ers, senior corporate executives,
federal agency officials and other
litigators. At the union, she deals
with the league, agents, fans, the
news media and 400-plus male
Just as she used to speak respectfully to jurors—mindful not
to talk down to them—she does the
same nowadays with players.
Path to Law
Roberts’ single-parent mother
raised five children in New York
public housing. The boys controlled the family TV, and Knicks
basketball games were favorites.
Roberts fell in love. She learned
that many players came from
neighborhoods like hers and that
their salaries helped lift their families out of poverty.
A teenage Roberts won a scholarship to a boarding school where
African-American students were
few, her first time in an overwhelmingly white environment.
Before leaving home, she
shared a hobby with her mother.
Lacking cash for movies or recreation, the mother frequented the
Bronx Supreme Court to watch
the proceedings. The girl tagged
along starting at age 10. When her
mother explained that poor people
received free legal help from
public defenders, the girl found the
While earning a JD at the
University of California, Berkeley,
in the late 1970s, she defended San
Quentin State Prison inmates in
disciplinary hearings that often
resulted in reinstatement of privi-
leges such as conjugal visits.
Kohlman, meanwhile, visited
Berkeley to recruit for the Public
Defender Service for the District
of Columbia, where he was trial
division chief. After interviewing
Roberts, he urged his bosses to
“Michele had empathy for
people,” Kohlman said. “Her sense
of being in command gave her
the ability to connect well with
juries. How she expressed and
conducted herself had an element
of mystery, an enigmatic quality. I
could see all this translating well in
On a fast break to excellence
Upon joining the public defender’s
office in 1980, Roberts noticed that
opposing counsel assumed she was
incompetent and lacked law firm
job offers. So she became relentless
in trial preparation.
“This misconception about public defenders prompted me to prove
my commitment and my talent,”
Roberts said in a 2008 Diversity
& the Bar interview. “I make it my
business to be the best lawyer in
the room; it stems from needing to
prove my excellence when I was
Courtroom successes came, too.
Among them was a case in which
10 people stood trial for the 1984
rape and murder of a 48-year-old
mother of six.
Jurors acquitted only
After eight years as a public
defender, she left to practice with
colleagues such as Kohlman, expanding into civil and white-collar
In 1991, a former colleague
of Roberts sought help. He was
advising Hill, a former government
employee who was set to testify
during Senate confirmation hearings for Thomas. Hill had alleged
that Thomas made unwelcome,
sexually provocative remarks to
her when they worked together.
Roberts spent hours interrogating and cross-examining her
in preparation for the all-male,
Hill didn’t break down during
the nationally televised hearings.
Thomas, who denied her allegations, ascended to the Supreme
Court, but Hill’s graphic testimony ignited broader public
At the union, she deals with the league, agents, fans, the news
media and 400-plus male basketball players.