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Women Criminal Defense Attorneys: Interview with Caroline Judge Mehta

Caroline Judge Mehta, a member of Zuckerman Spaeder’s Legal Profession and Ethics Practice in Washington, DC, is an experienced advocate who represents individuals, business organizations, and other entities in criminal, regulatory and administrative investigations. She also advises lawyers and law firms on a variety of issues before the District of Columbia Bar and federal agencies. She has been recognized by The Best Lawyers in America and Legal 500 US, in White Collar Criminal Defense. But her day doesn’t end with her legal work; she also writes a blog that’s published on Huffington Post, which she started at age 40. Her topics reflect what’s close to home, she says, and much of them relate to some of the topics in this interview. “Like so many lawyers, I love to write and express myself in ways that briefs and motions don’t allow,” she explains. Our conversation on topics both professional and personal will no doubt strike a familiar chord with many of you.

How did you get experience in handling white collar matters?

I’ve been so fortunate to be trained by the best trial lawyers anywhere.  I took every meaningful litigation opportunity you can get at a “small” trial firm – civil or criminal – and got on my feet in court every chance I could.  I’m at one of the few firms that wants to train lawyers from the bottom up.  That means pushing young people out in front, early on, making them an equal player on the team in the client’s eyes, and trusting younger lawyers to handle larger and larger portions of cases.

What do you see as the biggest hurdle for women in the white collar field?

Keeping younger women in the profession.  It’s still an extremely tough tightrope walk, and I get why many women leave.  But we won’t have a healthy white collar bar unless we keep making strides on gender equality.  In the private sector, that means generating business, and it means mentoring and supporting each other and the women of the next generation.

Has there been a representation of a client that has most stayed with you through the years and why?

I think they all stay with me.  One of the best moments of my life was calling a client who had been the target of a criminal antitrust investigation that dragged on for about four years.  We made a last pitch to DOJ, along with the company’s outside counsel (who both had the temerity to fight and stood up for the individual executives), and we got a declination – and that was after we’d all received target letters.  I reached my client in his car, and he had to pull over because he was overcome with emotion.   There aren’t enough days like that, but when they happen you cherish them and remember why you chose to do this work.

What part of defending a client most fuels you? Drains you?

Like most of us, I want to win.  But I’m fueled by the challenge of helping a person navigate one of the most difficult crises he or she will face in life.  I get to do everything in my power – a unique power we as lawyers wield in society – to help my client get to the other side of that crisis.

And what drains me?  In a way, the very same thing.  You carry that weight with you throughout, and you never put it down.  You’re either on that journey with your client, or you should be in a different line of work.

Is there any unique aspect about being a woman that either helps or hinders you when you are defending a client?

It’s hard to answer that without falling prey to stereotypes.  But I often observe that women will sit back and listen a lot longer before they insert themselves into the conversation.  You learn a lot more by listening than by talking.  I’ve often had male colleagues ask, “How did you know ___?”  And the answer will be that I heard the client or a witness or an opposing counsel say it.

This is a profession in which all of us like to talk, and that’s a lot of the fun of it.  But I always think of that quote by Maya Angelou, who stayed silent for five years after a childhood trauma.  In that time, she read all of Shakespeare, Poe, Kipling, Burns.  Recalling this later in her life, she said: “When I finally spoke, I had something to say.”

Not that I’m anywhere near her pantheon.  I just think we’d all do well to reflect on those words.

Did you have women role models or not and how did this shape your career?

My working mom was certainly my first and most important role model.  In my memory, she was everywhere I needed her to be when I needed her to be there.  We Gen-Xers were the “latchkey kids,” and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.  I just regret that we still expected her to come home and make supper appear.

The judge for whom I clerked, Patti Saris (D. Mass) is another huge role model.  She had four kids, the youngest of whom was ten during my clerkship year.  She has a killer sense of humor, an extraordinary mind and work ethic, and gave blunt and perfect advice.  When I’d ask her “how she did it all,” she’d laugh and say she couldn’t do any of it if she didn’t hire a lot of nannies and babysitters.  It was so honest.  I’m grateful that I got to see her closeness with her children, and their pride in her.  I’m sure she must have felt the guilt most of us feel from time to time, but she didn’t waste a lot of time on it.  She is someone who relishes all parts of a life lived to the fullest.  I’ve tried to emulate that.

In practice, there are too many to name.  Paula Junghans is a trial lawyer among trial lawyers.  Karen Popp somehow looks out for all of us women white collar lawyers while keeping up her own hectic practice.  Janet Levine at Crowell is a fearsome advocate whom I got to know well in a 10-week trial in Chicago.  Mid-trial, she had her now-grown daughter write to me about how glad she was to have had a working mother.  I needed that lift when my then one- and 4-year-old were hundreds of miles away.

What has been your most effective business development strategy?

Keeping in touch with everyone I know (1) in this profession, (2) in businesses that might ever require defense counsel, and (3) with whom I would choose to spend time even if they could never send me a dollar of business.

Aside from hard work, what do you attribute to your success?

My dad’s Irish sense of humor, and my mother’s writing ability.  Those are some powerful tools in the proverbial tool belt.

How are you meeting the challenges of juggling work and family?

Please don’t ask my nine-year-old that question.  But seriously, I have a spectacular partner in life and in parenting, and we try to be there for the big moments for our kids.  I’ve gotten better at believing that we aren’t screwing up any more than the average working family.  We also try to put the phones and devices away from 7 to 9 each night.  If it’s a true emergency, someone can reach me by an old-fashioned phone call (phones still have a phone feature, it turns out).  But otherwise, my kids deserve that time, and I need it to stay connected to them.  I’m also at a firm that really cares about everyone living a full life – not always a balanced one, but a life on which we won’t look back and see one-dimensional absorption with our work.

What inspires you outside of practicing law, and how does it enhance your practice?

Like so many lawyers, I love to write and express myself in ways that briefs and motions don’t allow.  I started a blog when I turned 40, and I’ve been lucky enough to have Huffington Post publish what I write.  I pick what’s close to home, and much of it relates to some of the topics of this interview.  But I think tackling the big questions, and reflecting on our common humanity, is very much at the core of criminal defense work.  If you can express to a judge, a jury, that your heart and soul is behind what you are doing and saying to defend your client, that goes a long way.

If you could go back and talk to your 30-year old self what would you tell her?

Being your own worst critic isn’t the best way to succeed. You may succeed, but you’re eating yourself alive in the process.   And you are absolutely, 100% supposed to be here.  No man wastes precious time dealing with the impostor complex.  Life is too short.  Get out there

View Caroline Judge Mehta’s blog – click here

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