Roberts' Rules of Order

As a child, Michele Roberts was fascinated with trial lawyers. Now she’s one of the best

Published in 2008 Washington DC Super Lawyers Magazine — March 2008

Michele Roberts decided to become a lawyer as a 10-year-old kid sitting in a Bronx courtroom.

She’d walked into court that first time by the side of her mother, an ardent court watcher in an age before Court TV and Judge Judy. “When you live in the housing projects you know cops and you know arrests,” says Roberts. “It was then that I began to understand the next stop, so to speak.”

Now, four decades later, Roberts holds forth in the well-ordered Washington, D.C., office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a place of minimalist decor, gray pinstriped carpets, contemporary chairs and long, polished desks where receptionists tap, tap, tap away at computer keyboards.

In the fall, she’s in Boston, where she co-teaches a course in trial advocacy at Harvard Law School. When not there, she is in a courtroom on behalf of a subcontractor with a gripe against a defense firm doing business in Afghanistan. Or she’s digging in on cases that range from employment discrimination to bankruptcy. She also works pro bono with a team of lawyers that is attempting to win reparations for survivors of a 1921 massacre in the Greenwood community of Tulsa, Okla.

“There’s no one I know who prepares cases with greater attention to detail,” says Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a longtime friend and Harvard Law School professor. “She’s absolutely gifted as a lawyer and knows how to think like a prosecutor.”

With a crisp, low voice, Roberts, 51, is known for an uncanny ability to communicate with the 12 faces in any given jury box. She’s regarded as one of Washington, D.C.’s finest trial lawyers.

But it hasn’t been easy.

Roberts looks back fondly on her early court-watching days.

“I don’t know why somebody that age would become interested in court,” she says, “but I was.”

One day a teenager was brought into court. He was a friend of one of Roberts’ brothers and had been charged with robbing a gas station. He pleaded guilty.

Roberts remembers seeing him led around court, trapped, frightened. “Then it was no longer funny or fun. I began to see the consequences. This was someone I liked.”

He did time and was released, but subsequently overdosed on drugs and died.

The case left a mark. Roberts was one of five children raised by a single mother, and though she was poor, until that moment, she had never focused on what she didn’t have. “That was my realization of what my financial status meant. And I understood that this kid and other people like us sort of got whatever lawyer the system would provide. I thought that was profoundly unfair.”

From then on, whenever anyone asked what she wanted to be, she said: A public defender.

Her mother, Elsie Roberts, “bought into the notion that getting out of the community would be good,” Roberts says. So with the prompting of a teacher, Roberts took an entrance test for a private boarding school in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. She was accepted on scholarship. “I was mortified. I didn’t want to go away,” she says. But she went. She was only 13.

Four years later she was majoring in government at Wesleyan. She wanted to go to Columbia Law School next and was accepted but there was a question of money. The prestigious but less expensive Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, provided more help. Off to California.

After graduating from law school, she landed a job at the public defender’s office in Washington, D.C. Ogletree was her officemate. Although Roberts can be intense, the two became lifelong friends. Sometimes when she picked up the phone, callers for Ogletree would ask her to take a message, as though talking to a secretary. “That irritated her,” Ogletree remembers.

Before trials, Roberts wouldn’t sleep. She wouldn’t eat much, either. She lived on Diet Coke and coffee and soup at night. After trials, she’d chow down at an Italian place that served pasta for $6.

“It’s a tremendous responsibility, especially in criminal cases, to have someone’s liberty in your hands,” she says. “A lot of it [the nervousness] is that you care.”

Roberts’ name was in newspapers within five years after law school graduation. She and a fellow attorney, Corinne Schultz, defended one of a dozen young people charged with the brutal robbery and murder of a local woman.

The victim had been walking home when she was attacked, beaten and sexually assaulted. “Police were desperately trying to find somebody [to arrest] to quell the community’s uproar,” Roberts remembers.

Her client was arrested first. 

“You really can’t be an effective defense attorney and spend a lot of time thinking about whether your clients are guilty or innocent. That case was a horrible, horrible murder and it generated a tremendous amount of publicity. The community was understandably outraged. I was outraged,” she says. “The notion of what happened to that woman was just awful.”

But the government’s case against her client, Roberts recalls, was based on the young man’s nickname being scratched on a car near where the body was located, and on the testimony of other suspects.

“When caught and faced with the possibility of a tremendous amount of jail time and, at least, the belief that if you name other people you might reduce your exposure, people will say just about anything,” she says. “So in my opinion if all the government’s case is composed of are the words of cooperators, then that case is worthless.”

Besides, she adds, “I just didn’t think the kid did it.”

Determined, she went to trial and her client ended up being one of only two defendants acquitted. (Within two years of the attack, 11 people had been convicted.)

Afterward, she climbed the ladder in the public defender’s office, rising to become chief of the trial division. Looking for new challenges, she went into private practice in 1988. 

In 1991, Ogletree called on her.

At the time, he was representing Anita Hill, a former government employee who was to testify during the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. Hill had worked for Thomas, and she contended that he had sexually harassed her—making suggestive and inappropriate remarks.

Hill was in for a rough ride before Congress. The dominant player was an accomplished former prosecutor, Sen. Arlen Specter.

A team of lawyers for Hill was hastily assembled. Accurately summing up the opposing strategy, Ogletree told Roberts, “I think the Republicans are essentially going to try to cross-examine her [Hill] and treat her like a rape victim who is lying.”

In a role-playing session before the hearing, Ogletree asked Roberts to cross-examine Hill.

As Ogletree remembers it, Roberts was good at being the bad cop. “There’s no one better than Michele to play the role of your worst enemy,” he says.

The preparation paid off. Although Thomas was still elevated to the high court, Hill held up during the testimony.

Roberts developed a mastery of criminal defense, and while she loved the intensity of the work, it got to be frustrating on an emotional level.

“I went to the jail to see a client, who I’d gotten acquitted in a murder case,” she remembers. “He’d been picked up on some other drug charge.”

Her client was about 40 years old, but the prisoner they brought into the room was 19.

Roberts told the young man he wasn’t the person she had come to see.

“Oh, you must be here to see my father,” he responded.

When the mistake was straightened out, she remembers saying to her client, “‘You have a son here?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, in fact, I need to talk to you about representing him.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’”A couple of months later, she received a phone call from a different client who had been acquitted in a murder case.

“His son had been charged with murder,” he says. “And his son was 16. He wanted to retain me to represent him. It occurred to me that there was something wrong with this. I never thought that being a lawyer was being a social worker; however, I must have thought I was doing social engineering of sorts, because I felt like a failure when both of those things happened,” she says. “I took those as personal failures. And then I began to notice that my clients were younger and younger and younger.”

Sometime around September 2001, while she was in the process of dissolving her firm, Rochon & Roberts, Judge William Bryant of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia asked her to represent Vaughn Stebbins, his grandson.

Stebbins had been shot by police officers in a 1998 incident in which police had been searching for a robbery suspect and had approached his parked car. According to court records, Stebbins, with a loaded gun in his possession, sped off, leading police on a lights-and-siren chase that ended when he crashed his car. Emerging after the crash, he turned away from a police officer’s light, took two steps and was shot nine times, suffering internal injuries that required surgery for him to walk again.

Initially, Roberts told Bryant she would be moving to another law firm. She didn’t think she could represent Stebbins. But in deference to Bryant’s request, Roberts agreed to write the initial complaint. “She charged no fee for her services, requested no reimbursement for filing costs incurred and entered into no contingency or fee-sharing arrangements for compensation in the future,” court records say. After the initial complaint was filed, Stebbins was to find another attorney to represent him.

All the while, the statute of limitations was running. A deadline was missed. Stebbins lost the right to sue.Now he’s suing Roberts, along with another attorney. Roberts wouldn’t comment. Her attorney, Anthony Bisceglie, says the case is unfounded. A motion for summary judgment is pending.

At Akin Gump, she is about five Metro stops and a zillion light years away from her criminal defense days. When Roberts moved on, she did so skillfully, says Superior Court Judge Neal E. Kravitz of the District of Columbia. A former colleague of Roberts at the Public Defenders’ Service, he presided over an employment discrimination case that Roberts defended.

She transferred “skills she learned trying street crime cases at the Public Defenders’ Service to the more varied challenges she now faces as a senior litigation partner at a large law firm,” says Kravitz.

She’s representing an oil refinery company in a wrongful-death case, as well as a national law firm sued by one of its partners. Her practice is primarily civil defense. There are still nights of little sleep. “I now know I’m too old to stay up all night long. I’ve got to get some rest,” she says.

But in the next breath she adds, “I’ve never stood in front of a jury and not been at least internally trembling. I suspect I never will.”

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