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The Life and legal career of Michele A. Roberts Trial Lawyer

published June 20, 2005

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Michele A. Roberts grew up in a courtroom. As a child living in the projects of New York, Ms. Roberts and her mother wiled away their summers and free time in court - watching trials and any other court proceedings. They liked the drama and Ms. Roberts can't remember ever not hanging out in courtrooms.

Court watchers have become more rare, perhaps extinct, these days. Although Ms. Roberts thinks maybe they're all at home watching Court TV, a network she considers "a gift from God." Her early love of watching trial lawyers has paid off - she's now one of the most respected and most feared (by opposing counsel) trial lawyers around.

She knew early on that she wanted to be a lawyer. But in high school when she saw her older brother's friends rotting in jail cells, it cemented her desire to defend poor people.

"They never seemed to catch a break," Ms. Roberts said of her brother's friends. "And my mother communicated to me that was because they didn't have good lawyers. Very early on I decided I was going to not only be a lawyer, but a public defender, representing poor people in criminal cases."

Her mother found out about a scholarship and Mr. Roberts went off to boarding school then received her B.A. from Wesleyan University in 1977. Three years later she graduated from the University of California at Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.

"The sad news is my mom died about two weeks after I passed the bar, so she was not able to ever see me in court," she said. "But at least she knew I passed the bar, so she was delighted. It doesn't matter, every case I try I'm certain that she's in the courtroom."

Ms. Roberts spent eight years in the DC public defender's office, briefly went into private practice and now as a partner with Akin Gump she handles complex civil and white collar criminal litigation before state courts, federal courts and in administrative proceedings. She laughs when asked about the secret to her success and is modest about her accomplishments.

"I think I do have some skills but it's mostly just paying attention to detail," she said. "I think the secret to mine and many other trial lawyers' success is preparation, not underestimating, even though if you're lucky you might be surprised to realize you overestimated" the talents of your opponent.

When LawCrossing spoke to Ms. Roberts she was preparing for trial, her first in a year. The white collar case involves multiple defendants, members of a teacher's union, accused of embezzling about $3 million from the union.

While she loves the challenge of white collar crimes and learning new areas of the law, good civil cases settle. And Ms. Roberts prefers trying cases. So she's been taking on a bit more criminal work to keep her foot in the courtroom.

Ms. Roberts said she joined Akin Gump because she wanted to be with a big firm, to attract the biggest clients and also to learn from so many specialized attorneys. When she was in the public defender's office, after about five years she was promoted to a supervising role.

"I hated supervision. That's not me," she said. "But at that time it was not done that you give up a position of authority and become a staff attorney again, although I would have liked to do that."

The natural progression was a move into private practice. While she loves the intellectual challenge of white collar cases, Ms. Roberts believes the true role of an attorney is to offer their services to those who can't afford representation. So she takes a lot of pro bono cases. One pro bono case concerns the Tulsa race riots of 1921.

"It is a lawsuit alleging the State of Oklahoma's complicity along with the city of Tulsa in the race riots of 1921, that left hundreds of African Americans homeless, without their property and in many instances dead," she said.

Ms. Roberts was asked by Harvard Law School Prof. Charles Ogletree, her old friend and colleague from the public defender's service, to get involved in the case. In 1991, Ms. Roberts joined Mr. Ogletree in a legal team that represented Anita Hill during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas.

In Tulsa, the city commissioned a study in the late 1990s of the riots to determine if there was complicity for the state or city. The recommendation that survivors and descendants be given some compensation was rejected. So the lawsuit was filed, she said.

Surprisingly there are about 70 survivors still alive from the Tulsa riots. But Ms. Roberts said since the lawsuit was filed about 18 months ago, 29 survivors have died. The late Johnny Cochran was also a member of the Tulsa reparations legal team.

Working closely with so many legendary lawyers has made her a better attorney, Ms. Roberts said. Attorneys, especially young ones, should never be shy about asking questions.

"A lot of people think what they need to do to impress their colleagues is not ask questions," she said. "You don't have the luxury of doing that when you're doing trial work. You can't possibly know what you're doing straight out of law school."

Attorneys should ask for guidance and for as much supervision and training as possible early in their careers, she said.

"Because you are not Johnny Cochran, even Johnny Cochran wasn't Johnny Cochran for many, many years so ask," she said. "I'm still learning from other lawyers, even bad lawyers if nothing else you learn what not to do."

Ms. Roberts said she is interested in trying cases in every area of law, except tax litigation. And she's looking to increase the number of cases she tries.

"I don't want to go back to what I used to do, which was several trials a month," she said. "But my goal is to have at least six trials a year."

Ms. Roberts is also an adjunct professor at Harvard Law School and previously served on the adjunct faculty at the George Washington University School of Law, as a lecturer in the Public Defender Service Training Program and as an instructor with the National Institute of Trial Advocacy.

And if she has time at the end of the day, Ms. Roberts is still a court watcher. She tunes in to Court TV.

"My only beef with Court TV is that there are too many commentators and not enough courtroom action," she said. "If it's a silly little trial in some silly little part of the country, I don't care. As long as I can watch someone cross-examine someone. I love it."