Michael Lario, an executive at AIG and Robert’s wife, Catherine Johnson. Robert’s wife stands as the heart and soul of this family of lawyers. She taught elementary school to support her husband during law school and his first years in practice. She also raised Wendy, and then watched Courtney during the day while Wendy commuted to law school and launched her new career. Catherine feels as much a part of the Seton Hall Law community as her family members. “Robert celebrated his 50th anniversary in May 2012,” she reflects, and says with a grin, “and when Courteney graduates, I want a seat in the front row. I deserve it after three generations.”