Ryan Johnstone’s interest in law started at a young age, sparked by frequent conversations with the attorney who owned the building where his father rented office space. In college, Johnstone pursued a philosophy degree and found that he most enjoyed classes on jurisprudence and other law matters, cementing his decision to become a lawyer.
After graduating from Suffolk University Law School, Johnstone planned to pursue a career in real estate or corporate law, but while job searching he also sought opportunities to use his degree to actively help people in underserved communities. He reached out to the Alumni Relations Office and was put in touch with Lawyers Clearinghouse.
Johnstone took his first pro bono case with the Clearinghouse’s Legal Clinic for the Homeless program in January 2010. Over the next year, he attended the legal clinics, conducted intake interviews with other volunteer attorneys, and worked on cases, including ones that posed conflicts for the volunteer law firms. Johnstone says that by working on a wide range of matters, including housing, record expungement, benefits, and employment law, he was able to build up a varied skillset that still helps him with his practice today.
In 2011, Johnstone and his wife moved to New Jersey, where he passed the state bar exam and once again started taking on pro bono cases. He says the case that makes him the proudest involved a 15-year-old client in Trenton, New Jersey, who, after many run-ins with the law, was given the choice to go to a juvenile detention center or attend a juvenile boot camp. The client wanted to go to the detention center so he could get out faster, but Johnstone and other members of the legal team counseled him to go to the camp, where he wouldn’t be locked up with violent offenders and where he could access mental health treatment.
The client flourished at the boot camp. He got the treatment he needed and received the structure he was unable to get at home. When he was released, “he was a whole new kid,” says Johnstone. “He was on a trajectory towards career criminal and with intervention and time we were able to stem that before it got too serious.”
In 2015, Johnstone moved back to Massachusetts and picked up right where he left off, taking pro bono cases through the Legal Clinic for the Homeless. He also started volunteering with the Massachusetts Trial Court’s walk-in Court Service Centers, helping court users find their way around courthouses, fill out forms, and access legal information.
The court system is complex and often hard to navigate, even for attorneys, Johnstone says. When people without legal knowledge are forced to fend for themselves, due to a lack of legal aid resources, they may face dire consequences. Because of this, Johnstone encourages all lawyers to seek out pro bono opportunities, either through their firms or with local nonprofits such as the Clearinghouse, Greater Boston Legal Services, and the Volunteer Lawyers Project.
Today, Johnstone works as a contract administrator for the Defense Contract Management Agency, managing and overseeing contracts between branches of the Department of Defense and private contractors. He ensures contracts meet federal regulations and says oversight helps curb fraud, save taxpayer money, and maintain support for active military personnel. Due to flexible scheduling, he is able to continue his pro bono work. He says he plans to volunteer throughout his career.
“It’s extremely important for us attorneys to be out there for individuals,” he says. “Fair and equal access to the court system shouldn’t be a privilege; it should be a right.”