Livingstone J. Johnson ’90
Executive Counsel, The Coca-Cola Company
I remember starting Princeton with a fairly open mind concerning my major, and the thought that I would more likely than not attend law school afterward. I considered politics, which seemed to be the major of choice for many looking forward to law school, and had passing thoughts about philosophy, English, and history (which I considered choices I might enjoy before it was time to buckle down and focus on my career). Deciding that I had time to make a choice, I approached my first semester (and really my first year) as an opportunity to sample different areas to help make a more informed choice down the line. However, a little bit of luck intervened when I signed up for a freshman course in Greek literature (for me the most memorable class I took at Princeton) where my precept was led by an energetic teaching assistant, not much older than the members of our class, and it ignited an interest in me to pursue English above any of the other choices I had considered.
Again, at this point, I was simply following a path based on what I felt I was most likely to enjoy, and my choices didn’t disappoint. I took classes featuring American, European, children’s, feminist, and African American authors. Importantly, I was being schooled on the differences in perspective and voice and the idea of writing to different audiences. I soon began to notice that as I read through a syllabus, I was more engaged in the quality of the writing than the creativity of the story; and I grew to really appreciate my professors who pushed me to improve my writing style when communicating my observations, rather than just rewarding my ability to identify the subtle messaging in a story.
Following graduation, I immediately entered law school, which created the awkward transition from a senior-level English class at Princeton to legal writing for first-year law students taught by a third-year student. I thought “Legal Writing” was an odd name for the class because it was mostly understanding the rules associated with legal citations and not much critique of our writing styles. Law school itself involved so much case analysis and recall, issue spotting, networking, and interviewing, and the more I focused on what I perceived to be the requirements to succeed, the further I got from the lessons I learned in the Princeton English department. The more that seemed to be the case, the less I enjoyed the practice of law.
Focus on good writing
I actually remember the moment when I turned that around. I was working at my law firm, writing another in a long line of less-than-inspiring briefs, when I thought to myself that I should try to write the definitive statement on the issue. So I took the weekend and tried to recall all of my writing lessons from Princeton. I edited and re-edited the document until I had a clear, concise, hard-hitting piece I knew was good; and for the first time that I could remember in my practice, I really enjoyed the process.
My focus on quality writing and enjoyment in the practice continued to grow, leading up to my decision to go “in-house” after five years of private law firm practice. I joined the law department at Merck & Co., Inc., supporting the company’s basic research laboratories and the corporate licensing group. However, once in-house, I again developed the distinct impression that technical skills were valued over the ability to write and communicate effectively, and I could never understand that. Every day, I had to write to senior leaders, communicate with outside stakeholders, and negotiate with vendors, biotechs, and other pharmaceutical companies. And it all involved a high volume of writing. I actually thought I had a distinct advantage because of my training at Princeton.
After five years at Merck, I was recruited to join the Coca-Cola Company in its retail licensing department. I stayed there for two years and then moved into our international business, helping to manage the company’s bottling franchise relationships outside of the United States. It was a demanding job that typically required that I correspond with my clients in Europe in the morning, Latin America in the afternoon, and the Far East late into most evenings. The point is that almost all of my work was accomplished via e-mail (a tricky medium) corresponding with people who spoke English as a second language. I believe I was successful, because I dedicated considerable thought to tone, context, and pitch to navigate the sensitivities inherent in my work. All of these skills were supported by the Princeton English department.
Today, I work as the executive counsel to our general counsel, supporting him in his management of our global legal function worldwide. A huge part of my responsibility involves diplomacy, discretion, sensitivity, and the ability to communicate on his behalf with our colleagues around the world and the other management offices here in Atlanta. At this stage of my career, now 17 years in the practice, most of the skills and lessons I think of having developed at Princeton are second nature, but no less important to me. I reflect on them frequently and proceed with confidence in my daily responsibilities knowing I have that strong foundation with me.