New clients tend to be confused the first time they meet Dave Johnson. Lawyers usually don’t wear jeans and band T-shirts to the office.
Johnson’s attire and shoulder-length brown hair seem more appropriate for the professional rock musician he once was. Once they get over their initial shock, Johnson says he finds clients appreciate his casual manner.
“I do wear a suit when I go to court,” he tells Insider. “The way I dress in the office makes it easier for my clients to relate to me. They know I’m just a normal person like them. After we talk about their case, they can also see that I know the law.”
Johnson, 43, is best known in Louisville as “Dirty Dave,” the lead guitarist, singer and main songwriter for The Glasspack. Over two decades, The Glasspack earned national acclaim for its mixture of abrasive guitars, Black Sabbath-inspired grooves and psychedelia.
His reputation as a rocker has attracted clients like comic book artist Jay Leisten, fine artist Annie Mitchell and musician Griffin Maples.
“I’ve hired him to look at contracts from Marvel, DC and Disney,” explains Leisten. “He has also written contracts for projects I’ve worked on with other artists. Before I started working with Dave, I had a family friend who does family law looking at my contracts. I felt Dave’s experience working with record companies was an advantage because he knows the things to look out for.”
Johnson founded The Glasspack in 1999. The band released music on prestigious independent labels like Small Stone Records, toured Europe and even got songs place on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” and MTV’s “Viva La Bam.” But by 2008, Johnson had to make a change. Despite all the accolades, he was still sleeping on friends’ couches or living with family to make ends meet.
“I was just tired in every way,” he says. “Making records is hard. I was physically and mentally tired from writing and recording. I was tired of not having any money and no place to live. One day my grandmother told me I was too smart to be living like that. I knew she was right.”
Johnson already had an associate degree in graphic design from Jefferson Community and Technical College. He graduated from the program in 2004 because he wanted to produce his own band merchandise.
In 2008, he entered University of Louisville with no idea what career path he wanted to pursue. However, he found direction in his “Introduction to Philosophy” course.
“The class was at 8 in the morning and it was taught by a lawyer,” Johnson recalls. “I was fascinated by the things he talked about. They made me reevaluate what I grew up believing. My dad always told me if you worked hard you would succeed. But I worked hard at being a musician and still couldn’t pay my rent. It made me doubt the whole merit argument. That led to me reading a lot about philosophy and Marxism.”
Johnson became a philosophy major. His greatest academic achievement, he says, was getting a paper about white musicians playing the blues accepted to a philosophy symposium.
However, the paper itself didn’t turn out the way he imagined it would. One of his philosophy professors recommended Johnson show a rough draft to Dr. Ricky Jones of the Pan-African Studies Department. Jones found it lacking on many fronts.
“All I was doing was questioning critics who said white boys couldn’t play the blues,” Johnson says. “Jones criticized it and made the paper better. It was really nerve-racking speaking at the symposium. It is easier being in front a crowd at a bar where everybody is toasted and you have four band members behind you than standing in a suit at 9 in the morning with everybody looking at you.”
Johnson graduated from UofL in 2011 with a bachelor’s of art in philosophy and a minor in social change. He says he felt his options were limited to attending graduate school so he could teach philosophy or becoming a lawyer. He was not accepted to the UofL Law School in 2012, but he had better luck the following year because an issue with the admission counselor led to Professor Cedric Powell helping weed through the applications.
Powell’s legal interests are affirmative action and critical race theory, the First Amendment and hate speech, and the 14th Amendment and structural inequality. He sensed a kindred spirit in Johnson.
The musician got an acceptance letter with a handwritten note from Powell that read: “Your academic work in the philosophy of race and critical social theory is quite impressive. The fact that your paper was accepted for an undergraduate philosophy symposium is a great honor, given the blind review evaluation process for the selection of papers. It would be an honor to welcome you to the law school.”
Law school meant The Glasspack had to go on hiatus, but Johnson did not totally abandon music. He became the singer for a Louisville punk supergroup called The Decline Effect. The other members include former Kinghorse guitarist Mark Abromavage, his brother, Chris, on bass and drummer Jae Brown
“Law school is really fast and intense, so I had to stop playing guitar for a while,” says Johnson. “Mark does most of the songwriting for the Decline Effect, and then the rest of us add to it. I just write the lyrics and sing. We’ve all got jobs, so we don’t play often. We only did one show last year.”
Johnson graduated from law school in 2016. He was ready to change the world, but the graders of the bar exam got in the way. He needed 75 points to pass the bar and he received 74.16 on his first exam.
“There were new graders that year and a lot of students had problems,” he says. “I was frustrated because it basically made me homeless again. It cost about $600 to take the bar. Taking it a second time took all the money I had. I basically started my law office with zero. I had a flip phone, one suit, one dress shirt, a pair of dress shoes and a bicycle.”
Friends gave Johnson the money to register his business, buy malpractice insurance and set up his practice at 821 S. Second St. in the Gorski Law Office. He is not a part of the firm, just a tenant, but the Gorski lawyers have been mentors to him.
Joseph D. Gaines says he has known Johnson since he was in high school. In fact, Gaines was one of the first people Johnson talked to about becoming a lawyer.
“I was shocked, because Dave has always been the rocker,” says Gaines. “But I let him clerk for me, and he did an internship in our office. Even though he is not part of the practice, I work with him on cases sometimes. I was in court with him probably two days after he got his law license, and he did great. He is attracting a lot of business with his music background.”
Johnson said his other clients help to fund his real passion — social justice cases. In September 2017, Johnson settled a case involving excessive police force for $50,000.
He met the clients when he was in court defending someone on a public intoxication charge. After overhearing the couple talk about their case, Johnson tracked them down and offered to represent them.
“It was a husband and wife. They were African-American and got treated horribly by the police. Not many lawyers take civil rights cases in Louisville,” says Johnson. “I can’t say too much because in a settlement neither side admits fault. I had one month before the statute of limitations expired to prepare a federal complaint, and at the same time negotiate with the city.”
Although he made sure a nondisclosure clause was not included in the settlement, Johnson’s clients did not want to comment for this story because of privacy concerns. Johnson lowered his rates for the couple because they had children and he wanted them to get the full benefit of the settlement.
But even with a reduced rate, he was able to redecorate his office and buy something he has wanted for 20 years — a new guitar. It is an American Stratocaster, like the kind played by Jimi Hendrix and Dave Gilmore of Pink Floyd.
Now that school is behind him, Johnson has more time for music. The Decline Effect has a free, all-ages St. Patrick’s Day show with Vice Tricks at Nirvana, 1047 Bardstown Road, on Saturday. The lawyer also has a demo tape of new songs that could end up on an album.
“I’ve never said The Glasspack was done,” Johnson says. “I just put the guitar aside for a little while. Law school was a practical way of helping the community as opposed to being an armchair politician, although I am one of those, too. As much as I love the law, I still got to rock.