Washington Lawyer - May 2017 - 27

In February, Rebecca Troth began
her new role as executive director
of the D.C. Bar Pro Center. Previously,
Troth was pro bono counsel at
Sidley Austin LLP, a position she
held since 2006. Troth has an
extensive public interest career,
working within private firms,
nonprofits, and the federal
government. In a conversation
with Washington Lawyer, Troth
shared more about her background,
experiences, and plans for the
Pro Bono Center.

Tell us about your background. Where did
you grow up?
I was born in Mitchell, South Dakota, home of the
world's only Corn Palace. My dad was a banker and
my mom was an English teacher before they
married. Dad believed that banking was a community service, like George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life.
He helped people all the time, both in his job as a
banker and through community service. He was
incredibly honest and had more integrity than any
person I've ever met. Both of my parents died
recently, and at their service, we told lots of stories
about all the ways my dad tried to help people.
We moved to Minnesota when I was 12. I wasn't
musical or athletic, but I could talk, so I became
a debater and extemporaneous speaker in high
school. My husband says that allowed me to speak
with authority on things I didn't really know about.
[Laughs] I decided at age 14 to become a lawyer.
I thought I could help people and speak for those
unable to speak for themselves.
I attended Macalester College, a school steeped
in the Minnesota DFL tradition. The Mondales
went to Macalester, and Hubert Humphrey taught
there. Humphrey was a hero of mine, in large part
because of his speech at the 1948 Democratic
Convention, when he urged the party to "get out
of the shadow of states' rights and walk forthrightly
into the bright sunshine of human rights."
After college, I took a year off and went to San
Francisco to be a financial analyst in a railcar leasing
firm. Realizing I was not cut out for the business
world, I eventually left that job to be a paralegal
at a big San Francisco law firm. That experience
convinced me that law wasn't rocket science,
and that maybe I could be a lawyer. I went to
the University of Michigan Law School, which
confirmed for me that I was on the right path.
What was your clerking experience like?
After law school, I clerked for Judge [John] Pratt in
the District Court here in D.C. His priorities were his
family, his friends, and his career, in that order. He
was a wonderful role model and a very good
judge. I was the third female clerk in his chambers.
Judge Pratt would ask my male co-clerk, Brian
Busey, to regularly drive him to the bank so that he
could run in while Brian waited in the car. Through
that one-on-one time, Brian got to know Judge
Pratt a little better than I. I told Brian that, Gee, I'd
like to have that time with him, so Brian told the
judge. A few days later, Judge Pratt came in and
said, "Well, little girl, I heard you want to go to the
bank!" [Laughs] So I got to go to the bank with
Judge Pratt.

Opposite page: Patrice Gilbert Photography

What was your first pro bono work?
After my clerkship, I worked for O'Melveny & Myers
and did a lot of pro bono work, mostly with the
[Washington] Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights
and Urban Affairs. As a summer associate, I was able
to work on the Bob Jones [University] case in the
Supreme Court. That was the case in which the
Reagan administration changed positions and
decided that schools that discriminated on the basis
of race could get a tax deduction as a nonprofit. The
Court had appointed Bill Coleman, an O'Melveny
senior partner and former Cabinet member (who
died March 31 at the age of 97), to represent the
government's prior position. I went up to the
Supreme Court library and researched the meaning
of "charitable" and "eleemosynary." I discovered
an 1891 English tax case, which found its way into
O'Melveny's brief. Being able to work on that case,
which we won, was a pretty gratifying experience.
How did you get involved in civil rights class actions?
After about four years, O'Melveny wanted me to
move to New Mexico to work on a nuclear power
plant ratemaking case. I wasn't thrilled with the
opportunity because my new husband and I had
just bought a house - I didn't want him decorating
it without me - and I had no interest in acquiring
an expertise in utility rate making.
I had started looking around, and Joe Sellers at the
Lawyers' Committee told me that a civil rights class
action lawyer he worked with, Paul Sprenger, was
looking for an associate. Paul, who had offices in
Minneapolis and D.C., worked with Jane Lang, and
they eventually formed Sprenger & Lang. I got the
job, and for three years I worked on employment
discrimination cases, including the big class action
against Eveleth Mines in northern Minnesota, the
subject of Charlize Theron's movie North Country.
It was the first sexual harassment case certified
as a class action in the country.
In the ensuing years, you transitioned from
private practice to government to academia
to nonprofit work.
After we had our son, going back and forth to
Minnesota became more difficult, and I took a job
in the Appellate Section of the Civil Rights Division
at the U.S. Department of Justice, briefing and
arguing civil rights cases in the U.S. Courts of Appeals.
It was pretty cool to write briefs and stand up and say
"Rebecca Troth for the United States" on behalf
of people whose civil rights have been violated.
Toward the end of the Clinton administration,
I got a detail as a counsel to Attorney General
Janet Reno.

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WASHINGTON LAWYER

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MAY 2017 27


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