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December 10, 2007

DC's Defense Queen

Last Wednesday, 23 female lawyers ignored the snow and trekked over to Akin Gump.  They came for a support group, but not the touchy‑feely type.  The women are all criminal defense attorneys, and they came to talk shop with leading experts in the field:  each other.  This month’s meeting was hosted by Michele Roberts, whom Washingtonian Magazine dubbed the city’s leading lawyer in 2002:  “The finest pure trial lawyer in Washington—magic with juries, loved by judges, fearedby opposing counsel.”

Michele said she likes to put on a serious face for the camera, but we caught her laughing.  (This may be the part of the interview where Michele told us that criminal lawyers are more fun than civil practitioners.)

Michele says that with the relatively large number of young female prosecutors, the criminal defense bar won’t stay an old boys’ club for long.  She’s been involved in the Women’s White-Collar Crime Group for three years.  It was started by Karen Popp of Sidley & Austin and Beth Wilkinson (the former Timothy McVeigh prosecutor and Latham partner, now GC at Fannie Mae).  Each month, an average of 25 women get together to talk about their cases and occasionally listen to a guest speaker.  The most recent was U.S. District Court of D.C. Judge Ellen Huvelle, a star white-collar lawyer at Williams & Connolly before donning the robe.


Ahhh, yes, here’s the “don’t mess” look.  Michele grew up in the South Bronx and now lives in the Crestwood section of D.C.  Every Christmas, she gathers friends at her house to make 300-500 lunches, which they drive around the city and pass out to the homeless and needy.

Michele conducted the case that put her on the map at the Public Defender’s office, where her mentor was Charles Ogletree, currently a legal heavyweight at Harvard.  Her client was the first of a group of 15 defendants charged with participating in the brutalization and killing of a woman in an alley near 8th and H Streets.  As she does in all of her criminal cases, Michele took the responsibility for her client’s liberty to heart—she lost 27 pounds during the course of the trial.  In the end, Michele’s client was one of only two to be acquitted. Michele still shares an occasional email with that client, and says that the experience was so intense (in part because her certainty of his innocence) that she very well might have stopped practicing law if he was convicted.

A big hoops fan, Michele has season tickets to the Wizards.  Her favorite player was Juan Dixon because of his personal history—the former Maryland star and Wizards guard overcame the challenge of growing up with heroin-addicted parents, both of whom died before Dixon reached the age of 17.


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