The Last Great General Practitioner in Virginia
James C. Roberts gives us a tour of his office and talks about the debt he can never repay
Published in 2006 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine
on June 23, 2006
Updated on March 11, 2021
James C. Roberts cuts a striking figure as he stands — all 6 feet 3 inches of him — next to a framed, pastel drawing of a courtroom scene that hangs in his office on the 11th floor of the brick-and-glass Troutman Sanders building. “This is me right here,” Roberts says in his deep Southern drawl, pointing out a silver-haired figure in the middle of the scene. “This is when I represented state Senator Richard Holland.”
It was 1998. Roberts’ finesse in the courtroom convinced a federal judge in Virginia to find the late Democratic lawmaker and his son not guilty of 31 counts of bank fraud in their operation of a small-town lending institution. Not only that, but the court agreed with Roberts’ petition that the case was “vexatious” under the Hyde Amendment. The 1997 statute allows defendants to petition for legal fees in the event of overzealous government prosecution, and Roberts’ petition was its first successful application. The Hollands were awarded $912,000.
“We were all waiting for it to go to the Supreme Court,” Roberts recalls with a chuckle. “It was on the day before time ran out that I got a call from someone at the Justice Department who said, ‘Tell me the amount to make the check out for.’”
In an age of legal specialization, Roberts’ office is lined with testaments to his wide range of expertise. A series of plaques proclaim him one of The Best Lawyers in America in business litigation, corporate law, criminal defense and personal injury litigation, among other disciplines. He displays a photo of the space shuttle Challenger riding on top of an old American Airlines jet (American Airlines was a client in the early 1980s). In Virginia, he’s become the go-to guy when lawyers or judges get in legal trouble — or wind up in a messy divorce — and he’s made headlines representing Microsoft in a patent dispute, Dominion Virginia Power in numerous rate cases and former NBA star Ralph Sampson in a federal child support case.
“I’ve tried all kinds of cases,” Roberts, 74, says, taking off his gray suit jacket and laying it on the arm of his office couch. He seats himself behind his imposing desk and looks out over the James River toward the industrial section of Richmond, with its factories and tank farms. “The kids here in the office come in and say, ‘Mr. Roberts, have you ever had this kind of case?’” Roberts says. “I tell them I’ve had lots of variety. But there’s only one thing that’s certain about all cases: The light is either red or it’s green.”
Roberts’ ability to perform whatever legal services his clients need stems from his roots. He graduated first in his class from the University of Richmond School of Law in June 1957, and he was the seventh lawyer hired by Tucker, Mays, Moore and Reed (now Troutman Sanders). Back then a lawyer was expected to be an all-purpose practitioner. After only a few weeks helping a senior partner represent a life insurance company, Roberts recalls asking the partner if he could attend the trial. He was told: “Attend? You’re going to try it yourself.”
This legal career nearly eluded him. Were it not for the kindness and charity of others, he might not be sitting behind his wooden desk overlooking the James River.
Roberts was born in the midst of the Great Depression in Taylorsville, N.C., a tiny mountain community where his mother was raised. His father eventually secured a mechanic’s job in Richmond, and moved the family there. “These were very hard times,” Roberts says. “I remember seeing my mother and father sitting at the table trying to figure out how to pay the bills.” At 8 or 9, Roberts had to shovel coal to keep the stoves fired during winter. In order to take a bath, his mother would boil water on the stove and he’d carry the hot pots to the tub. “We did not have an electric refrigerator,” he recalls. “One of the jobs I had as a kid was to take the tongs out on the day we knew the ice man was coming and I would carry the two blocks of ice to the ice box on the back porch. You develop a work ethic as a kid from these types of things.”
Higher education didn’t figure into the family budget, but Roberts’ skill playing football at Richmond’s Thomas Jefferson High School helped him secure a scholarship at Hampden-Sydney College; then he attended the University of Richmond’s T.C. Williams Law School. To make ends meet, he worked odd jobs — sometimes several at once: clerking at a furniture store, cutting grass for the parks department, working as a soda jerk in a drug store, whatever he could find. While in law school, Roberts married Charlotte Korn, who would become his wife of 51 years, and who gave birth to their son, James Jr., before Roberts’ last semester started. Suddenly Roberts couldn’t raise the $500 for tuition.
“I felt I had to drop out,” Roberts recalls. “I talked to the dean and said I could not come back. He said, ‘Mr. Roberts, you can’t drop out. You are first in the class.’ He said, ‘I’m not going to let this happen.’” The dean found someone to donate his tuition and Roberts was allowed to stay. “I was never able to find out [who donated the money],” Roberts says. “I asked the dean and he wouldn’t tell me. I felt like it was someone not necessarily at the law school but an alumnus. I wanted to pay back what I owe, but I’ll never really be able to. I can’t work that long.”
That’s one reason Roberts doesn’t hesitate lending his name, and giving his time and money, to bolster a variety of Virginia institutions. He’s been a leading fundraiser for the T.C. Williams Law School, including a recent $10 million drive for a new wing. Between 1995 and 2003, he also served as chairman of the Nursing Advisory Board of the University of Virginia School of Nursing, where one of his daughters, Charlotte, graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The school’s first capital campaign was originally targeted to raise $5.1 million, but it wound up collecting $19.3 million. “We never would have exceeded our goal as we did without the help of Jim Roberts,” says Jeanette Lancaster, dean of the nursing school. “He can call people and say something like ‘I’m going to give x-number of dollars to the University of Virginia School of Nursing — for scholarships, fellowships, professorships, developing a critical care lab for their new building — and would you like to join me in making a gift?’ He doesn’t ask anybody to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.”
Behind his desk, Roberts opens a folder filled with newspaper and magazine clippings and thumbs through them. The headlines read like rave reviews on a movie marquee in which all of the movies star James C. Roberts:
“Survey Rates Lawyer Here in Top 2 in Nation” — Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Top Litigation Lawyer” — Virginia Business magazine
“The Fixer” — Inside Richmond magazine
Another article, from The National Law Journal, concerns a case that helped cement Roberts’ reputation. During the late 1980s, Roberts served as lead counsel for A.H. Robins Co. Inc., during the pharmaceutical company’s Chapter 11. The bankruptcy proceedings followed claims for injuries allegedly caused by the Dalkon Shield birth control device that Robins made and marketed in the 1970s.
Roberts’ friend since childhood, James W. Morris III, of Morris & Morris in Richmond, was representing Robins’ employees in the proceedings. “He was able to gain the trust of people on every side of the issue,” Morris recalls, “and promote inventive and creative ideas for resolving issues that others thought were impossible.” In particular he helped the court estimate the total value of the pending claims, and then shepherded Robins through an acquisition by American Home Products (now called Wyeth) to settle the tab. The sale moved the case to Manhattan, and one year Roberts spent more time in a New York City hotel room than with his family in Richmond. “That case probably took more out of my life than any I have had,” Roberts recalls. “I came to Richmond on Christmas Eve that year,” he recalls, “and I left on Christmas Day.”
When Roberts pulls out an ABA article from 1998 titled “The Zealots and the Senator,” he sighs and says, “I felt like I tried one of my best cases here.” The zealots were federal prosecutors; the senator, Richard Holland. “That case meant a lot to me,” Roberts says, and talks up the satisfaction of knowing justice was served. The need to serve justice also convinced him to represent another former Virginia politician, state Sen. Willard Moody, back in 1985. After he left office, Moody invested in a car dealership, and federal prosecutors charged him with multiple counts stemming from an alleged speedometer calibration scam — even though he had no day-to-day supervision of the business. Roberts leans back and recounts how he grilled the witness who pinned the scam on Moody, a witness who was already in jail on unrelated charges. “The government brings [the witness] in here from jail, gives him a bath and puts a necktie on him,” Roberts told the jury. “Ladies and gentlemen, there is not a soap strong enough or a perfume fragrant enough to clean the smell off of that liar.”
Indeed, when the influential get in trouble in Virginia, they come knocking on Roberts’ door. “Jim has represented more judges before the Virginia Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission than anyone,” says Murray Janus, an attorney from Bremner, Janus, Cook & Marcus in Richmond, who has known Roberts for 42 years. “It’s because of the universal respect in which he is held.” In 1995, Janus himself turned to Roberts when he stood accused of bribing a woman not to testify against one of his law partners. Janus was acquitted.
Roberts is on his feet again, pointing out photographs on the walls documenting his service as president of the Virginia State Bar from June 22, 1980, to June 20, 1981. The late John Sirica, the former chief judge for the U.S. District Court who demanded that President Richard Nixon turn over the infamous White House tapes, came to address the bar in his hometown of Richmond. For the introduction, Roberts came up with a copy of Sirica’s report card from junior high. “Fortunately,” he told the esteemed judge, “you didn’t have any F’s on it.”
Office snapshots also feature Roberts pictured beside a Who’s Who of Democrats, including former Virginia governor Mark Warner and former U.S. Attorneys General Janet Reno and Griffin Bell. Then there’s the black-and-white photograph showing Roberts laughing with Elizabeth Taylor, who was touring the state with then-husband John Warner during his first bid for the U.S. Senate. “When she was getting ready to leave,” Roberts says, “she kissed me on the cheek. I told people I didn’t wash my face for a month.”
But the photographs he is most proud of are the array of pictures featuring his wife, three adult children and four grandchildren, ages 2 to 16. He also displays the wooden decoy ducks that he carves and paints. In his spare time, he likes to go fishing in his boat along the Chesapeake Bay. “I don’t get out in it as much as I should,” he says.
As Roberts approaches his fifth decade practicing law, he marvels at how some things have changed. Besides the law’s increasing specialization, there’s also its increasing technicalization. Roberts is one of the few attorneys at Troutman Sanders who declines to carry a BlackBerry. He also confesses to using his laptop more for checking stock prices and e-mail messages from his grandchildren than for work.
On the other hand, he notes, certain aspects of practicing the law remain the same. “You get to meet a lot of good, honest, down-to-earth people,” Roberts says. “And that’s what I like.”