Getting to Know Johanna Schiavoni
Every issue, the California Lawyers Association (CLA) is spotlighting one of its members. Please consider nominating someone to feature in future issues by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
This issue’s profile is on Johanna Schiavoni, who is a member of CLA’s Litigation and Solo and Small Firm Sections and serves on the Litigation Section’s Standing Committee on Appellate Courts. The San Diego Law Library Foundation recently honored her with a Bernard E. Witkin Award for Excellence in the Practice of Law and as a Community Changemaker. We wanted to learn more about her volunteer work and how she balances community service with her appellate practice at the California Appellate Law Group LLP.
1. What compels you to make time for community service?
Two of my personal core values are service and growth. On the service side, my family has always instilled in me the value of our community and institutions, and the need to give back through volunteer service. As for growth, I am committed to being a lifelong learner, both in taking on new challenges and learning from others. So, weaving these two values together, I strive to identify opportunities for growth, find where I can contribute my time or skills, and understand how I might give back to the community through service. I also want to acknowledge that most of us in roles serving the community are here because someone else invited or encouraged us. That is certainly true for me. So, I work hard to create space for others to step into volunteer and leadership roles, and to encourage their service and growth.
2. What volunteer leadership roles do you currently hold?
In the legal community, I am closing out my service on the San Diego County Bar Association Board, where I served as President last year. It’s been a wonderful six years, and I take with me so many incredible relationships and insights from the big issues we’ve tackled in the profession (more on that later). I look forward to continuing to be involved in the Leadership Academy we are launching in January 2022, through our strategic priority to “build lawyers as leaders.” Also, I am in my second year of service on the Executive Council of the National Conference of Bar Presidents. This organization supports upcoming and current bar leaders by providing access to a national network of legal leaders, in addition to programming, resources and experts on timely topics in the legal profession. As related to my appellate litigation practice, since 2019, I have served as an Appellate Lawyer Representative to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. This small group of attorneys selected by the Ninth Circuit’s judges to work on improving the administration of the court and to advance the interests of the appellate bar and clients who appear in the Ninth Circuit. And, in the Fall of 2021, I was appointed to the Committee on Appellate Courts through CLA’s Litigation Section, which provides continuing education focused on appellate practice, comments on proposed rule changes and provides mentoring in appellate practice. Outside the legal profession, since 2018, I have served by mayoral appointment on the Board of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority and just completed a term as Board Chair. San Diego’s airport has a nearly $12 billion annual impact on the region, so the Airport Authority has broad reach and impact. Additionally, during my term as Chair, I appointed our first ever Board-level committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, resulting in an organization-wide policy statement adopted in September 2021. We also made significant progress toward a $3.4 billion capital project to build a “New Terminal 1” at San Diego International Airport. That project just received final approval from our Board and all government agencies in October, and we broke ground in November. The “New Terminal 1,” which should be completed in about six years, will be built under labor agreements ensuring a skilled and trained workforce. It will bring thousands of jobs to San Diego small and local businesses. We are confident our community and our passengers will be proud of the new terminal when it’s completed.
3. Tell us about your views on leadership?
As I’ve reflected on what leadership means to me — as an advocate in my day job as an appellate lawyer and as a community servant — those two things are guided by the core belief that one can lead from any role. Leadership is not about the title. You don’t need to be a law firm partner or a judge or serve on a board or as president of an organization. Instead, effective leadership is about a way of being, followed by the doing (but being comes first!). When I say a way of being, what I mean is that leadership requires us to be fervent listeners, to be passionate and committed, and also to be intentional and people-centered. It calls us to be courageous, authentic, and vulnerable, which unlocks empathy and compassion in ourselves and others. Being in leadership also necessitates that we are flexible, open to new ideas and willing to try new things, despite uncertainty about whether they will work. It requires us to be honest and transparent, even when things are hard or stressful or not going well. We must be comfortable being uncomfortable, stretching outside our comfort zone (while encouraging others to do the same), and doing this regularly — not just when forced by circumstances. And finally, being in leadership means showing up in a way that includes others and encourages them on their leadership journey. Business leader Tom Peters said that “leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.” That sentiment really captures who I strive to be in leadership.
4. How do you balance your volunteer commitments with your law practice?
Ironically, I’ve moved away from thinking about “balance” and instead am working toward the concept of harmony (thanks to my coach, who I’ll tell you more about shortly, for this shift in thinking). Finding harmony among all aspects of our lives takes care and attention, and this is particularly true for those of us called to service who also lead busy personal and professional lives. I spend a lot of time studying leadership and pursuing personal growth. I also work with a professional coach who helps me translate my personal and professional goals into action. In particular, my coach has helped me identify my purpose (why) and outcomes (what), and not just naturally default to the process (how). “How” is where many lawyers go first ( I used to do that, too). She has also helped me identify the internal and external resources I need to leverage to achieve my goals, hold myself accountable for my progress and recognize places where I’m getting stuck. Finally, this year, I have an “accountability partner” — someone outside the law — who also is a small business owner. We meet regularly to help one another stay in progress toward our respective goals and desired outcomes. That kind of mutual accountability and reflection has been transformational in propelling me to act with intention and to stay focused, despite the perpetual challenge of not feeling like we have enough time for “it all.”
5. What advice would you have for lawyers who want to get more involved in community service?
Service is putting into action our skills, gifts, time, and talents to make a difference in the world. Take the first step now. It doesn’t have to be something big. Find an organization or cause you’re interested in and then volunteer, whether in the legal or broader community. If you’re having trouble getting started, ask your colleagues, family, or close friends where they think you could be a great fit. Sometimes others see what we have to offer before we see it in ourselves. As you’re identifying potential opportunities, here are some things to consider. Ask questions about the time commitment and expectations, so you know what you’re volunteering for. Then, follow up to ensure you get onboarding so that you have access to information and resources to ensure success. Ask who to consult with questions, and don’t be afraid to ask your questions! No one expects you to have all of the answers right out of the gate. Your perspective and input are valuable, so don’t be shy about contributing. Finally, as with any new undertaking, it is helpful to seek out mentors who can help guide you on your way. The more you get involved, the more opportunities will come your way, so you’ll have lots of chances to try things out and see what’s a great fit for you. I’m confident you’ll receive so much back from your service.
6. You served as president of the San Diego County Bar Association in 2020. What accomplishments are you most proud of in that role?
As with so many organizations and institutions, 2020 really tested our mettle at the San Diego County Bar Association. I’m exceedingly proud of the way our Board, staff, volunteer leaders, and entire community rose to meet 2020’s substantial challenges, including the pandemic, the related court closures and impacts on the justice system and practice of law. We became the voice of lawyers and their clients seeking to ensure access to the courts. We did so in myriad ways, including by hosting five “State of the Court” webinars with the leadership of our local state and federal trial and appellate courts, which drew more than 5,000 attendees. We offered several sessions early in the pandemic when our superior courts remained closed, and made them free to the entire community. I’ve heard from countless lawyers who said they tuned in to the programs to receive updates vital to their law practices and their clients. To continue bench-bar relations and ongoing dialogue, in the Fall of 2020, we hosted multiple virtual “Breakouts with the Bench” discussions by practice area, which provided an update to practitioners from the court leadership and time for members to join breakout rooms with judges and other lawyers. Our members appreciated the chance to connect with their colleagues and the court, and ask questions about the ever-changing environment as the pandemic evolved. In addition to navigating the pandemic, our Association placed a renewed and urgent focus on social justice issues and took public positions in support of racial justice, ranging from an early statement in March condemning the use of racist and xenophobic terminology to describe COVID-19, to a June statement condemning racism and violence against communities of color and committing to work toward positive change, to proactive comment letters we submitted to the Supreme Court in September about the bar exam cut score and to the State Bar in November about taking a holistic view of wellness as part of competency to practice. We also navigated contested primary and general elections in the height of a pandemic, including communicating to the public about voting rights, voting access, and judicial elections in San Diego County. Even with all of 2020’s challenges, proudly, our organization continued to grow its membership and reached historically high levels of member engagement from across the County. And, finally, we developed a new three-year strategic plan with six focus areas: (1) to sustain, grow and engage our membership, (2) to provide unique, relevant and targeted programming, (3) to keep our membership at the forefront of technology, (4) to promote and provide wellness offerings, (5) to build lawyers as leaders, and (6) to ensure financial sustainability to meet the needs of our members. We also adopted a new mission statement – “to connect lawyers and support their success and fulfillment.” While we began that work in January 2020, we pressed on during the pandemic, formulating those goals and a mission statement that will guide the Association’s work for years to come. While 2020 wasn’t the year any of us expected, I look back with pride on our collective work to address the immediate challenges that arose, while also building for the future.