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Washington Lawyer

Meet The President

From Washington Lawyer, July/August 2008

By Steven J. Stauffer

Robert J. Spagnoletti, whose distinguished career has brought him to both sides of the spectrum as trial lawyer, took over as the 37th president of the D.C. Bar on June 26 following his inauguration at the Bar’s Annual Business Meeting and Awards Dinner.

Spagnoletti has been a partner at Schertler & Onorato, L.L.P. since 2006. He previously served the District of Columbia as its first attorney general, beginning in 2003 when the position was still known as corporation counsel. Spagnoletti was instrumental in renaming and reorganizing that office to better serve the community. From 1990 to 2003, he was an assistant United States attorney for the District of Columbia, where he served as chief of the combined Sex Offense and Domestic Violence Section.

Spagnoletti’s outstanding work is recognized by both his peers and the community at large. He is a recipient of the Sullivan Award presented by the Assistant United States Attorney Association, the Bar Association of the District of Columbia Young Lawyer of the Year Award, several United States Attorney Special Achievement Awards, and the Distinguished Service Award from GAYLAW.

Spagnoletti brings to the Bar a forward-looking vision, with a commitment to strategic planning and transparency.

spagnolettiWhere did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Colonia, New Jersey, which is in the central part of the state. I’m from a large Italian-American family where I’m the second oldest of six children. My dad spent 40 years as a high school teacher, football coach, and eventually vice principal. My mom opened her own business when my youngest sister finished high school.

I went to Lafayette College, a very small liberal arts school in Easton, Pennsylvania. I had a dual major in history and mathematics, the latter largely because I did well in math and I knew that I needed to get good grades to go to law school. I decided on the Georgetown University Law Center because it has so many different areas of study and an extensive clinical program. Also, Georgetown is a big school in a big city, and offered a very different experience than Lafayette.

So in choosing an undergraduate program, you already knew you wanted to attend law school?
By the time I was in college, I did. There were no lawyers in my family, and I never had any contact with lawyers growing up. My view of being a lawyer came from television, from Perry Mason and other crime dramas. Quite frankly, even as I left college on my way to law school, that was still my view. It wasn’t until my first year of law school, when I interned at a prosecutor’s office, that I developed a sense of what lawyers actually do.

Was there a particular reason you wanted to become a lawyer?
When I was growing up, it was common to have debates at the dinner table with my dad and my siblings. I enjoyed the idea of taking a point and defending it, and based on what I saw on television, that’s what lawyers did.

How has becoming a lawyer measured up to the television version?
As most lawyers will tell you, it’s not always what it appears to be on TV, although there are moments when it certainly can be very dramatic. When I was a prosecutor in court every day with too many cases, not nearly enough time to prepare, and witnesses from all walks of life, there were TV-like moments along the way. When you are a trial lawyer, there is a lot of stress and pressure, but there is also a lot of excitement that goes along with the courtroom experience. I enjoyed wearing the white hat as a government lawyer and being able to use the power of the office and the resources of the government to help those who needed it the most. Now, as a defense attorney, it is rewarding to be able to use those skills to help clients navigate very serious legal problems.

What did you do after graduating from law school?
I was a summer associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, and I joined the firm’s New York office full time when I graduated. Although it was at a time before Skadden had a large white-collar criminal practice, they did have a big criminal defense matter when I joined the firm, and I was one of three lawyers assigned to the case. It was a long trial in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York before Judge Constance Baker Motley that involved a company called Wedtech Corporation and Bronx Congressman Mario Biaggi. We represented one of the individuals in the case. Right out of law school, I was in court nearly every day for eight months, and it really did whet my appetite for courtroom work.

After about a year and a half, I left and went to Mayor, Day, Caldwell & Keeton, L.L.P., a small firm in Houston where they had a much more traditional civil practice. I was not in court that often, and the experience did not fit my view of what being a lawyer was all about. At that point it became obvious that for me criminal law was most engaging. I wanted to spend my time in court trying cases and handling life’s immediate dramas. So after about a year, I applied to a number of United States attorneys’ offices and local prosecutors’ offices, and luckily the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia responded positively. I thought this was going to be just a stop on my way back to New Jersey. The next thing you know, a decade shot by, and my home, family, and career were firmly rooted in the District.

Tell me about your work at the United States Attorney’s Office, where you headed the Sex Offense and Domestic Violence Section.
The Sex Offense and Domestic Violence Section is responsible for prosecuting all domestic violence, sexual abuse, and child maltreatment cases in the District. When I was there, we led everything from low-level misdemeanors to homicides. These can be horribly disturbing cases, but for me, they were among the most important matters in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

While I prosecuted my share of drug and gun cases, those cases don’t touch victims in the personal way that sex offense or child abuse cases do. Every one of these cases is different. Every case is a story with a victim who needs help. Most of the victims of these types of offenses know their offenders who are often blood relatives, acquaintances, or neighbors. There are very few cases where the perpetrator is a complete stranger. This makes prosecution more complicated and the trauma worse for the victim. So those cases meant more to me.

How did you get that job?
By accident, really. There’s a rotation process at the U.S. Attorney’s Office; they start you out in the Appellate Section so you can learn the law, and then they rotate you through misdemeanors, felonies, and so on. I finished my misdemeanor and felony rotation, prosecuting largely drug and gun cases, and moved on to the grand jury section to learn how to investigate more complex crimes. Pat Riley, who was then the chief of the Sex Offense Section, asked me if I would mind skipping the rest of my rotation and go right into sex offense. At that point, I knew the personal violence cases were more rewarding for me than drug and gun matters, so I took Pat up on her offer and joined the Sex Offense Section, even though it meant missing the rest of the rotation.

The Sex Offense Section, as you might imagine, handles many high-profile cases. I was still very new to the section when I was asked to take to trial a matter that became know as the condom-rape case.

The victim in that case was sexually assaulted by a man she had met earlier the same day. When it became apparent to the victim that she was going to be raped, she asked her attacker to wear a condom. When he told her that he didn’t have one, she took one from her purse and asked him to wear it. He later used that as his defense, saying that by asking him to wear a condom, she had consented to have sex with him. It was a very difficult case.

You have to remember this happened in the early 1990s when HIV and AIDS were becoming better known. Some people thought it was perfectly understandable why the victim would ask her attacker to wear a condom. Others were very troubled by the fact that she had a condom in her purse and had the presence of mind to ask her attacker to wear it in the face of a sexual assault. The case was tried two-and-a-half times. In the first and second trials, the jury hung. Shortly after the beginning of the third trial, the defendant entered a guilty plea.

As difficult as that case was, it solidified my interest in doing personal violence cases, and I stayed with the section. A few years later, when Eric Holder became the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, he created a separate Domestic Violence Unit and appointed me chief. Wilma Lewis, who followed Eric Holder as U.S. attorney, merged sex offense and domestic violence into one section and asked me to succeed Pat Riley as chief.

How long were you with the United States Attorney’s Office?
I was at the U.S. Attorney’s Office from 1990 until 2003. In May 2003, Mayor Anthony Williams appointed me to what was then known as the Office of Corporation Counsel; it is now known as the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia. I held the position of attorney general until October 2006.

What made you leave after 13 years?
It was a hard decision to make. I was not looking for the job of corporation counsel, which is the District of Columbia’s chief legal officer. In fact, that position had been vacant for some time when Mayor Williams assembled a panel of prominent D.C. lawyers and community leaders to recommend the next corporation counsel. That panel conducted a nationwide search. Roscoe C. Howard Jr., the U.S. attorney at the time, was serving on the search panel. He asked me if I would consider putting my name in the hat. At that time the Sex Offense and Domestic Violence Section had a staff of about 60 lawyers and professional staff. We worked quite a lot with the District government because we were doing the criminal side of family violence cases.

The Office of the Corporation Counsel handled the related civil matters. Roscoe thought I had enough insight into what was happening in the Office of the Corporation Counsel, experience managing lawyers, and knowledge of the District of Columbia to apply for the job. I was very hesitant, though. While there were many terrific lawyers in the Office of the Corporation Counsel, the office itself had seen tremendous turnover, was notoriously understaffed and under-resourced, and no one had served as corporation counsel for more than two years in the past several decades. Eventually, I was persuaded to apply.

The selection process went on for months, and it was very unusual. For example, when they had narrowed the field from 100 candidates to five, they had all five of us attend a cocktail party with the hiring panel. It was a little unnerving trying to make small talk with your competition. The following day, we went into small-group interviews, and it was literally like Survivor, with people getting voted off, round after round. We were told that at the end of the day, there would be just a couple of us left.

Finally, I met with the mayor. In the middle of our interview, after we spoke for about an hour, he said to Deputy Mayor Herbert Tillery—who was sitting right beside me—“I really kind of like this guy, but don’t you think we need a big-name lawyer for the job?” I said, “No one has a bigger name than Spagnoletti. And that office needs someone who can manage, who can help structure it in a way that will work for the city. If you can find someone who has a big name and has the management ability, it would be a great fit for the office, but at the moment, they need management.” Apparently, he was persuaded because a few weeks later, he offered me the job.

It was a very exciting and challenging position. The people in the city’s law office are fabulous. Many are career government attorneys who could be doing other things for double the money and much more glamour, but they care deeply about public service. They are a terrific group of people. Even though I was reluctant to leave the federal government to join the D.C. government, at the end of the day I’m glad I did because it was an incredible opportunity and an invaluable experience.

Who were your mentors?
Not surprisingly, I think they all come from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. First, I have to give a tremendous amount of credit to Pat Riley, who now serves as special counsel to the U.S. attorney, for having pulled me out of the rotation and allowing me to take on huge amounts of responsibility at a relatively early age. Pat has been a great teacher and a terrific supporter. She’s still at the U.S. Attorney’s Office working on legislative issues and helping that office build partnerships and relationships with the local government. I consider her a very good friend. Were it not for Pat, none of the great things in my career would have occurred. Becoming chief of the section, then attorney general, now president of the D.C. Bar—none of this would have happened without Pat Riley.

Eric Holder, who went on from his position as U.S. attorney to become the deputy attorney general of the United States and now partner with the law firm of Covington & Burling LLP, also was a great mentor. I was only in my mid-30s when he asked me to take on the responsibility of establishing a Domestic Violence Unit within the U.S. Attorney’s Office and to represent the office in working with the Superior Court of the District of Columbia to develop a separate Domestic Violence Unit. Were it not for Eric giving me an enormous amount of support and responsibility, I would never have gotten that far. Of course, Wilma Lewis then entrusted the combined Sex Offense and Domestic Violence Section to my care, and allowed me the flexibility to put in place novel policies and procedures that helped resolve those difficult cases.

Finally, I have to recognize that it was Roscoe Howard’s confidence and encouragement that led me to apply for the job of corporation counsel, which turned out to be one of the most professionally rewarding experiences for which a lawyer could hope. Roscoe is now a partner at Troutman Sanders LLP, and I consider him a good friend and trusted advisor.

I think that these individuals, at the most critical junctures of my career, have helped me get to where I am today.

How would you weigh the difference between the role of a defense attorney and a prosecutor?
Schertler & Onorato, L.L.P. is a general litigation firm, and I handle some criminal defense cases—both white-collar and street crime. I enjoy it, and it’s a very different dynamic than working for the government. When you are the prosecutor, you don’t have a client per se; you have victims, you have witnesses, but other than the people at large, you don’t have a client to whom you answer. So you get to make all of the decisions on how the case should proceed.

On the defense side, you have a personal view about how you would like to see the case go, or how you think it should be resolved, but you also have a client whose life is hanging in the balance. At the end of the day, it’s the client’s liberty or the client’s reputation that is at stake. Defense work requires a different set of skills, and it also makes you appreciate the need for a wider range of outcomes. If given the opportunity to work for the government again and make decisions about how cases were to be prosecuted, I would have an even better appreciation now for the need to have informed prosecution and alternative resolutions of criminal cases.

I thoroughly enjoy being a partner at Schertler & Onorato. It is a terrific place to work, and we are small enough that we handle many different kinds of cases. The firm is made up of a mix of former assistant U.S. attorneys—including the partners after whom the firm was named, Dave Schertler and Danny Onorato—and career defense attorneys, with up and coming younger lawyers. We are not boxed in. Not all of our cases are gigantically huge and financed by extremely wealthy corporations. We have some cases like that, but we also take cases on the lower end for folks who don’t have the ability to pay big-firm rates. It’s a very nice balance.

What are some of your greatest achievements in your career?
The personal and the professional achievements have to be separated. Let me first discuss my professional accomplishments.

First, I would say participating in the creation of the Domestic Violence Unit in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, which is now a model for the way domestic violence cases are handled on a consolidated basis. Historically, a victim of domestic violence would have to go one place for a criminal case, another place for a civil protection order, and yet another to get a custody matter handled. Now, we have a unified court system. For most people, those related issues can be resolved in one place. That was an important undertaking, and now other jurisdictions visit the District to see how a consolidated Domestic Violence Unit operates.

I think the restructuring and renaming of the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia also has to be high on the list. When I was appointed as corporation counsel, morale was extremely low and there was a high turnover rate. The office was losing one or two attorneys a week. We were known then as the Office of the Corporation Counsel, and to be honest with you, I could barely explain to my mother what that meant. She understood the phrase attorney general, but corporation counsel? Not so much. The truth is that the office does what the attorney general does in every other state, so it didn’t make sense to leave it with this arcane name.

We restructured the operations in a way that mirrored attorneys general offices, while recognizing that we are like the city attorney, the county attorney, and the state attorney general all rolled into one. With approximately 350 lawyers, it was very important to organize the office in a way that made sense, and that included changing the name. By the end of my tenure, there was much greater stability, and much less turnover. I would also like to think that we continued to improve the quality of the work that was done on behalf of the city, and I was—and continue to be—very, very proud of the work those folks do every day.

Those are the big accomplishments of which I am most proud, and of course, being elected president of the D.C. Bar, the second-largest united bar in the country. I am still kind of surprised that it happened, but it is an overwhelming and humbling achievement that means a lot to me.

On a personal level, my partner, Bernard, and I have two adopted sons. I would consider that to be even more important, to be honest with you, than any of my professional achievements.

How recent was that?
Hunter, the older one, has been part of my family since he was an infant, so it has been 14 years. Anthony was born in January, and we had the pleasure of bringing him home from the hospital right after he was born. He’s a peanut, still a tiny, little guy. He’s great, and Hunter is turning out to be a terrific big brother.

Tell me about your pro bono endeavors.
I have done pro bono work in every job I have had, with the exception of the attorney general position. In that position, the conflicts were too complicated to handle on-the-ground casework. My pro bono work tended to be benefits cases before I came to the District. When I was in New York, I helped out on social security cases, but since I have been here, the cases have all been family related. They have generally been cases that involved intra-family violence matters.

I am also very proud that Schertler & Onorato has a strong commitment to pro bono work; we take a fair number of cases, usually criminal. Members of the firm have handled some very serious criminal pro bono matters, including cases involving murder and assault with intent to kill. Personally, I have had a couple of pro bono cases in just the short amount of time I have been with the firm, including one that involved a sex offender registration matter. The firm also has a program where we actually train lawyers in big firms how to handle criminal matters, so they can then take these cases and their associated matters on a pro bono basis.

What was the impetus for your involvement with the Bar?
I have been involved with the D.C. Bar, at some level, throughout my time here in the District of Columbia, including training for Continuing Legal Education Program and serving as a member of various sections. But I have not been in the higher echelons of the Bar leadership. Upon leaving the Attorney General’s Office, I thought it was time to become more involved.

The very important issues and projects the Bar is working on are critical to the local legal community. Much of the current work revolves around planning for the future and how to more closely integrate with the D.C. community. Access to justice issues, for example, are extremely important. A member referendum in the 1980s prohibits the organized Bar from lobbying. However, because of its extraordinary commitment to providing access to justice to those in our community who cannot afford lawyers, the Bar has received permission from its membership to lobby on behalf of access to justice issues.

As the Bar is entering this phase where it is trying to get public funding for access to justice initiatives, I thought that I could be helpful since I know the District government well.

What initiatives do you want to undertake in your time as president? Do you see any particular weaknesses at the Bar that need to be addressed?
There are many things going on at the Bar right now, all of which will help shape it for years to come. The Bar’s lease at its headquarters location expires in May 2009, so we are actively looking into either relocating or negotiating a new lease at our present location. As we consider our various options, we need to make sure the Bar’s offices are accessible and well-designed so we can maintain a full schedule of programs, conferences, meetings, and continuing legal education. We want an attractive home where all of our members and pro bono clients can come to have their various needs served.

In addition, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals is considering a petition from the Bar’s Board of Governors to increase our dues ceiling, which is vital to our future planning. We have to be very cognizant of the fact that we are stewards of the members’ money, and we want to make sure that money is used appropriately. The Bar has been very good with that so far, but we have some new challenges coming up. We want to make sure that the process is transparent. If there are going to be dues increases, as there are likely to be, we need to clearly state why they are necessary.

One other area I would like to pay substantial attention to is the Sections Office. We have 21 fabulous sections. Each one of them is, in itself, a voluntary bar. They are all different in what they do, the kind of programming they put on, and the way they engage their members. We have to work hard with our sections to provide them with good administrative support and information.

The Bar’s headquarters and the Board on Professional Responsibility have significant information technology needs that will need to be addressed in the coming years.

As you can see, there are many projects already underway that will determine where and how the Bar will serve its membership in the coming years. We are going to take the 2008–2009 D.C. Bar year and examine all of these issues with an eye toward strategic planning.

In keeping with our view toward the future, I would also like to reach out to the local law schools and help law students understand what the D.C. Bar and the local voluntary bars have to offer as they make their transition from student to lawyer, giving them a realistic view of what is out there and what is available for them in the profession. This relates to what I was saying before, how I went to law school and became a lawyer knowing very little about what lawyers do. I think that as the Bar plans for the future, the more we can get incoming lawyers involved, not just with the D.C. Bar but with the voluntary bars as well, the better off we will be as a profession.