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Terrell Roberts III and Douglas Wood were friends and classmates at Catholic University School of Law, class of 1977. The two founded Riverdale, Md.’s Roberts & Wood in 1985. The firm now has five lawyers and thriving criminal law and civil rights practices. Last week, Legal Times Metro editor Joel Chineson visited the offices of Roberts & Wood to ask “Five Questions” of founder Wood, and partners Christopher Griffiths and Nikki Lotze. Wood and Lotze practice criminal law; Griffiths specializes in civil rights law. Below is a transcript of their conversation, edited for reasons of space and clarity. Why did you decide to start your own practice? Douglas Wood: Terry [Terrell Roberts III] and I had gone to law school together, and we’d been friends ever since. I had been at the [D.C.] Public Defender Service for about seven and a half years and wanted, basically, a change of pace, a different practice. And so that’s essentially why we got together to start a practice out here. I had done all criminal work while I was in the Public Defender Service, and Terry had done primarily civil work in private practice. So we figured it would be a pretty good combination if we did a little of each, and that’s basically how we got started. I think we primarily got started because we were good friends. Tell us about your clients. Wood: Our typical client is your blue collar criminal defendant. I guess we do complex “blue collar” criminal law. We don’t do any white collar criminal cases. Occasionally, we get a federal court case that might be called white collar criminal. But it’s basically just the blue collar criminals. Terry and Chris do primarily civil work. The civil rights work they do is police brutality and use of excessive force. That’s a good offshoot to our criminal practice because most of the individuals they represent were involved in some criminal undertaking when they were opposed by the police. Nikki Lotze: For Doug, he represents, I guess, probably 50-50 � 50 percent of his people are in Maryland and 50 percent of his people are down in D.C. And for me, all of my clients are now in D.C. For Chris, it’s probably more Maryland. Where do you find your clients? Wood: I don’t think we do any advertising. We just have one line in the Yellow Pages, besides our phone number. It’s all referrals, primarily, from other clients. Clients who we represented refer us other cases � their friends, their friends of friends. We find that if we win cases, people are just banging down the doors. And also from Terry’s civil rights practice, given that he has handled a lot of high-publicity cases. A lot of those individuals were also charged with crimes, and that’s how they came into contact with the police. The success we’ve had there also results in tremendous referrals. Christopher Griffiths: In this business, more than any other field, word of mouth is essential. You generally have a population that is doing a lot of referring. You have people who get in trouble, and they know other people who are in trouble. Frequently, they’re all locked up together. But you have to do a good job. That’s the bottom line. You have to perform for these people. You’re not going to be referred because you’re a nice guy. We have investigators who investigate cases, but even with them doing most of the legwork, it’s still essential to get out there into the neighborhood and investigate a case. You meet a lot of people just knocking on doors. People are curious about what you’re doing in the neighborhood. I’ve gotten several cases just by virtue of being out there in the neighborhood and meeting people. In this type of practice, if you’re going to bar association meetings and speaking to civics groups, you’re not going to get the clientele that we’re targeting. Occasionally, you do. You’ll meet someone who knows someone who gets in trouble and they’ll pass your name on, but that’s not the majority of our referrals. Wood: You’ll find that this is a difficult practice. Of the group of 14 lawyers that I started with at the Public Defender Service, I think I’m the only one who’s actually still practicing criminal trial work. This is a very stressful practice. So, in a sense, we’ve hung in there and kept at it. A lot of people just can’t stand it � can’t stand the pressure, can’t stand the long hours, can’t stand the problematic payments that sometimes come from clients. There’s a lot of reasons to quit. We’ve never quit, and I think the reason we’ve done so well and are very, very busy is that we’ve hung in there and lasted the longest. It’s the “last person standing” rule. Lotze: Something that always amuses me is that, occasionally, I’ll get a call from a juror who says, “I was on your jury panel and I saw you do this trial, and now my son’s in trouble.” So, I’ve gotten a few referrals that way. We’re just so busy doing the work, and for me trying to balance work and family, that there’s not really a lot of time to go to the bar functions and promote your practice. How do you measure business success? Wood: Like most firms, we’re successful as long as the phones keep ringing. When the phones stop ringing, you have a problem in a small firm. I’ve always found, in terms of the monetary compensation, the first thing is to do good work and win cases. If you do good work and win cases, the money follows. Some lawyers do the opposite. They chase the money and try to charge the big fees, but don’t produce, and then it dries up. Maybe it’s a momentary success that you’ve gotten a big fee in a case, but if you screw the case up and don’t win, then the well is dry. Whereas if you do it the other way and just concentrate on doing good work, then the money keeps coming. A lot of people, they’ll hire us, we’ll win the case, they maybe don’t pay the whole fee. You think they owe us money, but then, instead of compensating us with money later on, they send us another case. Or they get in trouble and they come back. The repeat business is astounding. So, we don’t measure success by billable hours. It’s not a measurement that pertains to our practice. Griffiths: Our clientele for the most part is low income, and so most of the time, you can’t charge what a case is really worth. And so, you’re trying to take a volume of cases to maintain the practice. The key is to balance the number of cases you take and not to overextend yourself � and that’s the real trick. I don’t think anyone who practices criminal law does it to get rich. That’s not the type of practice it is. But you do want to make a decent living, and it’s a grind sometimes to balance the number of cases you’re taking with the amount of money you need to take in. But we try to keep focused on the quality of our representation. Lotze: Just in terms of sheer numbers, in Maryland it’s easier to carry a larger caseload because you get discovery, which makes it more doable. You can better practice law in Maryland when you know what trials are coming and when you’ve been given enough statements of the witnesses and whatnot. In D.C., you’ve got to figure all that out on your own. You’re not given anything. The government doesn’t tell you anything about what’s coming. You don’t know who the witnesses are, what they’ve said. So, to investigate a case like that takes so many more hours for your investigators than it might in Maryland. In D.C., where I practice mainly, people who reject their court-appointed lawyer or their public defender and hire a lawyer generally do it because they want to go to trial, because their court-appointed lawyer or public defender has told them that they need to take a plea. Where most criminal defense lawyers might tell you that a very small percentage of cases go to trial, a much greater percentage of my clients � the people who have decided to pay money and hire a lawyer � want to go to trial. Wood: I would think that Nikki is averaging probably two trials a month, and I’ve been averaging about two trials a month. To do about 20 to 25 jury trials a year is a lot. Griffiths: And we supplement those serious cases with a number of misdemeanor cases. Maybe half our cases are misdemeanor cases, and those are time-intensive in the sense that you’re in court virtually every day. So, even if we’re not in trial, we’re in court almost daily. That becomes difficult because when you come back to the office after having been in court all day, then it’s time to prepare for the following day, then it’s time to actually communicate with clients, to return telephone calls. So it becomes a very long day. What challenges to your practice do you foresee? Lotze: One of the biggest challenges, in D.C. especially, is these huge conspiracy cases the government is bringing, like the recent 35-co-defendant matter. The more cases like that that are brought, the more conflicts there are. Doug and I in this 35-co-defendant matter have separately represented probably four of the people. So now it won’t be possible for us to represent any of them in the huge conspiracy because we previously or currently are representing one or more. That’s a tremendous problem. Wood: The way the criminal practice is going, the sentences are becoming more and more severe. Particularly in the District of Columbia, the combination of gun cases and drug cases are going to federal court, and so the ante is up. Whereas 15 years ago or 10 years ago, that would be taken to Superior Court. The way the practice is going, more and more severe penalties are being opposed. That puts more pressure on the representation of an individual client. Whereas 10 years ago, you could say to that client, “I don’t think you’re going to jail, but if you’re going to jail it will be minimal.” Now the stakes are much higher � and that puts more pressure on them, puts more pressure on us, puts more pressure on the system. When the system is telling the defendants they’re going to jail, they say, “I’m not resolving this case by plea bargaining, I’m going to take my chances at trial.” In the past, say out of 10 cases, you identified two where you really had to worry about your guy going to jail. Now, if you have 10 cases, you worry about eight guys going to jail. So, exponentially, more pressure, more time, and more at stake. But then again, from a business perspective, those people really need good lawyers. So it’s bad for them. I think it’s terrible for the system. But for a practice like ours, we’ll continue to be busy.

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