To Jeffery Robinson, success isn’t always measured by courtroom wins.
One of Seattle’s most prominent criminal defense attorneys, Robinson has been called on to help high-profile clients ranging from physicians to a state Supreme Court justice. But it’s the triumphs for everyday people that mean the most.
Shortly after arriving at Schroeter Goldmark & Bender 18 years ago, Robinson represented a young woman charged in a cocaine conspiracy. She was convicted, but he worked hard for a sentence of probation. After finishing her probation, she went to school, got a degree as a dental assistant and has been working ever since.
“Every year I get a Christmas card from her,” he recalls, sharing a world-class smile. “That was a case that I lost, but we won ultimately.”
The law offices of Schroeter Goldmark & Bender in downtown Seattle feature vintage black-and-white photography honoring industrial workers, farmers, women welders and office clerks. The overall impression is one of honest, hard work by down-to-earth folks — making it all the more fitting that Robinson, who has championed many such clients, practices law here.
“When you try a criminal defense case, the person sitting next to you is either going to prison or going home — and that difference is indescribable,” Robinson says. “Several years ago, I tried a homicide case with Michael Iaria, a good friend of mine, in which a 19-year-old boy was charged. When the jury said not guilty, the client leaned over and asked, ‘Does this mean I get to go home?’ That case was years ago, and I still get a wonderful feeling from that.”
Early in Robinson’s life, fate touched a young heart already open to the needs of others. The second of five children, he grew up in Memphis, Tenn., in the midst of the civil-rights movement. His parents, both educators, took an active role in the movement; in 1968, when Robinson was 11 years old, he joined his father and older brother in the sanitation workers’ march led by Martin Luther King Jr.
“When the police broke up that march, they arrested professional people I was brought up to respect, and that’s where I first discovered what criminal defense lawyers were,” recalls Robinson, now 49. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s what I want to do.’ I don’t see how anyone who grew up where I did and when I did could not have been radically shaped by that movement. The struggles for equality and fairness that came out of the civil-rights movement are why I’m a criminal defense lawyer.”
Robinson enjoyed less serious times as well in Memphis, where he played a variety of sports. The message of playing well with others still informs his life.
“I’m a person who enjoys working in teams rather than by myself,” he says. “I’ve tried cases with some of the most brilliant lawyers in the state of Washington . . . It’s easy to look good when you are surrounded by such talented people.”
Childhood dreams about practicing criminal defense law moved closer to reality under the watchful eye of Judge Leander Foley, the father of one of Robinson’s best friends at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wis. Judge Foley encouraged Robinson by inviting him to visit his courtroom and urging him to apply to the best law schools.
“His house was always a place I could go for dinner or to wash my clothes. If I just showed up at the door, he’d always say, ‘Come on in,’ ” Robinson says. “If enough people give you good feedback, you start to believe it. And from the beginning, my parents pushed all of us, saying, ‘You are as smart as anybody; you can do anything anybody else can do.’ That was an important message at the time we were growing up.”
Robinson was accepted at Harvard University Law School. During his second year, he applied for a summer job in Seattle after studying a huge resource book, from front to back; the Seattle-King County Public Defender position jumped out at him. “I thought, ‘Seattle — now, that’s a wild place. I’ve never been there, and they have one of the best training programs in the country.’ ” He adds, “It’s probably the smartest move I’ve ever made.” After graduation in 1981, he returned to Seattle to practice law as a public defender for five years, followed by about three years with the federal Public Defender’s Office.
If awards were legal tender, Robinson could forget about billable hours. Besides being on the Super Lawyers list, his honors include the King County Bar Association’s Lawyer of the Year (2003) and Black Enterprise magazine’s Top 100 Black Lawyers in America (2003). In 2004, he was elected fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and received the William O. Douglas Award, the highest award from the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (WACDL).
“This award is presented for extraordinary courage and commitment in the practice of criminal law,” explains Barry Flegenheimer, president of WACDL. “I’ve known Jeff since the 1980s, and he’s universally regarded as one of the best in our profession. He is relentless and fearless — the importance of which cannot be understated. If the press is there and the case is considered notorious, and maybe the community is outraged about the offense, it can be daunting. But Jeff is courageous. He is a true gift to our profession.”
Fearless in the courtroom, yes. But all this personal recognition makes Robinson uneasy. As he talks, he twirls his wedding band or swivels his chair, comfortable only when he can turn the spotlight back on his colleagues.
“When I joined the Public Defender’s Office in 1981, some of the most brilliant lawyers in the state were there — Bob Boruchowitz, Jo-Hanna Read, Rachel Levy, Mark Leemon, John Muenster — and today they are some of the most respected lawyers in Seattle,” he says. “I had the most incredible mentors and people to train me.”
When Robinson discusses his current cases, his voice retains the cool, calibrated calm he’s famous for, but his eyes spark with passion. “Amanda Lee [also with Schroeter Goldmark & Bender] and I are representing the international president of the Banditos Outlaw Motorcycle Club, a club that has been charged on a racketeering indictment in federal court, and we think the case is horribly overcharged. In fact, overcharged isn’t even the right word,” Robinson explains. “They are portraying this organization as something it is not — a view of outlaw motorcycle clubs from 25 years ago. It’s an organization that has international members, some of whom committed crimes. Just as the entire Republican Party, Democratic Party or federal government cannot be condemned because of the actions of some individuals, this is not a criminal organization.
“As a lawyer, you have to commit to working as hard as you can at the highest level you can to demonstrate to a jury what you believe the truth to be. In cases where people are horribly killed, people rightfully feel repulsion at those responsible, and that’s when it gets easier [for the system] to bend the law. Criminal defense lawyers are there to say, ‘If you’re going to send this person to prison, you’re going to do it right. If you’re not going to do it right, you’re not going to do it at all.’ ”
Pro bono work accepted by Robinson and his colleagues is based on need. Away from the office, he gives his time teaching the trial practice course at the University of Washington School of Law and serving as co-chair for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Continuing Legal Education program. In addition, he is a past president of the Washington State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Ron Ward, immediate past president of the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA), selected Robinson as one of the first attorneys to serve on the WSBA Leadership Institute. Ward founded the group in 2005 to recruit and train attorneys for leadership positions in the legal community, with an emphasis on diversity.
“Jeff was one of the first persons I asked to speak to these young lawyers of diverse backgrounds, and he immediately accepted,” Ward says. “Jeff is arguably one of the best trial lawyers in the state and country, and the connection he made with these young attorneys was magical. They were very moved and inspired, and he got us off to a wonderful start, which culminated in our receiving the National American Bar Association Partnership Award.”
Carving out a life beyond the office, courtroom, laptop and cell phone is a challenge, Robinson admits. He enjoys reading and watching films; he also works out on home-exercise equipment. “I still shoot hoops,” he adds, “but not competitively anymore.”
There are also Zeus and Simba. He shares the two 80-pound Rhodesian Ridgebacks with his wife of almost 20 years, Carmen Valdés, an architect and currently a jewelry designer. She helps balance his life with extended trips to the high hills of her homeland, Puerto Rico. As he immerses himself in local flavors, the company of good neighbors and parandas — big parties where everybody from 2 to 82 dances to live music — courtroom tensions ease.
And there, he jokes, he can at last find his athletic equals. “When we go to Puerto Rico, I play competitive basketball with the 10- and 11-year-olds,” he says with a laugh. “I do take my laptop. It makes it possible to spend longer periods of time there. But I am proud to say the laptop gets dust on it there.”
Those early years in Memphis are more than fading memories to Robinson. He has played them out every day for the better part of 30 years. During that time, he’s watched the legal profession try to catch up. When he started practicing in 1981, people used to ask if his lawyer was present. “They don’t do that anymore, although I’m willing to bet there are minorities today who still have that experience,” he adds.
And he is encouraged to see young lawyers who are filled with the same passion he first felt all those years ago. “Issues such as the government response to 9/11, the Patriot Act and secret prisons — these are energizing the next generation of lawyers to be vigilant. From what I’ve seen, there are people out there ready to take up this call.”