Started From The Bottom
Patrick Roberts’ path to the U.S., law and the top floor
Published in 2018 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine on January 25, 2018
I came here at 4. I grew up in Savanna La Mar, Jamaica. We were poor, but everybody knew that if you could get an education in the U.S., it would open doors.
My dad lived in New York. He’d come to the U.S. years before. After divorcing his first wife, he returned to Jamaica and married my mom, and brought us to East New York, Brooklyn. He was abusive; he was an alcoholic. I don’t know if we made it a year before my mom fled, even though we stayed in the same neighborhood. We didn’t have the funds to go elsewhere. We relied on the kindness of complete strangers. There were two older women that took us under their wing and gave us a place to rent.
At the time, in the mid-’80s, it was just my mother and myself. I have an older sister, but she wasn’t in the States yet. My mother ended up getting a CNA certificate. The people in that program knew some folks at a nursing home, and they got her a job.
For the first couple of years, my dad would stalk and threaten her. Some guys that lived on our block started escorting her to the train station.
The basement where we lived flooded when it rained. We couldn’t afford a bed, so my mom and I slept on a mattress on the floor. We lived next to a crack house.
I loved to read, but I didn’t enjoy school. [In middle school] I was at the point of getting kicked out. I would have to go to a guidance counselor every day. My goal was to graduate and go into the Marine Corps, assuming someone didn’t kill me first.
My sister arrived by this point. She was really gifted academically, and got into John Dewey High School. In New York, you have to apply to school if you wanted to go to one outside of your zone. My grades weren’t so good, but my test scores were, and my sister convinced some guidance counselors at her school to admit me.
East New York had one of the highest crime indexes in the city and—I think—the country. I witnessed a lot of violence growing up. I lost a good friend when I was a teenager. We were playing basketball and, hours later, he was shot to death. My zone high school had a low graduation rate, and a whole lot of violence. It would have been a bad experience, to say the least.
I started straightening out [at John Dewey]. I met some teachers who had been to college, and students who actually planned on going. It helped to be exposed to people who saw the world from a different perspective, and had broader aspirations than just graduating alive.
I then went to Johns Hopkins to study chemical engineering. That was my first true exposure to any part of the U.S. besides New York. It was also my first exposure to kids with money.
College was stressful. Every semester, I’m trying to figure out how to pay the bills that aren’t covered by work-study, scholarships, grants and loans.
My junior year, I decided I was going to law school. A guy who had graduated Johns Hopkins and gone to law school came and spoke to our class about patent law. The only thing I remember from his talk was that he said the average income for a patent lawyer in 1996 was $256,000. I raised my hand and said, “Are those, like, dollars?”
At Duke, almost all of my classes were related to patent law and intellectual property. After law school, I worked for a patent litigation firm in San Diego. I took the Bar in California twice and didn’t pass, so I came back to North Carolina, where I passed. While I was working with a lawyer in Jacksonville, I realized I liked criminal law. I launched my firm more than 10 years ago.
Having grown up [like I did] is one of the reasons I’m an effective criminal defense lawyer. I understand what it means to have friends and family in the criminal justice system, and I can relate better to the people I represent. Down the road, I’d love to be a motivational speaker, to try to inspire people to overcome challenges.
The house that we lived in, we stayed there until I graduated from high school. We eventually made it to the top floor.