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What sets Michele Roberts apart from her brethren on this list isn’t merely gender, race, and age � she is female, African-American, and under 50 � but the unbridled joy with which observers, friends, and colleagues describe her work at trial. They speak of her owning the courtroom. They call her “Magic” Roberts. Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, who in 1991 enlisted Roberts to work with professor Anita Hill in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, explains the nickname: “She becomes the 13th juror, capable of seeing the case as the jury sees it, and therefore able to revise strategy, as necessary, mid-trial to address the jury’s concerns.” It’s a valuable skill, and one that, to quote Ogletree again, “empowers the jurors to make the right decision.” What also sets Roberts apart is that, unlike most mega-stars of the white-collar defense bar, she came up the hard way � through the D.C. Public Defender Service. While many of her current colleagues put in some time as federal prosecutors, for eight years she defended those least able to afford legal talent. Taking unpopular defendants before a jury and winning is all in a day’s work. And now, at 49, Roberts, a partner in the D.C. office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, is running with the big dogs. Roberts is anticipating an early spring this year in Savannah, Ga., where she will be handling a medical fraud and RICO case, alongside Miami-based defense attorney Roy Black. After that, Roberts will share defense duties ( with Reid Weingarten of Steptoe & Johnson) here in Washington on behalf of real estate developer Douglas Jemal, who is facing conspiracy, bribery, and fraud charges. So what’s a nice kid from the South Bronx doing in a place like this? “I’ve been wondering that myself with increasing frequency,” she laughs. “I guess I like to be challenged.” That, she says, is what first led her to the Public Defender Service, where she met and worked with Ogletree. For more than two decades, Roberts did criminal defense work at the PDS and then in small-firm practice. In 2000, she had a major breakthrough case when she won an acquittal for Charles Bakaly, a spokesman for independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Bakaly had been charged with making false and misleading statements to a federal judge. But she says, “You can’t do the same thing for 20-plus years without getting bored. You need � I mean, I need � greater challenges.” Pushing herself is, indeed, a big piece of what Roberts is about. Her idea of relaxation is extreme sports. She holds a blue belt in tae kwon do. So in 2001, Roberts and fellow former PDS attorney Mark Rochon dissolved their law partnership and struck out in search of jobs at the big downtown firms. At that time, she lamented to a Legal Times reporter, “We don’t have a dime’s worth of business,” just skills to offer. Now she has both skills and clients.

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