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Was it burnout? Boredom? Or the legal community’s equivalent of a midlife crisis? Whatever the cause, two of Washington, D.C.’s star defense lawyers have decided to shutter their law firm and leave behind their criminal defense practices. One, Mark Rochon, is currently in a temporary, self-imposed retirement. The other, Michele Roberts, is planning to focus on civil and white-collar work at her new firm, D.C.’s Shea & Gardner. “I’m looking for more interesting cases than drug dealing and murder,” says the 45-year-old Roberts. Rochon, 44, says he feels the same way. “Murder cases are emotionally challenging and psychologically challenging, but intellectually — if you do enough of those cases — it’s not a challenge,” Rochon says. The move has left many of their criminal defense brethren and the D.C. bench in shock. “It’s a major blow to the defense bar and potential clients out there who need them,” says D.C. lawyer Bernard Grimm, a longtime friend of the two. Says D.C. Superior Court Judge Herbert Dixon Jr.: “I really am surprised that they are leaving. They are two of the best legal stars this city has ever produced.” Both Rochon and Roberts have been trying cases in Washington, D.C., Superior Court for about 20 years. The two met while working at D.C.’s Public Defender Service; in 1992 Roberts joined Rochon’s small firm. Their PDS upbringing left them with an embedded sense of mistrust of the government. It also instilled the belief that criminal defense work was more satisfying than anything that went on at the large corporate firms. After all, at the same time that dozens of lawyers may have been gathered around a marble table to ink a deal and make a client millions, Rochon and Roberts probably were in the bowels of Superior Court trying to convince 12 people that their client shouldn’t spend the rest of his life behind bars. Murder, gun and drug cases were their specialty. Rochon says that in the early to mid-1990s the firm was bringing in more than 70 cases a year. Rochon and Roberts were especially well-known for their skills at identifying with the jury. “Clearly Michele is the kind of lawyer other lawyers go to court to watch,” says D.C. lawyer Frederick Cooke Jr. “She is that good.” Says Judge Dixon: “Mark Rochon is less aggressive than Michele Roberts. But his understated personality is good at catching folks by surprise.” RISKY BUSINESS The firm’s history, in fact, can be traced back through some of the city’s most heinous crimes. But being a street crime lawyer — especially a good one — is a risky business. For one, the money comes from clients snared in the criminal justice system and can’t always be traced back to a legitimate source. And the U.S. Attorney’s Office does not like to see murder defendants go free. At times, even lawyers themselves become the focus of law enforcement — a position Rochon found himself in when he was bounced from a high-profile gang case in 1992. A witness claimed to have seen Rochon accept money from one client to pay for another client’s legal bill. Both clients were allegedly involved in a conspiracy, thus making Rochon a potential witness in the case. Rochon says the incident never took place and that the witness was later discredited. Rochon is known among other defense lawyers as taking nearly every case that walked through the door. Rochon says a large-volume practice was necessary given that he did not want to take court-appointed work. But such a practice also meant 14-hour days and many weekends at the office. For Rochon, who is married and has two children, there was barely any time for the family. Roberts, who is single, says she went years without a day off. Though Rochon is known for his trial skills, he says he has argued more than 30 cases at the appellate level. More recently, Rochon has taken on more civil work and traveled to other parts of the country to work on cases. Roberts was a bit more choosy with her cases — especially, she says, over the past couple years. And since early in her career, she had taken on white-collar crime and civil disputes. In 1991, Roberts was on the legal team representing Anita Hill in Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings before the Senate. Last year, Roberts defended Charles Bakaly III, former Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s spokesman, who was accused of making “false and misleading” statements to a federal judge. Roberts won an acquittal for Bakaly from U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson — the same judge whom Bakaly allegedly lied to. About three years ago, Roberts says she began feeling less excited about street crime cases. But every time she tried to work on something else, a criminal case would suck her back in. “I cannot give priority to anything except the person being held without bond,” Roberts says. “After you do anything for 21 years, it’s not just burnout, but boring.” POINT OF NO RETURN This summer, Roberts says she learned that Rochon was also becoming disenchanted with the practice, and the two decided to put an end to it. “I got tired of doing criminal cases for a lot of different reasons,” Rochon says. “I wanted to do something different than all these murder and drug cases, even though I had a lot of success doing that.” Grimm says he was floored and didn’t believe it until he started receiving calls from potential clients who said that Rochon and Roberts had declined their cases. “When you have the impossible case or the impossible client, you talk out loud about how you’ve had enough of this business and on the worst days you say you just want to get out,” Grimm says. “But 99 percent of us don’t act on it.” The law firm of Rochon & Roberts stopped taking criminal cases in July. Roberts says some cases already under way were transferred to other D.C. attorneys. The firm’s small number of support staff and its two investigators found employment elsewhere. And the office, a townhouse located at 504 7th St., S.E., was officially shuttered in mid-September. This week, Roberts is scheduled to try one more case from her old firm, defending a lawyer accused of contempt. On Dec. 3, she is set to begin work as of counsel at D.C.’s 68-lawyer Shea & Gardner, where she’ll be handling a variety of cases, ranging from administrative law to employment discrimination to white-collar criminal defense. “I wanted a practice with a lot of variety, and I can’t do that hanging out in Superior Court all the time,” she says. Initially, Roberts and Rochon tried to move to a firm together, but had trouble persuading firms to hire two litigators without any business. Roberts says they couldn’t offer firms “a dime’s worth of business,” just their skills. Roberts, however, had several firms competing for her. “Being downtown, I didn’t know Shea & Gardner from Shea & Gould,” she says. “I had been vetting a number of firms and Shea & Gardner was the only firm that no one had a damn negative thing to say about it.” Shea & Gardner managing partner John Aldock says he is looking forward to using Roberts’ litigation skills for the firm’s clients, particularly in white-collar crime and legal malpractice cases. “My view is that if you’re a premier jury trial lawyer, it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing criminal or civil work,” Aldock says. Rochon, meanwhile, says he just completed five bench trials — winning acquittals in all. There are about seven cases left to be resolved, he says. When that’s finished, Rochon says he, too, will look for employment at a large D.C. firm. “I like the idea of handling more complex cases,” Rochon says. Headhunter Gary Klein of D.C.’s Klein, Landau & Romm says it’s extremely rare for a large firm to hire someone without a portfolio, no matter how good their litigation skills are. Klein says most lateral hires are based on how much business a lawyer is going to bring or can bring to the firm. “I’ve been doing this since 1981, and it’s always been about the business,” says Klein. Still, defense lawyers and some former prosecutors say a firm would be fortunate to have Rochon and Roberts on board. “Any firm getting either one of them is extremely lucky,” says D.C. defense lawyer Preston Burton, who faced off against both Roberts and Rochon when he was an Assistant U.S. Attorney. “They’re both excellent trial attorneys, and their skills as trial lawyers will enhance any firm that wants to have a serious litigation practice.” Some in the Superior Court community still wonder whether the pull of a high-profile murder case will bring either of them back, even if for a brief stint. As tempting as that may be, both Rochon and Roberts say their decision is final. No exceptions. Last week, Roberts says her cell phone rang during lunch. Calling was a woman whose son was charged with first-degree murder and who wanted to hire Roberts. “For the first time, I felt sort of badly that I had to tell her that I’m not doing that sort of litigation anymore,” Roberts says. Says Rochon: “Unlike Michael Jordan, I won’t be coming back.”

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