We’re kicking off our new weekly Q&A series—featuring conversations with local legal minds—with star trial lawyer Michele Roberts.
Roberts, now a civil and white-collar criminal-defense partner at the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, started out representing street criminals as a DC public defender. Here she discusses her career, the homicide case she just took on, and how a kid from a South Bronx housing project decides to go into the law. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you get into the law?
The law thing happened because my mother—and I’ve never understood why—just developed this interest in watching trials. We didn’t live far from the Bronx Supreme Court. In the summer one day, I asked her where she was going. I started going with her to watch trials. I thought it was a play. I didn’t understand the significance of it. Much of it was her translating for me. I just though it was great. I loved it.
We principally watched criminal matters. One of my older brother’s friends ended up on the lock-up list. I freaked out. It was someone that I knew. It was a friend of my brother’s. It became real to me. It was a bond hearing. Whatever the bond was, he couldn’t even think about affording it. I knew him as someone who wasn’t even remotely dangerous. The notion that he was being held at a jail was overwhelming. He ended up pleading guilty. He ended up getting jail time. I said, “Where’d he get that lawyer from?” My mom said, “Well, he can’t afford another one.” I said, “I’m going to represent poor people charged with crimes.”
When you started at the DC Public Defender Service, how did you learn to make your clients—many of whom were charged with dangerous crimes—sympathetic figures?
It’s only hard if you’ve got a jury that’s predisposed to convict. I was very fortunate that I initially practiced in a jurisdiction where the juries are predisposed to assume innocence. It would be unusual to have a jury that was not predominantly black. They were from communities where police were viewed as professionals, but there was a healthy suspicion. I may not have been as successful in some other jurisdiction.
Is there a client or case from that time that’s particularly memorable?
The [Catherine] Fuller [murder] case. It was probably the case in my lifetime in DC that drew the most public ire against criminal defendants. I loved the client. It was frightening because I was convinced he was going to be convicted. The most courageous jury ended up acquitting my client. He’s somebody I consider a son.
The clients who were convicted are the ones I’ll never forgive myself for. It’s hard representing people. It’s particularly hard representing people who have no choice but to rely on you. I’ve got clients who have children named after me. There are a couple grandkids named after me. They can’t give you money, but they can give you other expressions of gratitude. There are a couple of Micheles and Michaels running around.
Why move to a private firm to represent corporate clients?
After a while, frankly, I got bored. I thought if I cross-examine one more homicide detective, I’m going to kill myself.
Which do you like better?
I used to try—when I got to homicide [at the Public Defender Service]—probably seven to ten homicide cases a year. That’s for young people. It takes a lot of physical energy and a lot of emotional energy. For that time in my life, that’s exactly what I should’ve been doing. I wouldn’t be a 50-year-old public defender. Those were the best years of my life, but they were for then. This is for now.
I’ve just taken on a homicide. There’s a very wealthy woman in New York named Gigi Jordan—very sad case—who’s charged with killing her son. This will be the first homicide case I’ll have tried in 13 or 14 years. She’s a lovely woman. I want to help her, so I agreed to do it. I thought I’d never try another homicide. Obviously, she’s got a lot of money because I can’t do it for free anymore.
How did this come about?
She found me. Because of the Internet, people find you. I’ll enter my appearance in April. I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into, but my client’s at [New York prison] Rikers Island, so I’m going back to jail.
What’s your strategy when you walk into trial?
It’s not hard if you start with respecting the jury. You become a juror. They’re reasonable and they’re smart and they’re honest. Don’t BS them. Don’t think you can avoid answering. You can’t ignore bad evidence. You can’t talk down to them. You can’t impress them with fancy language. You have to speak to them honestly and simply.
This might be a silly question, but in watching you at trial, I’ve noticed you have impeccable style. Is that part of your strategy?
The answer is yes, and I’ll tell you why. Most of the jurors are inevitably women. Like it or not, we do focus on shoes. We want to know how you’re walking in those heels. I think if I showed up in a gray suit every day, they wouldn’t hate me for it, but the fact that I’m a woman who appears to take some time in selecting her wardrobe, I think other women like that. By not wearing the quote-unquote uniform, I think to some extent they stop thinking of me as a lawyer. They think of me as someone who’s talking to them.
You’re a black woman in a profession dominated by white men. Can you describe what that experience has been like?
At Public Defender Service, the balance of the attorneys that were supervisors were white men. At the end of the day, most of the male lawyers would go into the office and the trial chief used to have a bottle of Wild Turkey. These guys would sit around with coffee mugs, drinking the Wild Turkey, talking about that day at court. I’ve never been able to drink hard liquor, but I just started going in there. They didn’t throw me out. I began to ask people to let me co-counsel cases with them. It occurred to me these are the people I’m going to practice law with. If I want to learn, these are the people I’m going to learn from. They never treated me like a girl. They treated me like a young lawyer. And I stopped noticing it.
I frequently will be in a meeting for several hours and suddenly it will occur to me that I’m the only black person in this room, or I’m the only woman in this room. I spend most of my day in the company of old white guys. That’s just the way it is. I’m at a point in my career where no one second-guesses me.