Meet the President: James J. Sandman
Interview by Kathryn Alfisi
James J. Sandman begins his term as the 35th president of the District of Columbia Bar on June 22, when he is inaugurated at the Bar’s Annual Business Meeting and Awards Dinner. Sandman is a senior partner at Arnold & Porter LLP, having served as the firm’s managing partner from 1995 to 2005.
Sandman is a graduate of Boston College. He received his law degree
from the University of Pennsylvania, after which he clerked for Judge
Max Rosenn of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
His involvement in the Bar includes service on the Board of Governors since 2003, chairing the Committee on Multijurisdictional Practice and the Screening Committee, and serving on the Governance Integration Advisory Committee. He has also served on the Pro Bono Initiative Working Group, the Task Force on Sexual Orientation and the Legal Workplace, and the Multidisciplinary Practice Committee, and has cochaired the Law Practice Management Section.
Sandman is on the board of overseers of the University of Pennsylvania Law School; the board of trustees of the National Association for Law Placement Foundation; the board of directors of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, for which he cochairs the clinic’s annual fundraiser for its pro bono legal service program; the Georgetown University Law Center’s Law Firm Pro Bono Project’s Advisory Committee; the board of trustees of Wilkes University; and the board of directors of the Washington Performing Arts Society. He was a member of the board of directors of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program from 2000 to 2005.
Tell us a little about your background. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Albany, New York. It’s not a big city—only about 100,000 people—but it’s an interesting place to live because it’s the capital of a large state. I’m the middle child in a family of five children. My mother was a special-education teacher. She taught hearing-impaired kids before she became a full-time mother to the five of us. My father graduated from Albany Law School, but he never practiced. He couldn’t find a job as a lawyer, so he took a job at an Albany bank. He spent his first day rolling pennies in the basement. He ultimately became president of the bank. When I was in college, he joined Bankers Trust Company in New York.
What was it like being the middle child?
It was an extended survival course! My mother has always said that if you survived our family, you were ready for anything. There was a lot of teasing in our family, and I both gave and took my share of it. Well, maybe I gave more than my share.
Did any of your siblings also study law?
My older brother, Paul, is a lawyer. He’s general counsel of Boston Scientific Corporation.
And your father studied law, but never practiced.
He was a member of the New York Bar, but no, he never practiced. He actually was admitted to the bar without taking an exam. He completed his first two years of law school before he entered the army in World War II and his last year after the war, and New York State decided that people in that position could be admitted to the bar on motion of a member.
Did your father ever regret not pursuing a law career?
No, I think he was very happy in banking. He never expressed any regret, although he always maintained an interest in his law school. He served for many years on the law school’s board and ultimately as chairman.
Growing up, did you want to become a lawyer?
It was always something I considered. I was interested in history and politics and writing—the kind of things that tend to steer you toward law school. I was never good at math or science, so medical school wasn’t an option, and I really didn’t have much interest in going into business.
Why did you attend Boston College?
My older brother went there, so I knew more about it than any other college I was interested in. He enjoyed it very much, had gotten a good education, and was going on to Harvard Law School.
When going to college, did you know you wanted to attend law school?
No. It was a possibility, but I didn’t enter college or pursue my undergraduate education with the goal of going to law school.
What was your time at Boston College like?
It was a great experience. I don’t think there’s a better city in the United States than Boston to go for college. I got a strong education at BC. I had teachers who were mentors, who took a real interest in their students. BC had an extensive core curriculum, so I got a broad, liberal arts education. I was a history major with concentrations in medieval history and modern American history. I also made good friends and had a lot of fun.
When did you make the decision to apply to law school?
It was probably during my junior year in college. I took the LSAT the summer between my junior and senior years. I thought that for all the different things that I might want to do, law would be the best preparation. I didn’t decide at that point that I wanted to be a practicing lawyer. I saw people with law degrees doing many different things—in government, in education, in business, as well as being lawyers. I thought it was, in many ways, the broadest postgraduate education.
Then you went to the University of Pennsylvania Law School. How
was the move from Boston to Philadelphia?
It was a hard transition initially. But I came to love Philadelphia, and I seriously considered staying there at the end of law school. Philadelphia has character. It has a lot of ethnic identity, great neighborhoods, and a lot of history. But the best things about Philadelphia are not immediately apparent on a quick visit or on one’s arrival to go to school there. It takes a while to appreciate the city.
Upon entering law school, did you have any idea what type of practice
you were interested in?
I didn’t know enough about law to know what type of practice I might be interested in, and I still wasn’t sure I wanted to practice.
Penn was a wonderful place to go to law school. The faculty were very accessible. They were excellent teachers as well as great scholars. The rule at Penn was that professors couldn’t have “office hours,” because they were supposed to be in their offices and available except when they were teaching class, and office hours would be seen as a limitation on their availability. The Paper Chase style of teaching by intimidation was unknown there. The professors were respectful of the students; the administrative staff were very helpful and looked out for the students; and my fellow students were colleagues and friends, not competitors.
Did you like the study of law while you were at school?
I loved the intellectual challenge of it. I thought it was interesting, and I loved the variety of the courses. I liked tax, for example. It was a puzzle, and you had to find the answer in the Internal Revenue Code or the regulations. I liked my course in federal courts. It was very difficult, but I had a wonderful professor, Martha Field. She was probably the best at doing what law school is intended to do, that is, to teach you to think and analyze like a lawyer.
What was your plan upon graduating from law school?
My plan changed during the course of law school. At first I decided I wanted to go back to Boston after graduation and start out in practice there. I worked at a firm in Boston after my second year in law school. That same summer my best friends from law school worked at Washington firms. When we compared notes of our experiences, I envied what they were doing. The matters they worked on that summer in Washington were the kind of things that you read about in the news pages of the press, and not just in the business section. They worked on the type of things that you could talk to a nonlawyer friend about, and your friend would not only understand what you were talking about, but also find it interesting.
So hearing of my friends’ experiences redirected me toward Washington. But I wanted some time to think about options, so I applied for clerkships. I got one with a magnificent judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, Max Rosenn. He died this past February, three days after his 96th birthday. I miss him.
What was Judge Rosenn like?
He was the single most important influence on my life as a lawyer. I think Judge Edward Becker of the Third Circuit described Judge Rosenn best when he called him “a man of almost divine grace,” and “one of the most remarkable men who has ever graced the federal bench in the history of this republic.” Judge Dolores Sloviter also put it very well after Judge Rosenn’s death. She said, “He was the most elegant human being I ever met.”
Going into your clerkship, what did you expect, and did you get
out of it a lot more than you thought you would?
I was very impressed by Judge Rosenn when I interviewed with him. What I wanted most of all was to learn as much from him as I could in my year there. His chambers were in Wilkes-Barre, an old coal-mining city in northeastern Pennsylvania. I went up there to interview with him and he took me out to lunch. That’s extraordinary. Most judges interviewing clerk candidates don’t take them out to lunch. Instead you have a very formal session in their chambers or sometimes an interview over the telephone.
As we walked to lunch that day, I was struck by the fact that the judge knew every person we passed, and they knew him. He stopped and spoke to every one of them. What was even more impressive was the way he and they spoke. They spoke to him with obvious respect, and he reciprocated. He was very respectful in all of his dealings with people. About midway through the lunch, I thought, “If this guy offers me a job, I can’t take it fast enough. I’d love to spend a year at this man’s elbow.”
So that was my goal. I also wanted to learn as much as I could about the appellate process, to get exposed to different areas of the law and to hone my research and writing skills. I thought the work would be very interesting. It’s really an extraordinary experience, to be just out of law school and have a job on the inside of a court, working with judges at the peak of their career. And it turned out to be even more than I expected, because of the man I clerked for.
What was Judge Rosenn like as a mentor?
He wrote the book. He took so much interest in his clerks. He felt responsible for them. Hardly any of his clerks came from northeastern Pennsylvania, so he took us under his wing and made sure it was the best possible experience for us. If we drafted something for him, he would sit with us at the table in his library and go through it with us, line by line. He would sometimes spend hours reviewing a draft of something we had done. He would gently probe our reading of cases, or might ask questions about why we had phrased something as we had. He would never change a word we wrote without explaining why. He would tell us about his goals in writing opinions, about effective judicial writing, and would explain the reasons he had voted as he had in cases. When we went to Philadelphia for oral arguments, he would talk to us afterward about the arguments of the different lawyers we had seen, and in a very respectful way he would critique the lawyers and tell us why he thought some lawyers had been particularly effective and what others might have done better. I recall thinking very deliberately during the course of the year that I worked for Judge Rosenn that when the day came when I would be supervising younger lawyers, I would do everything I could to imitate him, because I couldn’t imagine it could be done better.
The other way he mentored us was by his example, by the way he lived his life. He was very much a citizen of his community. He was involved in a number of nonprofit organizations, and he gave generously of his time to people and institutions. He lived the life of a lawyer as public citizen. He had a deep sense of a lawyer’s obligation to give back to the community of which he or she is a part. He was remarkably generous with his time and talent. He didn’t really talk about these things. He just did them. His example was compelling. He sent me off into the world inspired with a much clearer sense of my obligations as a lawyer and as a person.
Did the clerkship change how you viewed the law or what you wanted
to do with your law degree?
If you had asked me when I left Wilkes-Barre what my ambition in life was, I would have said, “To be Max Rosenn.” I wanted to be an appellate judge. He made the job look so interesting and fun. He made it look like the perfect job. I subsequently realized that that ambition was not realistic for me. I did decide, as a result of Judge Rosenn’s influence, that I wanted to have a full life as a lawyer, and to try to be a contributor to the institutions and communities of which I was a part.
You obviously had a great mentoring experience. How important do
you think it is for lawyers entering the profession to have a mentor?
It’s critical. Many new lawyers find mentors, but many don’t. And some may have mentors for some purposes and not for others. There may be people who teach them the specifics of their area of practice or help them with their writing skills. But it’s hard to find a mentor who covers the waterfront, who can help you learn all of the skills that go into being a great lawyer, and I think there’s a great need for that. Judge Rosenn was more than a great mentor. He was a role model. It’s an extraordinary gift to begin your career with someone who motivates you, who brings out the best in you. A great mentor helps you achieve a level of potential that you would never have achieved on your own.
There are plenty of wonderful potential mentors out there, but getting new lawyers introduced to them and creating the circumstances where they’re going to have the opportunity to form the kind of relationship I was able to have in my first year as a lawyer is a challenge. It’s something I’d like to work to facilitate during my year as Bar president.
How did you join Arnold & Porter? Was this the first law office
at which you worked?
I came to Arnold & Porter right after my clerkship—actually, after a cross-country trip following my clerkship, during which I visited each of the 48 contiguous states I had not been to previously. I interviewed at the firm before I began my clerkship, got an offer, and accepted it within the first few weeks of my clerkship. Two of my closest friends in law school had spent the summer after their second year at Arnold & Porter and came back as associates. These were people I trusted, and their descriptions of the firm were very appealing to me. When I interviewed at Arnold & Porter, I was very taken with what I found.
When you joined in 1977, did you ever think you would still be at
the firm now?
I came to Arnold & Porter thinking that this would be a good place to start my career, but with no sense that I was committing myself for life. I was confident that I would get good experience, but I thought I would take it as it went. I’ve always tried to be flexible and open to new opportunities. I thought that I might be interested in government service at some point. I signed on thinking that I’d spend a few years, and if it lasted a little longer, that would be fine, but the future was open.
Have you always been at the Washington office?
No. I joined Arnold & Porter and saw the country. Although I appear to have had a very sedentary career, I’ve actually had four different careers at Arnold & Porter. I started as an associate and worked in the Washington office for three and a half years, from 1977 until May 1981. I then went to our Denver office, which was the first office of our firm outside Washington. The office had opened in 1980. They were overworked and understaffed and desperate for help. I was asked if I would go out there for three months to pitch in. I said yes, and three months turned into 10 years.
Did you like it there?
I fell in love with Denver and Colorado from the minute I got there. I had spent all my life on the East Coast up until then, but I loved the openness, I loved the climate, I loved the outdoors, I loved that you could go up to the mountains during the weekend, even for part of a day, and get back to work Monday feeling like you’d had a vacation. Denver was a very easy city to be new in and to feel at home in quickly.
What were you doing at the firm there? Was it very different from
being in the Washington office?
It was a wildly different experience from the Washington office. In the Denver office you never passed anyone in the hall whose name you didn’t know, whose job you didn’t know, and whose family you didn’t know. I litigated there, working on both national and local cases. I had cases in places like Gunnison, Steamboat Springs, Montrose, and Hot Sulphur Springs. I also came to play a few administrative roles in the office. I was the hiring lawyer, and I ran the summer associate program and the training program. That was my introduction to firm management on a very small scale.
Where did you go after you left Denver?
I met my wife, Beth, in Denver. After we had our first child, Joe, we decided to move back to Washington for family reasons. Our families were both on the East Coast, and we were feeling the distance in Colorado. I got a call from Jim Jones, who was then the firm’s managing partner. “You know, we’re opening an office in Los Angeles next month. Would you be willing to take a detour through Los Angeles on your way back to Washington and help us open the office there? You have experience in a branch office of our firm, and it would be helpful if you could spend some time in Los Angeles.” And he suggested that I spend three months there. That sounded familiar to me. Beth and I jumped at the chance. We’d once had a great weekend in L.A. together and knew we could have a lot of fun there. So in January 1991 we moved to Los Angeles, and we went from a bitterly cold January in Colorado to flowers in bloom in our backyard in Los Angeles.
How long were you in Los Angeles?
Fourteen months. I was there until March 1992.
What was your time in Los Angeles like?
It was terrific. I didn’t practice there. I did purely management work, getting the office up and running. Our daughter, Elizabeth, was born there, at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. Hospital to the stars, we tell her.
Was that difficult for you? You had some experience at a new office
when you went to Denver.
It was different, because I went to Denver a year after the office had opened. In Los Angeles I was actually there before it opened, helping get the office set up, and I was there on opening day. It was exciting. There’s a wonderful sense of enthusiasm and energy about a new office. Everybody in a new office has made a decision to leave something else behind because they think this new experience is going to be better for them. A number of people in the office there relocated from other Arnold & Porter offices. But whether they came from another office of Arnold & Porter or from another law firm, they had made a decision to make a change, and that reflected a hope and an optimism about the enterprise they were entering into. If you can harness that, you can create something great. It was a very unusual experience and one that I learned a lot from. I loved my time in L.A.
And then you returned to Washington, D.C.? Was that transition difficult?
Yes. The transition was much more difficult than I’d expected. I thought, “I’m just changing offices of my firm. I know this firm. I’ve worked in Washington. I’ve kept in touch and been a regular visitor here.” But I was moving from a much smaller office—the L.A. office had about 16 lawyers when I left there—to a very big one. And I’d been away a long time—11 years. I didn’t know many people in the Washington office. I knew the partners, I knew the staff who had been at the firm when I’d left, and I knew a few of the associates, but not many. I didn’t know most of the people I passed in the hall. That was a big change for me, and a hard one. It’s hard to feel like a stranger in your own place of work, particularly in an institution you’ve been a part of for, at that point, 15 years. I was also at a much different point of my life. I was single when I’d lived in Washington previously and was 29 when I moved to Denver. When I returned, I was 40, married, and had two little kids, so the social environment was different. I decided that I wasn’t going to be a stranger in my own office and that I was going to try to meet every person in the Washington office. If you make the effort, you can do it.
It must have been difficult getting to know all the people at such
a large office.
Not really. I was appointed to the firm’s management committee, so I had management responsibilities that gave me lots of ways to meet people quickly. But for my management role, it would have been hard.
You have two children. Has it been hard balancing home life with
a busy legal career?
Oh, yes, and I don’t think I do it well. I think this is a real problem in the profession, achieving work–life balance. I work long hours, and I have regrets about time not spent with my family. Beth bears a disproportionate share of our family responsibilities. What I try to do is carve out time for my family, particularly on weekends. Beth and I regularly attend Washington Performing Arts Society events. We make weekend family trips to Lost River State Park in West Virginia twice a year. I’ve tried to establish rituals with each of our kids individually. My son, who is now 16, and I go out to breakfast every Saturday, and my 14-year-old daughter and I go out to lunch each weekend, after which we go to Barnes & Noble and read the gossip magazines together. Once a year I take each of them separately on a father–son, father–daughter trip. I’ve been to Colorado twice with my son, and last year we went to the Grand Canyon. My daughter and I have been to Los Angeles, Key West, and South Beach in Miami.
Do you think the work–life balance has become more of an issue
for lawyers since you started practicing law?
It’s been a very gradual change. I don’t look at the practice of law when I started and the practice of law today and say they are terribly different. I see a lot of similarities. Law has always been a demanding profession. It’s a service profession, and clients have very high expectations of availability. When I started out, the firm’s reception desks were staffed every Saturday until 1 p.m., and there was a 24-hour phone-in dictation bank. But the billable hour requirements and expectations are certainly greater now than they were 30 years ago. I don’t think there’s any question about that. So I think it’s harder. There are many more professional demands on people’s time.
What other changes have you seen since you started practicing law?
The focus on the bottom line has increased dramatically. I don’t recall reading much about the profitability of law firms or about how much partners made at one firm compared to another when I started out. You can’t pick up a legal publication today without reading about those things, and I don’t think that’s for the good. I think the practice of law is immeasurably more competitive now than it was years ago, and that’s probably to the benefit of clients. Clients are much more sophisticated in choosing lawyers today than they used to be. They’re also less loyal, but that is the right of any consumer. Their goal should be to get the best legal services they can at the best price.
How did you become involved in the D.C. Bar?
In 1995 my partner, Rob Weiner, was president of the D.C. Bar, and he asked me to serve on the Task Force on Sexual Orientation and the Legal Workplace. I had just become managing partner of Arnold & Porter, and Rob thought it was important to have managing partners on the task force. That was my first official involvement with the Bar.
The task force did its work over almost four years, and we issued our final report in 1999. We did surveys of law firms and of individual lawyers, and I learned a lot about the experiences of gay and lesbian lawyers in the Washington legal community that I didn’t know about. It was an eye-opener for me, and the experience taught me something about trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. The task force was a very diligent, committed group of lawyers who listened to one another and were determined to do the best possible work they could. I came away from the experience very impressed with my colleagues and eager to do more.
Later in the 1990s I was elected to the steering committee of the Law Practice Management Section and was cochair of the section for several years. That introduced me to many members of the Bar with practices different from my own. The membership of the Law Practice Management Section is largely solo and small-firm practitioners who look to the section to provide the sort of assistance professional staff or consultants provide in big firms. The section and the steering committee were made up of people who were trying to pool their resources, share information, and help one another improve their practices. We put together some excellent programs, and I think we provided a real service to our section members. What I enjoyed most was the opportunity to get to know people in a variety of practice settings.
I admire solo and small-firm practitioners tremendously. These are the entrepreneurs of our profession, the people who take the risk to go out and practice on their own or start a small firm, who have to deal with a range of issues beyond the abilities of many big-firm lawyers, and who personally run their practices while serving their clients.
Why did you decide to run for the position of D.C. Bar president?
It goes back to what I learned from Judge Rosenn. I wanted to be of service. I wanted to do the things that John Cruden talks about as being among the obligations of a lawyer. I’ve learned and benefited enormously from the D.C. Bar, so I hoped that as president I might be able to do something to give back to the Bar and its members. Finally, there are issues affecting our profession that I care deeply about, and I thought that the position of Bar president might give me an opportunity to do something constructive about them.
What are your goals as Bar president?
I would like to focus on cultivating the next generation of leaders in what I think is the nation’s best bar. I would like to do everything I can to motivate and inspire our newer members in the way I was motivated and inspired when I started out as a lawyer. I would like to build bridges between the many heroes of our bar and our newest members. For example, I would like to work with the Pro Bono Program’s Senior Lawyer Public Interest Project to match up lawyers later in their careers, who are interested in doing pro bono work, with younger lawyers, so they not only can do pro bono work together, but also form mentoring relationships.
I would also like to build on the mentoring initiative that John Cruden has undertaken and work with the voluntary bars and the sections to enhance mentoring opportunities. The voluntary bars are doing wonderful things in mentoring, and I would like to try to work with them and support them in their efforts.
I would like to increase the visibility of the heroes of our bar, people like those in the legal service community who, at great personal sacrifice, have dedicated their lives to serving the least fortunate in our community. I would like to give as much exposure as possible to the people featured in the Law Practice Management Section’s “Legends of the Law” program. This year’s program features William Coleman and Marna Tucker. I think celebrating the people who exemplify the best traditions of our profession can be a counterweight to the increased focus on money in the practice of law.
What issues do you see as your priorities as president?
Within the framework of cultivating the next generation of leadership, there are several things that I would like to do. I could have no higher goal than supporting the pro bono work of our bar. Mentoring is another priority, and in that context I would like to do everything I can to promote diversity in our profession, particularly in our senior ranks. Although the number of women and lawyers of color entering our profession has increased greatly over a number of years, women and lawyers of color are still terribly underrepresented in the senior ranks. Only 17 percent of law firm partners are women, and less than 5 percent of law firm partners are lawyers of color. Those numbers are unacceptable after so many years of improved diversity in our law schools.
What do you think of the work the Disciplinary System Study Committee
has done in addressing the needs of the disciplinary system in the District?
The Disciplinary System Study Committee has done a spectacular job. This extraordinarily well-qualified group put an enormous amount of effort into reviewing the status of our disciplinary system and studying how it might be improved, and its members have produced a first-class report and very thoughtful recommendations.
You mentioned pro bono work as being an important focus of the Bar.
There seems to be agreement that a lack of legal resources for the poor
is a problem in Washington, but is enough being done to address it?
No, not nearly enough. Only 10 percent of the civil legal needs of the poor in our community are being met, according to the D.C. Bar Foundation. That’s unacceptable. Although our bar leads the nation in pro bono work—you won’t find a bar anywhere that exceeds ours in terms of the number of hours our lawyers devote to pro bono work—our legal service providers need help. They need more lawyers and more resources. And I think they need help managing the pro bono resources that are available to them. It’s very hard for an understaffed legal service organization to find the time to manage volunteers. You need an administrative staff to manage volunteers, but where are these organizations going to get the money for administrative staff? We also need to expand access to justice across language barriers.
I think we need to do more to market pro bono opportunities among our members. Many people, for example, think pro bono work is limited to litigation and that if you’re a transactional lawyer there’s really not much you can do. And many think pro bono work requires a huge time commitment. Well, the Pro Bono Program’s Community Economic Development Project has opportunities for transactional lawyers. And there are things you can do if you have only 5 hours, or 15 hours, or 25 hours to devote to pro bono work. There are also small-firm practitioners who are very pressed for time, and I think there are things we can do to connect them to others so that they can be part of a pro bono team and not just left to do pro bono work on their own. I think there are many things that we can do to expand the availability of legal services, although we’re not going to get them all done in a year.
What do you think of the work of the Access to Justice Commission?
The commission is playing a very important role in focusing attention on the issue of access to justice in our community and in marshaling the appropriate resources. I think the composition of the commission, with representation from different segments of our community, our bar, and the bench, and the endorsement it has from the Court of Appeals, gives it a platform that will elevate access-to-justice issues in our city and give them the attention they deserve.
Finally, are you exited about your upcoming year as Bar president?
Absolutely. John Cruden’s energy and enthusiasm will be hard to match, but I’m going to try. I think the members of our bar are the best in the country in their quality, their professionalism, their devotion to public service, and their pro bono work. It’s an honor to serve them, and I’m going to do my best to make them proud.