Schertler & Onorato has a knack for finding its way to the defense table in Washington’s headline-making criminal cases.

In the District of Columbia Superior Court, name partner David Schertler and partner Robert Spagnoletti are defending Dylan Ward, one of three men charged with obstruction, conspiracy and evidence tampering in the 2006 stabbing death of Washington lawyer Robert Wone.

Schertler and name partner Danny Onorato represent Dustin Heard, one of five Blackwater guards charged with manslaughter in the 2007 shooting deaths of 17 Iraqi civilians. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the case in December after finding that the prosecutors used statements made by the guards under a promise of immunity. The Justice Department is appealing.

Schertler and Onorato also have a client in the Justice Department’s largest Foreign Corrupt Practices Act case to date, which accuses 22 arms-industry executives with conspiracy and money laundering. They represent Lee Wares, a U.K. businessman.

For Onorato, the chance to defend individuals rather than corporations is the most appealing aspect of practicing at a litigation boutique. "What’s rewarding both personally and professionally is to get someone through this dark period of their life and…make sure they see the light at the end of the tunnel," Onorato said.

Criminal cases are the 13-lawyer firm’s bread and butter, making up about 65% of its work. The firm boasts five former federal prosecutors, starting with Schertler himself.

Schertler launched the firm, then called Coburn & Schertler, in 1996. Before that, he’d spent 14 years as a federal prosecutor, including four years as chief of the homicide section of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. Among the firm’s other ex-prosecutors are Onorato, who met Schertler while clerking at the Justice Department in 1994 and joined the firm in 2002, and Spagnoletti, an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia from 1990 to 2003 and the district’s first attorney general.

At the beginning of the decade, Schertler and Onorato signed several clients in the accounting scandals then roiling U.S. business. The list includes three Enron Corp. employees who were subjects in the Justice Department’s investigation but never charged. Along with partner Mark Schamel, they also represented Buford Yates Jr., a former accounting director at WorldCom Inc. who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and securities fraud.

NAME CHANGE

The firm became Schertler & Onorato in 2004, after Barry Coburn left for the six-lawyer firm Trout Cacheris, also in Washington. At the time, Schertler was aiming to expand his firm to 20 to 30 lawyers. Now, he said, "We have been pretty stable and we are happy to stay this way, but…we are certainly open to the idea of growing."

One way to grow is to expand the firm’s civil practice. In 2007, the firm added tax partner David Dickieson to accommodate clients with criminal and civil tax disputes. In 2009, it added partner Phillip Stackhouse, a military law expert.

The firm rarely does "affirmative advertising," according to Schertler, relying on its reputation in the Washington legal community for referrals from other, often larger law firms and former colleagues. In the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act case, for example, a former Justice Department colleague pushed the case to the firm because he had a conflict. The Blackwater case was also referred by a Justice Department connection.

The firm’s lawyers each argue three to four cases per year. Onorato said the firm’s size and cohesiveness allow it to keep an informal management structure.

Equally informal, Schertler and Onorato will frankly debate their views on case strategy — a process that, Onorato said, often unnerves their clients — and equally split the workload.

But Schertler, the one-time mentor, still tends to stand front and center at trial. "It’s just the seniority aspect of it," he said with a laugh.

Andy Jones can be contacted at ajones@alm.com.