This week, I had a conversation with Caroline M. Roberto, a fellow criminal defense attorney based out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has been defending criminal clients in both State and Federal Court for over 25 years. Caroline is a past president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (PACDL), and co-founder of the Women’s Bar Association of Western Pennsylvania. She was the 2011 recipient of the PACDL Josel Advocacy Award and in 2010 was named Pittsburgh Criminal Defense Lawyer of the Year. She has been consistently recognized in Best Lawyers and Pennsylvania Super Lawyers for her outstanding work. More recently, Caroline is gaining national attention for her dogged pursuit of justice for her client charged in connection to Penn State scandal. She has been described in both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Philly.com as both compassionate and a “lioness in the courtroom.” When I interviewed Caroline, her passion for her clients, their cause, and our profession comes through loud and clear. As I often say whenever I meet a true defender, she is the real deal.
If you could go back and give one piece of career advice to your 30 year old self what would it be?
“Don’t take it personally” would be my advice. When I started practicing law, there weren’t that many women criminal defense lawyers. When you are representing the underdog, you will be derided. You are going to lose more than you win. I wasn’t prepared for the kind of impact it would have on me personally. As I become more experienced, I realized what happens in the courtroom may not be based upon my presentation of the case but on the facts.
What part of defending of a client most fuels you? What part most drains you?
I think the part that most fuels me is the incredible injustice in the criminal system. When I first started practicing law, the Warren Court was still the wind at our backs pushing us forward and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was a much more progressive court in those days. So, we had a lot of law to work with. Now that the law is being whittled away, I really embrace the fact that I’m the underdog when I walk into a courtroom. The fact that I’m the only one in that room fighting for the client really excites me and it pushes me to want to do the best job possible. So it’s really the injustice of the system that fuels me.
What drains me is the other side of that same coin. You have to face the fact that it is not a level playing field, no matter how you are pushing and arguing that it should be. We have the Constitution on our side but what drains me the most is the unfair nature of the human aspect of the system. Sometimes there seems to be a chumminess among the prosecution and the bench that is very demoralizing, especially in our state court system. I don’t golf with the Judge and I don’t hang out with the prosecutors. There is a level of familiarity that the prosecutor has with the bench that I don’t have, I’m not going to have, and I probably shouldn’t have. That human dynamic can be draining and disappointing.
What does it mean to you to be a successful criminal defense attorney?
When I first started practicing in the criminal defense field it was such a different path than most women were taking in law. Although there are more women in criminal defense today it is still a smaller percentage than other areas of the law such as family, civil, or in governmental jobs. Also, it seems that more women are prosecutors than criminal defense attorneys because, to my mind, they tend to identify more with the victim. I think the road less traveled that I chose so many years ago has hopefully helped open doors for other women to consider using their skills as a lawyer to advocate for the underdog when they might not have considered it before. Being a successful criminal defense attorney for me is being a role model as well as an advocate.
Was there a point in your career where you felt like you had “made it”?
My first big federal case was in 1991. I had only been practicing for about eight years and I was appointed in federal court to represent one of the defendants in what was called the Pittsburgh Mafia case. There wasn’t much of a mafia in Pittsburgh but it was our most high profile organized crime case. The lawyer who was originally representing my client had a conflict so he was disqualified and recommended me to the Court. I hadn’t done a lot of federal work but had tried two death penalty cases and a few homicide cases at the time. I was absolutely fearless and I told the Court that I was ready. It was an eight-week trial and I actually had to reschedule my wedding to try the case. Thankfully, the wedding was a small family affair. It was a very high profile case and we were in the newspapers every day and my client was one of the few defendants that was found not guilty of the most serious charges. He received a relatively short sentence. We got a great result and I felt like I had made it.
People have described you as having real concern for your clients, how important a role does compassion play when you are representing a client?
I think compassion is very important. Other lawyers can be successful and keep their distance, but for me that doesn’t work. One reason I have been successful is because I am “myself” before the jury. Jurors have an incredibly sophisticated way of figuring out who is real and who isn’t, and the best advice I could give a young lawyer is just to be authentic. For me authenticity means caring about my clients. I demonstrate that in the courtroom. I don’t take a lot of clients. I can’t emotionally and physically deal with a high volume practice, so the clients that I do have I really care a lot about. That concern comes through in front of the jury. If it’s not a triable case, then that concern can help the client understand that a plea offer would be the best result. If a client believes you care, he or she is going to listen and trust you. I have compassion because that is who I am and because I truly believe it’s the best way to help my clients.
Of the women criminal defense attorneys that you know and admire what made them stand out to you? Why did they inspire you?
When I was a younger lawyer, I went to many NACDL meetings and I attended the National Criminal Defense College (NCDC) in 1989. There were two women that really stood out from those early days in the mid 80s. One is Rikki Klieman. She was lecturing a lot for NACDL and she taught at NCDC when I was there. Her confident attitude and her “will to power” was motivating. She is a petite woman and I’m small in stature and I found her powerful presence an inspiration to me. I also admired as a young lawyer and still admire today, Andrea Lyon. Her passion for her clients and her excellent way of explaining trial tactics was moving. Her sense of humor in the face of really tough situations was and is an inspiration.
What representation of a client has most stayed with you through the years and why?
In the late 1990’s I represented a battered woman and it was a very dramatic and memorable case for me. Getting to know her, learning about the abuse, and finally encouraging her to talk about it on the witness stand was an emotional journey. It was a hotly contested murder case and the jury was only out for 20 minutes and returned a not guilty verdict. I couldn’t have been happier. She has, of course, remained crime free, which is always a wonderful testament to our work, and I still communicate with her periodically just to see how she is doing. That is the case that most stands out. It wasn’t the most high profile case, and I definitely did not get paid very much for that case, but it provided a lot of “psychic income”. Another memorable aspect of the case was all the players in the courtroom were women. There was a female judge, a female prosecutor, a female defense attorney, of course, and a female client. And the jury was about 60% women. It was a unique situation at the time.
If you interview me again in a couple years, I’m certain the Penn State case will rank among the top two most memorable cases for a variety of reasons I can’t speak about now.