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It’s hard to say what the bigger surprise is: that Linda Singer was picked as D.C. attorney general or what she’s done since her appointment. Chosen by Adrian Fenty three days after he was elected mayor, Singer isn’t well known by many judges or regulars at the District and federal courthouses. The public-interest lawyer doesn’t hail from the prosecutorial or judicial circles of her predecessors, and she just recently got her D.C. law license. That hasn’t stopped Singer from making some bold moves. Just three weeks on the job and still awaiting D.C. Council confirmation, Singer already has ordered a personnel shake-up in some key administrative positions at the Attorney General’s Office. Singer also has proposed taking over local felony cases now handled by federal prosecutors, a proposal that triggered an embarrassing rebuke from U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who believes the Attorney General’s Office is barely staying on top of its current caseload. A 40-year-old Harvard Law School graduate and former New York City legal-aid attorney, Singer wants the office to do more to protect consumers and vulnerable populations such as immigrants and the elderly. She has spent the past 13 years in the District leading the Appleseed Foundation, building it into a nationwide pro bono legal network with 18 centers in the United States and Mexico. If her qualifications for the job have become clearer since her appointment, so have her ties to the new mayor. Last year, Singer co-chaired Lawyers for Fenty with Covington & Burling senior litigation partner Peter Nickles, who Fenty later hired as his general counsel. The volunteer group held strategy meetings and organized a reception for lawyers before the Democratic primary. When asked if Singer’s campaign efforts played a role in her selection as attorney general, Fenty last week told Legal Times, “Absolutely. Linda not only has done an excellent job on Lawyers for Fenty, but I’ve known her as an extremely accomplished manager and attorney in the District.” Fenty, who has been criticized for appointing Cathy Lanier as police chief without conducting a national search, says he chose Singer after considering attorneys within the Attorney General’s Office and the District. “To be perfectly frank about it, we looked at everybody,” says Fenty, who is a lawyer. “We think that the Attorney General’s Office should be run with the efficient accountability and results standards of a private-sector law firm, and we thought that no one would be able to bring that into play better than someone who has worked with a lot of law firms,” says Fenty, referring to Singer’s efforts to tap pro bono attorneys for Appleseed. Singer says the call from Fenty to serve as attorney general was “a complete surprise” and “a tremendous opportunity.” “You have different tools and different obstacles when you’re inside government,” she says. “The platform you get is the ability to speak for the government and the ability to command resources and attention at a different scale.” Singer now leads the 10th largest attorney’s general office in the nation, with 340 attorneys and 300 staff members spread through 24 District government departments and agencies. With an $87 million annual budget, the office already strains to handle roughly 22,000 cases a year, as well as child support enforcement for more than 80,000 children. The office’s many duties include defensive civil litigation, domestic violence and mental health matters, child abuse and juvenile delinquency cases, and reviews of legislation, rule making, and real-estate transactions. “There isn’t any part of the city we don’t touch,” Singer says. “I think we can do better on what we’ve got, but I think there’s also a need for us to increase our resources.” Although he believes Singer is “bright, young and energetic,” Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At-Large) says he is concerned about rumors of low morale after Singer swiftly ordered the resignations or transfers of four key administrators, which “could suggest instability for the Attorney General’s Office.” Singer wouldn’t discuss the reasons for the personnel changes. “As far as transitions go, there have been very few personnel changes,” she says. “I think that’s a reflection of the quality of the people we have here. I think the office is in very good shape, and I’m going to leave it intact.” Mendelson chairs the Public Safety and Judiciary Committee, which will hold Singer’s March 15 confirmation hearing. Mendelson says it is very rare for the Council to reject a mayor’s appointment, and even though Singer has never practiced law in the District, that “isn’t necessarily a problem if she has a grasp of the variety of issues before that office.” As a member in good standing of the New York Bar since 1992, Singer’s license application was approved by the D.C. Bar on Jan. 8. She says no lawyer has experience in every area handled by the Attorney General’s Office, but she says she is prepared for the job through her work at Appleseed building the organization, recruiting attorneys, and working on policy issues now facing the District, such as education, health care, and immigration. Singer has met with many judges and other key players while learning the job, including Lamberth. The veteran judge criticized Singer’s plan to take over more felony criminal prosecutions during a hearing in a wrongful-arrest lawsuit last November. In a recent interview with Legal Times, Lamberth said the Attorney General’s Office already is “beleaguered in terms of resources.” “On the day-to-day cases, I think they are swamped,” Lamberth says. “They have to get their house in order before they start striving to take over functions that are being handled very well now by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.” Lamberth says the Attorney General’s Office also has ongoing problems with “timeliness of discovery production, timeliness of court appearances, and compliance with court orders, particularly in class action cases.” Singer now downplays the proposed increase in local prosecutions, saying the long-term goal would require a major budget increase and action by Congress. “We have to do our core job well, and it’s an absolute responsibility of this office,” she says. “It’s also a reality that [local prosecution] is an important part of home rule for the city.” Friends and former colleagues say Singer won’t have trouble adjusting to her new duties. “She is, no lie, one of the most amazing human beings I have ever met,” says Michael Tune, Appleseed’s interim co-executive director. “If anyone can multitask, it’s Linda Singer. She is able to seemingly do everything all at once.” A DIFFERENT PATH Singer grew up in Miami and New York, the daughter of parents working in the fashion industry, a career path also followed by her two brothers and sister. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1991, and she decided to pursue public-interest law because it is the “most interesting and challenging work I have ever done.” At Harvard, Barack Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois now considering a presidential bid, was a friend and classmate. Singer helped lead a group of activist students who sued Harvard Law in 1990, alleging discrimination over its shortage of minority and female professors. The dispute included sit-ins in the dean’s office and demonstration rallies. Derrick Bell, Harvard Law’s first tenured black professor, for whom Singer worked as a researcher, left the school to protest the lack of women of color on the faculty. As a second-year law student, Singer helped draft the suit and argued it in court, learning some lessons as a litigator. “I had never, ever been in a court before,” Singer says. “I said to the judge, �Imagine you’re a student at Harvard Law School.’ He said, �I was.’ Next time I’ll look [at the judge's background].” The students failed to establish standing in the suit, but public pressure prompted Harvard Law to hire more minorities, says former classmate and fellow plaintiff Keith Boykin. “Linda was sort of a quiet intellectual force behind everything,” says Boykin, an author and television commentator. “She always had a smile on her face, even when she was talking about serious issues.” While many classmates left for high-paying jobs in private practice, Singer became a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society in New York, representing poor defendants in Manhattan Criminal Court while juggling 100 cases at a time. “There was a real cowboy culture there. There was sort of an ethic about trying cases cold and how macho that was, and people didn’t interview witnesses sometimes,” she says. “I was a geek. I worked all the time.” In 1993, Singer moved to the District to become the first full-time staffer and executive director of Appleseed, then a fledgling pro bono project created during the 35th reunion of the 1958 Harvard Law class. Richard Medalie, a founder of Appleseed and former D.C. solo practitioner, says a group of 1958 graduates made up of Democrats and Republicans couldn’t agree on endorsing particular causes, so they created a pro bono network where local centers could decide their own public-policy issues. “[Singer] has been more a legal theorist as well as an administrator, but she has played a terrific role,” he says. FORGING AHEAD Singer has set an ambitious agenda for the Attorney General’s Office, with plans to expand consumer protection, improve hiring and professional development, hire more support staff, and ramp up pro bono assistance by outside attorneys. Singer has hired longtime Supreme Court advocate Alan Morrison, the co-founder and former director of the Public Citizen Litigation Group, to serve as special counsel. Morrison, now a senior lecturer at Stanford Law School, will begin full-time work on Aug. 1. Singer wants to increase affirmative litigation in areas including predatory lending, environmental protection, and safeguards for vulnerable populations. Morrison, who met Singer when he was a board member of the D.C. Appleseed branch, says he supports those efforts and Singer’s plan to identify problem areas within the District government to reduce lawsuits against the city. Singer says she is building on the successes of former Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti’s 3 1/2-year tenure, which began under the former Office of Corporation Counsel before he lobbied for the name change to the Attorney General’s Office. After inheriting an office suffering from low morale, underpaid staffers, and lax courtroom appearances, he streamlined management and helped increase funding and accountability. Spagnoletti, a partner at the D.C. firm of Schertler & Onorato, says the job as attorney general was one-third managerial, one-third legal, and one-third political as the public face of the office. He believes morale was “extremely high” when he left and the “hemorrhaging had ended” as far as attorney turnover. Spagnoletti says his dealings with the office’s two unions ran “hot and cold.” Singer, a former union member at the Legal Aid Society, says she wants to work with the unions to help unify the office. Steve Anderson, an assistant attorney general and president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1403, which represents the office’s attorneys, says he is hopeful Singer “will work with the union to make a fair promotion system, fair compensation, and fair [treatment] for term employees.” The Council approved a new three-year contract in December, granting 4 percent annual salary increases for attorneys. Joseph Bradley, a child support enforcement specialist and secretary-treasurer of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2401 representing support staff, says more support staff are needed “because there are a lot of people double-tasking, a lot of people overworked.” In a recent staff meeting, Singer said she would advocate for office employees but also would hold them accountable for their performance. “In general, across the board I think the office is doing very good things,” Singer says. “I’ve been a manager and a leader, and that’s a very big part of being successful as attorney general.”
Brendan Smith can be contacted at [email protected].

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