Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 48

Spagnoletti spent the past 10 years as a partner at Schertler & Onorato, LLP, where
he represented clients in a wide range of criminal and civil cases. He also served
as attorney general for the District of Columbia from 2003 to 2006, where he
provided leadership to a staff of 700. Prior to serving as the District's chief legal
officer, Spagnoletti spent 13 years as an assistant United States attorney for the
District, heading the sex offense and domestic violence sections.
Spagnoletti is a graduate of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and
Georgetown University Law Center.
Tell us where you grew up and what your family was like.
I grew up in a big Italian American family in New Jersey. My father was a schoolteacher and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. I have five brothers and
sisters. We're all close in age and have stayed involved in each other's lives.
I'm very grateful to have a family that is as close as it is.
When did you realize that you wanted to become a lawyer?
I had a Perry Mason view of what a lawyer does. My dad loves to argue and
I was not afraid to take him on. There were a lot of opinions expressed at the
dinner table, and my dad liked to press my buttons. I would argue back. Having
no idea what lawyers really did, I thought that was what I wanted to do -
make people confess on the witness stand the way Perry Mason did.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and then to Georgetown for
law school. Back then, the law school was comprised of a single building. The
classrooms, library, and professional offices were in the same place. There was
no campus. But the education was first rate and I formed friendships that have
lasted a lifetime.
Did you have an idea of what type of lawyer you wanted to be?
Well, I had matured a little bit from my Perry Mason days, but not much. Having
been a math major as an undergraduate, I thought patent law might be a good
fit. But I took a couple patent law courses and realized it was not what I wanted
to spend my life doing. At the same time, my criminal law and constitutional
law professors were riveting, so I was drawn to that.
What did you do upon graduation?
I got a job as an associate with Skadden Arps LLP in New York. Back then,
Skadden didn't do a lot of criminal law work, but I was assigned to work on an
eight-month white collar trial in the Southern District of New York in which
Constance Baker Motley was the presiding judge. That was an amazing experience. It was a small defense team. I put on witnesses and was involved with the
full range of the case. I fell in love with the courtroom and the action that takes
place there.
Was that what led you to the Office of the U.S. Attorney?
Yes. I worked on other matters at Skadden and did a short stint with a law firm
in Texas, but criminal law was what I was most interested in. I was invited to join
the U.S. Attorney's Office in 1990 in Washington, and I jumped at the opportunity. Being a prosecutor was much more to my liking.
What did you like about being a prosecutor?
I liked being able to do justice. Just because somebody gets arrested doesn't
mean that person could or should be prosecuted. Different cases require different remedies. Eventually, I was put in charge of the domestic violence and
sex offense sections. I think prosecutors come in two varieties: people who love
that kind of work and those who hate it because of the pain and suffering of the
victims. Personally, I found it very gratifying to help someone who had been
traumatized by a violent incident - to get them through the legal process and
find support systems that would help them move forward in their lives, particularly for children. A lot of people find it difficult to work with children who have
been physically and sexually abused, but I found great courage in the ability of

48 WASHINGTON LAWYER

* JULY 2017 *

young victims to bounce back despite the awful things that had been done
to them. To help them have their story told, to have someone be held accountable, and to get the families the services they needed was rewarding.
Did you have feelings toward the perpetrators?
You can't help but have deep feelings. A lot of the defendants had themselves
been victims of violence and sexual abuse. The more you learn about the psychology behind these types of crimes, the more you can work out remedies and
resolutions that deal with the entirety of what has happened while still holding
accountable those who need to be held accountable. Just because a police
officer walks into your office with a list of evidence doesn't mean you're getting
the whole story. In fact, it's almost never the whole story. Sitting down with the
defense attorney to just listen and to hear about what evidence they have to
present is not something that all prosecutors do. But I think it's vital. Before you
make big, life-changing, job-ending, stigmatizing, publicity-generating decisions,
you need to step back and say, "Let me gather all the evidence." I have great
respect for prosecutors who listen and try to develop a balanced view of a case.
How did you become attorney general for the District of Columbia?
I would not have left the Office of the U.S. Attorney had Mayor Anthony
Williams not asked me to serve as corporation counsel, which was the office
title back then. That proved to be quite a challenge. We had some serious
administrative issues to deal with. The lawyers were grossly underpaid, had
formed a union, and were amid a hotly debated negotiation; there was a
lawsuit being litigated between the executive and the Council; and we were
working with antiquated computers and needed to modernize our IT capabilities. In addition, we were working in a post-9/11 environment. The District was
having regular run-ins with the federal government regarding street closures,
bomb threats, and how to reroute traffic, and there were legislative proposals
to amend the D.C. Home Rule Act that would have diminished local powers and
negatively impacted city revenues. So, it was all very daunting. For those first six
months, I would go home and tell my spouse, "I think I made a mistake. This is
more than any one person can do."
Then, little by little, we began to make progress. I discovered that there were
a lot of extremely talented people in the office. We went through a major reorganization and got the collective bargaining issues squared away. After about
18 months, we could step back and say, "Okay, we have a workable structure."
It was at that point that we changed the name to Office of the Attorney General
for the District of Columbia to better reflect the work we were engaged in.
From there, you went into private practice. Was it difficult to transition
from having been a prosecutor to taking a seat at the defense table?
No. My practice generally involved clients in the white collar world who, for the
first time in their lives, found themselves faced with a criminal investigation. As
a defense lawyer, people come to you at their lowest moment. They're people
who have pretty much walked the straight and narrow their entire lives and
have had solid achievements and successful careers. And now they find themselves in a situation where they feel like they have no control. Typically, they are
facing a multitude of problems. It's not just the fact that there's a criminal investigation and possibly a prosecution - there are repercussions that involve your
family or your job and there might be embarrassing publicity or immigration
consequences. So, you must manage more than the criminal side of it, you
must manage all the pieces that the client needs to work through. You have
to be a little bit of a therapist and let the client know, "Hey, we're going to get
through this."
Personally and professionally, I've found it gratifying to help a client in dire
straits navigate the process. Sometimes that involves accepting personal
responsibility for your actions, and as a defense lawyer, you need to keep
expectations realistic. But almost always what seems so mortifying at the
darkest moments is not as catastrophic as it might feel. At the end of the day,
we're all human. We all make mistakes - and we find ways to overcome
those mistakes.


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Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Washington Lawyer - July 2017

Your Voice
From Our President
Calendar of Events
The Bar at 45
Annual Report 2016-17
1970s: Bar Beginnings
1980s: Reagan Reigns, Women Rise
1990s: Re-Envisioning & Expanding
2000s: Strength in the Face of Adversity
2010s: Solidifying the Bar's Future
The Founding of the D.C. Bar
A Conversation with Robert J. Spagnoletti
Attorney Briefs
Ask the Ethics Experts
Disciplinary Summaries
Last Word
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - Cover1
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - Cover2
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 1
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 2
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 3
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 4
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - Your Voice
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - From Our President
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 7
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - Calendar of Events
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 9
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 10
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 11
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 12
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 13
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - The Bar at 45
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - Annual Report 2016-17
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 16
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 17
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 18
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 19
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 20
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 21
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 1970s: Bar Beginnings
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 23
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 24
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 25
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 1980s: Reagan Reigns, Women Rise
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 27
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 28
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 29
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 1990s: Re-Envisioning & Expanding
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 31
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 32
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 33
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 2000s: Strength in the Face of Adversity
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 35
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 36
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 37
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 2010s: Solidifying the Bar's Future
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 39
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 40
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 41
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - The Founding of the D.C. Bar
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 43
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 44
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 45
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - A Conversation with Robert J. Spagnoletti
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 47
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 48
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 49
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - Attorney Briefs
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 51
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - Ask the Ethics Experts
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 53
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - Disciplinary Summaries
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - 55
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - Last Word
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - Cover3
Washington Lawyer - July 2017 - Cover4
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