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ORAL HISTORY OF JAMES J. SANDMAN, ESQ.
Eighth Interview – September 3, 2010
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of the Historical
Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewee is James J. Sandman. The
interviewer is Paras N. Shah. The interview is taking place at Mr. Sandman’s office at 1200 First
Street, N.E., Washington, D.C, on September 3, 2010, beginning at 8:30 in the morning. This is
our eighth interview session.
MR. SHAH: Jim, the last time we spoke, we were talking about your tenure as
Managing Partner. Do you have any final reflections on your time as
Managing Partner? Things you liked the most? Liked the least?
MR. SANDMAN: Yes. I loved the job for the first five years that I did it. I thought it was a
great match for my interests, my personality, my values and my skill set.
It was, as I said earlier, stressful, but rewarding, invigorating, and exciting.
I began to change my views about the position in 2000. That was when
there was the first huge spike in associate salaries. There was a firm in the
Silicon Valley called Gunderson that raised associate salaries to $125,000,
which was a huge increase. They did it in response to the dot-com boom,
and it was very much a Silicon Valley phenomenon.
What was happening was that law firms in the Silicon Valley were
losing their lawyers to dotcoms that were offering very substantial upside
potential financially. And I think the Gunderson firm concluded that
because they couldn’t offer stock options or the kind of upside
possibilities that the dotcoms could offer, they had to compensate instead
with high salaries, which may have exceeded the salary that a lawyer
could make at a dot.com, but didn’t exceed the total compensation
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available. What it did provide was security—what was thought to be the
guarantee of an income at a very high level.
What happened after that single firm increased their salaries, I
thought was reflective of the new world in law firm competition. What
happened reflected the power of the internet and of quick communication
of information and of the nationalization of the law firm market in the
United States. This was a phenomenon driven by a situation unique to the
Silicon Valley, but it spread almost immediately to San Francisco because
San Francisco-based firms that had Silicon Valley offices didn’t feel they
could distinguish in compensation between the two. A number of national
firms—firms based elsewhere—had offices in either the Silicon Valley or
San Francisco and didn’t think they could have one salary structure for
those offices and a different one for the rest of their firms. That was
particularly true of the New York-based firms that I don’t think could
stomach the thought that associates in a city other than New York might
top the salary scale.
Information about that increase flowed more quickly through law
firms than any prior compensation change that I could remember. Preinternet,
it took months for reliable information to permeate firms about
what other firms were paying. And you could see the country kind of fall
like dominoes in line with what had happened in the Silicon Valley, as it
spread from one city to another, and firms with offices in multiple cities
began to adopt that scale. It made no economic sense for the country as a
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whole. There was no nationwide change in the business of law that
warranted that change. It should have been handled by way of bonus, so
that firms weren’t locked into that level of compensation, but it wasn’t
because I think the Silicon Valley firms concluded that they needed to
provide that guarantee in the form of salary.
What I found distressing about it was that I had just come through
a period of trying to get our firm on a firm financial footing, a strong
financial footing. We’d had staff layoffs in 1996. We had rebounded
from that. I was working hard on the culture of the law firm and things
like the pro bono program and associate satisfaction and professional
development—and none of those make any difference at all if you can’t
meet the top of the market in competition. There’s nothing wrong with
that. That’s the way every business in the United States has to function.
You live in a competitive environment, and you have to deal with the
competition. But, what it showed me was that any one law firm’s ability
to pursue its own values and to try to create a culture that might be a little
bit different from or better than others was always going to be limited by
the financial realities of the business marketplace. It’s all about money.
At the end of the day, you have to be able to pay your people
competitively. If you can’t do that, it’s game over. And I guess I’d say
that shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, but it didn’t make me happy.
I felt powerless. I just felt like I was subject to forces beyond my
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control—often irrational forces, which was the way I saw the salary
increases triggered by the Silicon Valley developments.
Within a year, the folly of that had been proven. Have you ever
heard of Gunderson (laughter)? The biggest victim was Brobeck, which
had been a very successful, highly regarded San Francisco-based firm.
They staked their future on the dot-com revolution, and they lost. The
firm went out of business. They did, believe it or not, in, I believe, 2001
increase their associate salaries to $135,000 a year. Good money after
bad. And they closed up shop, and a large number of people, particularly
support staff, in that firm were out of work, and I think it took them a long
time to recover from that. The after-effects of that, I think, are proof that
what triggered that increase was a blip in the economy of one small part of
the country, but the effects were felt nationwide, and it took its toll. It
took its toll in terms of increased expectations and billable hours and just
accentuating the long move of the legal profession, at least at the big firm
level, into big business.
In the next few years, associate salaries remained stable, but there
was movement on the bonus front. That was rational. Bonuses give you
the flexibility to react to changes in the economy without locking yourself
in to particular compensation levels. What began to happen was that
bonus programs became more and more explicitly tied to billable hours.
We had a bonus program at Arnold & Porter, but it was not hours driven.
It was based on several factors, including the overall performance of the
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firm, as opposed to individual billable hours. It worked and worked well
for several years until the economy flattened and we weren’t seeing the
increases in the earnings of the firm necessary to trigger a bonus. That
caused a lot of unhappiness in our associate ranks concerned that our
bonus program was not competitive with the market. Why? Because it
wasn’t hours-driven and because associates working more hours didn’t
have the potential simply because of that fact to earn more money.
At some point, I believe it was around 2003 or 2004, we adopted
an hours-based bonus program. That’s my biggest regret. I felt like I’d
caved. I hate hours-based bonus programs. They’re antithetical to the
interest of a client. They provide all the wrong incentives. But I
concluded that the market required it and that we had to do it. If I had it to
do over again, I just would have dug in my heels and said “no” or I would
have resigned. I shouldn’t have participated in that. I just don’t believe in
that.
And then there were further increases, I think, in 2004 and 2005.
The speed at which the market now reacts to changes in compensation is
such that a law firm really doesn’t have the luxury of taking the time to
think about how to respond and whether there might be some nuanced way
of implementing an increase a little bit differently than the rest of the
market. You get pilloried on the websites if you don’t react in a splitsecond
to increase your salaries because some other firm did. That’s just
not a good way of doing business. So, I increasingly began to feel a
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disconnect between the business I was in and what my personal values
were, and why I had gone into the practice of law. I think I did it
reasonably well. I think I was a reasonably good manager. I tried to do
my best to respond to the marketplace and to preserve the aspects of the
Arnold & Porter culture that I thought were distinctive and important. But
it was a struggle, and, at the end of the day, I felt that I was devoting my
life to making rich people richer, and that’s not what I wanted my legacy
to be.
So, I decided it was time to find something else to do. I had been
approached for some number of years about the possibility for being a
candidate for President of the D.C. Bar. I ran for the Board of Governors
either 2000 or 2001 and was not elected. I ran again in 2003 and was
elected. I simply didn’t think it was possible to serve as President of the
Bar while I was Managing Partner of Arnold & Porter. I knew that being
Bar President was so time-consuming that I couldn’t reconcile it with my
firm duties. But when I reached the point that I decided I wanted to step
down as being Managing Partner, I began to think about how I would
make a transition. Simply going immediately from being Managing
Partner back into the practice of law I thought would be too abrupt a
change. It would take me time to rebuild a practice. There were many
aspects of the management role that I liked, and I liked right up until the
end. So if I could get elected, I thought, being Bar President might be a
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good way to continue to use the skills I had developed as Managing
Partner over a couple of year period while I eased back into practice.
The way the Bar works, you run in a contested election. You run
for the position of President-elect, and then after a year as President-elect,
you automatically move up to the President position. So I was elected
President-elect in 2005, about five or six months before I stepped down as
Managing Partner. The President-elect is something of a partner with the
President. Because of the turnover every year at the top of the Bar, and
the Bar voluntary leadership positions, it’s necessary to have some kind of
continuity, and so the President-elect usually shadows the President and
learns the job for a year before taking it over. I served as President-elect
under John Cruden for a year. That was a wonderful experience. I loved
working with John. He’s a very talented lawyer and manager, incredibly
energetic, and throws himself into everything that he does. I learned a lot
from him and really enjoyed working with him, and I developed a strong
friendship as a result of that experience.
I spent over the course of my two years as President-elect and
President of the Bar about seventy percent or more of my time on Bar
activities. I found that when people are soliciting you to run for Bar
President, they tell you one thing about the amount of time it takes, and
then after you’re elected, they tell you something else (laughter). I was
told it would be less than half my time—maybe a quarter of my time, I
might have been told. I just don’t think it’s possible to do the job well in
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that amount of time. And that did turn out to be a good transition for me.
It was very different from being Managing Partner in that the Bar
President really doesn’t run the staff of the Bar or the day-to-day
operations of the Bar. That’s the job of the Executive Director. I
developed a very close and rewarding working relationship with the Bar’s
Executive Director, Katherine Mazzaferri. I enjoyed working with her
very much.
I liked the issues. I liked the opportunity that being Bar President
posed to address issues of importance to the profession and particular to
the legal profession in the District of Columbia. I also valued the
opportunity to get more involved in local affairs in Washington than I had
ever been before. I met lots of lawyers in different practice settings—
government lawyers, solo practitioners, small firm lawyers, public interest
lawyers, legal-services lawyers—people whose practices and career paths
had been very different from my own. I learned a lot from them. And I
got more involved with local organizations, particularly the legal-services
providers, and, as a consequence, felt more integrated into the city where I
live and work than I ever had before. I liked that a lot.
MR. SHAH: Can you talk about some of the issues that you ran on when you were
seeking the office of President-elect and some of the issues that you got to
address as President?
MR. SANDMAN: I think the premiere issue for any Bar President in D.C. is always, in one
way or another, pro bono work and providing legal services to the poor.
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The gap between rich and poor in our city is huge. The need for legal
services is huge. Even though this Bar leads the country in pro bono work
and pro bono culture, there are huge numbers of people every year who
need lawyers and can’t find them. One of the things we did during my
year as Bar President was to renew an initiative that had started in 2000-
2001 to sign up larger law firms for a commitment—like the Pro Bono
Institute’s Law Firm Challenge—to commit to spend either three or fivepercent
of their billable hours every year on pro bono work. The initial
effort had yielded forty-one firms. We added another twenty-two to that
group in 2006-2007. And the Bar surveys the participating firms every
year to get the results of their pro bono work, and every year the total
number of hours has gone up. All of the indicators show that more and
more work is being done by those firms.
I emphasized the importance of mentoring, something that I think
really suffers in a culture driven by money. Non-revenue-generating
activities tend to get de-emphasized in a very competitive legal
environment where the billable hour is still overwhelmingly the unit of
production. There are a number of mentoring initiatives conducted by the
voluntary bar associations in D.C. The Women’s Bar, for example, has
undertaken a number of very productive mentoring activities, and I tried to
shine a spotlight on those, identify best practices, and facilitate
communication about those practices among a variety of organizations.
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I thought that my President’s column in the Washington Lawyer
was an opportunity to communicate about issues that were important to
me. I don’t overestimate the reach or impact of a president’s column. I
know that it goes unread by the vast majority of people who receive the
Washington Lawyer (laughter), but I did get feedback on the things that I
wrote, which told me that some people were reading it, and it was an
opportunity for me to reflect on things that I thought were significant and
where I had something that I wanted to say.
My most notorious column by far was one about associate salary
increases. It reflected about seven years of pent-up frustration, and I think
it came out. I said what was on my mind, and I think it’s the best thing
I’ve ever written. Interestingly, I learned something about blog culture
from the experience. I received more positive feedback about that from
more strangers—far and away—than any other column that I wrote. I
would literally be stopped on the street by people I didn’t know, but who
recognized me from my picture, to thank me for what I had written. I
heard from judges. I heard from clients. I heard from former Arnold &
Porter associates. I heard from folks that I had no idea who they were.
They all were identified. They all sent their messages under their names,
not anonymously. But the blogosphere, with its anonymity, allows people
to vent without taking any responsibility for their conduct, and it kind of
promotes a level of incivility in conversation that I don’t think is terribly
beneficial. And, predictably, I was excoriated among the “big firm
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maximum associate compensation” crowd, led by those who live and die
by Above the Law. That’s not an audience I particularly care about
(laughter). Those are not the people I was trying to reach or persuade with
my message, and I think their reaction was completely predictable. I think
I was right, and I think subsequent events have demonstrated the negative
consequences I was concerned about did, in fact, come home to roost. It
was a lot of fun to write that column (laughter).
The D.C. Bar is an unusual bar. It’s not a bar association. It is a
quasi-governmental entity. It is an arm of the D.C. Court of Appeals, socalled
in the court rules, and it operates under some very serious
limitations. By virtue of a referendum of the members in the 1980s, the
Bar cannot speak on behalf of its members without its members’
permission. So the role of advocacy and commentary that you see
voluntary bar associations playing in other jurisdictions is not a role that
the D.C. Bar can play.
The D.C. Bar cannot use members’ dues to fund pro bono
activities. The Bar does have a very vibrant pro bono program, but it’s
funded entirely by voluntary contributions. It is one of the most visible
things the Bar does, but it’s all voluntary. So, some of the things that
people expect a bar president to do in other jurisdictions—lobby, for
example, or to take public positions for the bar on issues of importance—
you cannot do in the D.C. Bar. Your President’s Column gives you an
opportunity to speak as an individual, but not for the Bar as a whole.
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One thing we did during my year as Bar President was to seek the
approval of the members to lobby on behalf of funding for legal services
in D.C. The D.C. Council had begun to appropriate funds for civil legal
services providers in the city—they did this at the initiative of the Access
to Justice Commission—but when that proposal was first presented to the
Council, the D.C. Bar had to be silent on it because we did not have the
authority of our members to speak in favor of it. We took a vote in March
of 2007 seeking the approval of the members and got it, and, ever since
then, the Bar has lobbied forcefully and successfully on behalf of funding
for civil legal services providers in the city.
MR. SHAH: Just to get back to your thoughts on the way law firms have changed and
the rise of the billable hour as the main focus of law firms, do you see the
billable hour surviving?
MR. SANDMAN: Yes. There’s a column written within the past week or two by a guy
named Steve Harper, who’s a retired Kirkland & Ellis partner and I think
now an adjunct professor at Northwestern Law School, about how and
why the billable hour is not going away any time soon, and he pointed out
that a recent Supreme Court decision about the calculation of attorneys’
fees in a civil rights case almost locks in the billable hour as the only
reliable method of computing legal fees in any kind of lode-star analysis
that the federal courts need to approve. That might be an overstatement of
his point, but his suggestion was that the billable hour is so ingrained in
the profession—that it’s so ingrained in law firm culture and in law firm
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accounting systems—that it will not go away any time soon. He noted, for
example, that lawyers working on a fixed-fee matter in a law firm—where
what the firm will be paid does not depend at all on the number of hours
worked—are still required to report their billable hours. Why? Because
that’s still the way law firms count production, and in terms of calculating
the profitability (or not) of an alternative fee arrangement, they’re likely
always to do the comparison to billable hours.
I don’t think law firms know how to budget without thinking about
hours. I think the productivity forecast of laws firms are still driven
overwhelmingly by billable hours projections. Certainly, there is some
movement away from the billable hour, but I don’t think it’s huge. I think
it’s more common among innovative clients with a type of work that lends
itself to some measure of predictability and, therefore, makes it easier for
both the client and the law firm to mitigate risk in using some billing
measure other than the billable hour, but I don’t see it going away any
time soon. I have yet to hear from a lawyer that the billable hour culture is
beginning to disappear in our firm because of these alternative fees
arrangements. I’m not hearing that from anybody. Quite the contrary,
what I hear is that associates are worried about their hours in a recession
and have mixed feelings about the recent pick-up and having more billable
hours because they think that that makes them at less risk of a lay-off. I
think it’s still pervasive.
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MR. SHAH: Do you think there are things that law firms can do, like the things that
you tried to do at Arnold & Porter, to mitigate the focus on hours?
MR. SANDMAN: I think it’s hard. As I said, the bottom line is you have to be able to match
your competition in compensation, and you certainly need to do it at the
associate level and at the entry level. That’s a publicly available figure
that is the baseline for being considered a serious player in the law firm
market. A law firm that does not pay $160,000 as a starting salary to its
associates is signaling the market that it is not in the top tier, and I don’t
think it makes any difference how strong their pro bono program is or how
kind they say their culture is. If they can’t meet that threshold, there is a
certain number of highly-qualified candidates—good people—who aren’t
going to take a look at the firm. The same is true, to some extent, at the
partner level, although partner compensation is still a lot more opaque,
notwithstanding the American Lawyer numbers that are available to
people. But the fact is that a firm has to be very focused on its partner
compensation or it risks losing its best partners to the competition. That’s
the starting point for everything. Your ability to emphasize the nonfinancial
values of an institution is always constrained by that need to
meet that threshold level of competitiveness in compensation. I think
there are still significant possibilities to do good and to affect the culture
of the firm, but they’re limited, and you need to be very sober about
assessing how much latitude you have to operate in.
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MR. SHAH: Is there a particular accomplishment that you consider the signature
accomplishment of your presidency?
MR. SANDMAN: The most tangible was the addition of twenty-two more law firms to the
D.C. Bar’s Pro Bono Initiative.
MR. SHAH: Was there a particular decision you had to make during your year as
President that you found to be the most difficult decision you made that
year?
MR. SANDMAN: We did have a matter that involved the suspension of a member for a nonpayment
of dues. That was very controversial, and, in fact, my vote on the
issue in the Board of Governors became probably the predominant issue in
my election as President-elect. We ultimately resolved that matter during
my term as Bar President, and I think on terms that were satisfactory to
everyone, and it was good to put the issue behind us. It had been very
contentious and been the subject of litigation.
MR. SHAH: I’d like to turn now to your family life during these years, the years you
spent as Managing Partner and as President of the D.C. Bar. What was it
like during those years, particularly raising your kids in D.C.?
MR. SANDMAN: It was hard. I would not say I had work-life balance during most of those
years. Things got better once I stepped down as Managing Partner, and I
began to try to schedule personal time and work harder at finding time to
devote to family activities. My kids have had some wonderful
opportunities just growing up in Washington. They’re kind of oblivious
sometimes, I think, to the benefits of living in Washington. I think I
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mentioned about going to the White House with my daughter. My
daughter went to the British School of Washington, and she’s met the
Queen of England. She met President Bush. She had the experience of
being a minority in her school—she was one of the few American students
in a school made up mostly of the children of diplomats—and met kids
from all over the world in school, an opportunity that’s not available in
schools in most cities in the United States.
My son has been politically active. He worked on the Kerry
presidential campaign. He’s worked on local mayoral campaigns, and
really got his grounding in public policy and politics by participating in
elections here. My wife became Executive Director of a non-profit called
Friends of Rock Creek’s Environment—a good fit as an environmental
lawyer with a degree from the Yale Forestry School. The organization has
become known as FORCE. She was and is its first Executive Director.
It’s a so-called part-time position, but nearly full-time. She works from
home but has been very successful in raising the profile of the
organization and increasing its funding, which during the past few years
has been contrary to the experience of most non-profits.
I found it was a struggle. I certainly feel like I shortchanged my
family during those years. But among the things that I tried to do was to
routinize family activities. For many years, until our son went off to
college, we’d go to Lost River State Park in West Virginia twice a year,
once in the spring and once in the fall. We’ve always taken good family
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vacations. When I was at Arnold & Porter starting in 1997, we began to
go to a small lodge with cottages in Vermont for two weeks every
summer. Since I’ve left Arnold & Porter, we go for one week because
government lawyers don’t get the vacation time that partners at the firms
do (laughter).
I started a practice of taking my son out for breakfast every
Saturday morning at the Georgetown Booeymonger. In nice weather, we
ride our bikes; in not so nice weather, we drive. And I take my daughter
for lunch to the Café Deluxe in downtown Bethesda on Saturdays. After
lunch, our custom is to go to the Barnes and Noble nearby and read the
celebrity magazines together.
I started about six or seven years ago taking each of our kids
separately on a father-son, father-daughter trip every summer to a
destination of their choosing in the forty-eight contiguous states, and that’s
been a wonderful experience. I have at least as much fun on those trips as
they do. My son always wants to go to the western United States,
typically to a national park, and do outdoor things. For a number of years
now, my daughter has every year chosen Los Angeles because it has sun,
sand, and celebrities—three of her favorite things—and when we go, we
spend three or four days in a quest to see as many stars as we can.
I did those things so that our kids would know that there were
fixed periods when we would have one-on-one time. That’s really not a
substitute for being home for dinner every night, and I was, and still am,
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almost never home for dinner. A family dinner on a weeknight is a rare
occasion. Our kids always tended to eat on the early side, and Beth gets
hungry frequently and can’t wait for a late dinner. It would be far better, I
think, to have a regular family dinner time every night. These other things
were substitutes for that, but not as good.
I think as a result of things like that, I have strong relationships with both
of our kids. We enjoy spending time together. We talk. They share
things with me. We talk. And, particularly throughout their teenage
years, we had very easy relationships. We really never had any kind of the
typical teenage difficulties and standoffs between kids and parents that so
many people have to deal with during adolescence.
MR. SHAH: Jim, do you want to talk about any particular trips you took with your
kids? Any stories or examples?
MR. SANDMAN: One of my favorite trips with my son was to the Grand Canyon, where we
rode mules down into the canyon. I think we spent eight hours on our
mules, and, when we got off, both of us thought we would never walk
again (laughter). We did—just turned out that a good night’s sleep
corrected the problem. That was a lot of fun.
My daughter and I have developed a routine about our Los
Angeles trips because we’ve been there so many times. We always stay at
the same hotel. We go to the same restaurants where you have some
reasonable prospect of seeing celebrities. We stay in Santa Monica. We
go to the Santa Monica Pier. She makes me ride the Ferris wheel, which I
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hate because I’m afraid of heights. We ride the rollercoaster. There’s a
ritual about it.
I think rituals are great for kids. It’s one of the reasons we’ve gone
on summer vacation at the same place for so many years. It becomes just
a part of your family experience, and our kids love the place we go in
Vermont. Every year when we get there, it feels like we’ve never left.
We just pick up right where we left off. The same is true of the breakfasts
and lunches on Saturdays—the ritual of them, the dependability of it,
becomes comfortable and I think it’s a good thing for a family experience.
MR. SHAH: What are some other things you do as a family within the D.C. area? I
think I read somewhere about outings to Washington Performing Arts
Society events and things of that nature.
MR. SANDMAN: Yes. Beth and I for a long time had a subscription to the Washington
Performing Arts Society. That’s another example of a routine that I think
can help with work-life balance. I always encourage people to buy a
subscription series to something because you get the events on your
calendar, and you don’t need to plan each event one-by-one. If you wait
until the last minute to plan, often the unavailability of tickets or the hassle
get in the way of doing anything. The thing we loved about the
Washington Performing Arts Society is the variety of the artists that they
present. So, in a single subscription series, you might see the Vienna
Philharmonic and Yo-Yo Ma, Sweet Honey in the Rock, the Children of
the Gospel Mass Choir, and Alvin Ailey. I don’t know any other
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organization that in a single subscription series can give you that breadth
of artistic performances. And from October through May of every year,
we have regular events on the calendar that we enjoy very much.
WPAS has allowed us to experiment with some things too, without
having to make a commitment to them. Every year when we’re picking
what performances we want to see, we always pick something that’s a
little bit different, that we haven’t done before, just to do it. A number of
their events are in smaller venues. They’re not all at the Kennedy Center.
They do things, for example, at the Atlas Theater over on H Street in
northeast. It’s a good opportunity to see the different performance venues
in the city. They do things at the Lincoln Theater on U Street, which has a
very interesting history. I like going to places like that.
We take advantage of Rock Creek Park, which isn’t too far from
our house, and Beth knows Rock Creek Park very well through her work.
We hike the Billy Goat Trail. Like most Washingtonians, we tend to take
advantage of the most obvious things to do here when friends or family
come to visit and we have to show them around.
MR. SHAH: Can you talk about the end of your presidency and the transition to going
back to work full-time for Arnold & Porter?
MR. SANDMAN: Yes, it was a very stark transition. One day, you’re President of the Bar,
and the next day, you’re not. And I noticed it most directly in my e-mail
volume. I got a lot of e-mails every day as President of the Bar about Bar
activities and Bar issues. Once you’re not President anymore, there is no
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reason for you to be getting those e-mails, so I had a huge drop-off in my
e-mail volume, and it was hard. To go from being full-out one day to
having only the involvement of a member of the Board of Governors,
which I was for one more year as Immediate Past-President, is quite stark.
And because of my route into the position, because I had been Managing
Partner immediately before, I didn’t have something to go back to in the
same way that other Bar Presidents had. The job that I’d held immediately
before being Bar President was not the job I held after I was no longer Bar
President.
So, it was rough, and I think that’s one of the reasons why, within
a few months thereafter, I was very open to the possibility of doing
something else and ended up here. It was only three or four months after
my term as Bar President ended that I made the decision to move here,
although it took another month or two after that actually to do it.
MR. SHAH: And who was your successor as Managing Partner?
MR. SANDMAN: Richard Alexander. Richard and I had been on the Management
Committee together for ten years. I appointed him to the Management
Committee when I became Managing Partner. We’ve worked very closely
together over that time, so he was a great candidate to take over and could
step into the role very easily.
MR. SHAH: For a period of time after you were Managing Partner, you served as
Senior Pro Bono Partner?
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MR. SANDMAN: Yes. That was really only in 2007. That position was created for me in
January of 2007, while I was still Bar President, and reflected the firm’s
interest in emphasizing its pro bono commitment and trying to bring some
new dimensions to the pro bono program. I focused on trying to increase
partner participation in pro bono work and trying to forge alliances with
clients on pro bono projects. There is a movement in general counsel
offices to get in-house lawyers involved in pro bono work. This has been
spearheaded by Esther Lardent at the Pro Bono Institute and has been
very, very successful. In-house legal departments don’t have the pro bono
infrastructure that law firms have for their pro bono programs, so often
they’re interested in partnering with law firms to identify pro bono
opportunities, to provide training for their lawyers, to participate in clinics,
and to work side-by-side with lawyers who may be more familiar with the
subject matter of a particular pro bono case than they are. So, I tried to do
that. I wasn’t in the position long enough to be able to see that project
through to fruition.
It was a challenge that the firm’s biggest office was in a city where
we didn’t have many clients physically close. It’s much easier to arrange
pro bono partnerships between a law firm and a client if the client is
nearby, and if you can, together, go down the street to the particular clinic
that operates on a Saturday morning as opposed to trying to deal with a
client that’s five-hundred or a thousand miles away. That was a particular
challenge with the Arnold & Porter client base, at least for the Washington
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office, that I was still trying to figure out at the time I decided to come
here.
MR. SHAH: During the time you served as Senior Pro Bono Partner, were you actively
working on cases or was it more with the infrastructure?
MR. SANDMAN: Yes, it was both. It was working on the firm infrastructure, but part of the
position entailed actually doing substantial pro bono work myself. I talked
to a number of legal services providers in Washington to try to find an
opportunity that I thought would be a good fit for me, where I could make
a contribution, and I picked the Washington Legal Clinic for the
Homeless, both because of their mission—they’re devoted to the neediest
segment of our population—and because of their executive director, Patty
Fugere. Patty is a saint. She is a legend in the pro bono and legal services
communities in Washington. She is extraordinarily effective, but among
the most humble, kind, and generous people I’ve ever met. When I went
to talk to her about the possibility of working there, I walked out thinking,
“I want to be her, and I hope that some of her might rub off on me.” So, I
worked on litigation or litigation-related projects with the Legal Clinic for
the Homeless.
MR. SHAH: Is there any one project in particular that stands out?
MR. SANDMAN: I didn’t do it long enough to see results in the litigation, but there was
potential litigation against the District of Columbia involving its programs
for housing the homeless that was [inaudible].
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MR. SHAH: Can you talk about what led to your decision to leave Arnold & Porter and
to come here to the D.C. Public Schools?
MR. SANDMAN: I heard Michelle Rhee speak. In October of 2007, I went to the annual fall
pro bono breakfast of the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil
Rights and Urban Affairs. Michelle Rhee was the featured speaker. I had
not heard her speak before. I hadn’t seen her before. She had been in
Washington as Chancellor for four months at the time but had already
established herself as the second most visible local figure in the city,
behind the mayor. I live in D.C. I work in D.C. I read the Washington
Post. It was hard to miss Michelle Rhee. She jumped in with both feet
and was everywhere talking up what she was doing and trying to do with
the D.C. public schools. So I went to the breakfast curious to see what she
was like in person.
She arrived after the breakfast was underway. She’s always very
heavily scheduled—most particularly so back then when she was new in
the job—and they agreed to let her speak whenever she could get there. I
was seated over by the side of the hotel ballroom at the Hyatt Regency
where she entered, and when she walked in, I was immediately impressed.
She walked in alone. She had no one with her. No posse, no entourage,
no one to point her where to go or to tell her when it was time to leave. I
don’t even think she had a purse. She got up and spoke without notes—
she never speaks from notes, ever—and she set the room on fire.
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What she conveyed was a sense of energy and enthusiasm and
optimism that left me with a sense that if there was any person who could
turn this failing school system around, it was she. At the same time, she
didn’t diminish the magnitude of the challenges that she was up against.
She spoke at some length about exactly how bad things were, so she didn’t
come across as Pollyannaish in her ambitions, but I thought she was
electric.
At the end of her speech to this group of lawyers, she said, “So
what can you all do to be helpful to me in my reform efforts?” She ticked
off three or four things that lawyers could do, none of which I remember,
except the last. She said, “If any of you know where I could find a good
general counsel, I really need one. I’m surrounded by lawyers who only
know how to say ‘no.’” And I thought, “I want to work for her,” and I
went home and told my family about it, and my wife that night said, “You
need to do that job.” So, I followed up and, seven weeks later, I was
working here. It wasn’t quite as impetuous as that. For the reasons I’ve
mentioned, I was open to making a career change. I was at an obvious
point of transition in my career. I’d been at Arnold & Porter for thirty
years. That’s a full career.
I was intrigued by the opportunity that this job offered for me to
continue the involvement in local affairs that I’d experienced as Bar
President. I’d always thought that, at some point in my career, I’d do
public service. I’d always assumed it would be at the federal level, never
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at the local level—I’m not sure I even knew that the D.C. Public Schools
had a general counsel—but a lot of things came together. I think that
education is the most important public issue in our city. I thought that the
chance to work for Michelle Rhee would put me at ground zero with urban
public education reform in the United States. I was intrigued just at the
possibility of being her lawyer. I thought it would be a very interesting
job, and so I followed up.
I had to interview with her twice. I don’t think I persuaded her the
first time that I was the right person for the job. The second time, she
interviewed me in her car on the way to visit a school in Columbia
Heights. And I did go in with her to a meeting with faculty there. She
said if I wanted to come in, I could, and I thought it would be interesting
to observe her in action. That was a very interesting experience, and then
I guess she decided I was okay (laughter).
MR. SHAH: Can you talk about that experience—walking into the school with her, and
what it was like?
MR. SANDMAN: Yes. It was a little odd. I was literally along for the ride, and I was a job
applicant. I knew from having seen her at the Lawyers Committee
breakfast that she would not want to give the appearance that I was there
as staff, so I held back. I kept my distance from her. I didn’t want
anybody to think that I was part of her entourage. It was kind of an
uncomfortable meeting. This was at a school where she had announced a
consolidation in leadership at the school, consolidating middle school with
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high school. That move was not popular with a number of the faculty and
this was a meeting with faculty—they wanted to talk about it.
The body language of the group was not friendly when she walked
in—a lot of arms folded across chests. She sat herself down at a desk in
the middle of the room, and she was very direct and very honest. She told
people that she had made up her mind about this change, and that was not
open to negotiation. What she was willing to talk about, and happy to talk
about, was implementation. Her lead-off that she had made up her mind
about this change wasn’t what people wanted to hear, but Michelle was
not about telling people what they want to hear. She is about being honest
and direct, and I thought her candor and her directness was very unusual in
a public figure. She does not mince words. She does not beat around the
bush. You don’t wonder where she stands. She doesn’t say things like, “I
don’t disagree.” She disagrees with you, or she agrees with you, and
she’ll tell you. She’ll say, “I respectfully disagree,” and she will explain
why, and she will look you in the eye as she does that.
I did think that even though the people in the room were obviously
unhappy with a good amount of what she had to say that they nevertheless
appreciated the fact that she came out there herself. She came to them—
she didn’t make them come to her—sat in a classroom in their school and
put herself out there with no protection to let them have at her and have a
discussion. I just think that kind of approach in public figures is very
uncommon.
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She didn’t take any notes while people were talking, but during the
course of the meeting I noticed that she would refer to comments that
people had made along the way. She would integrate them into what she
was saying, and she did agree to follow-up on a number of things that
people had suggested. So after we got in the car following the meeting, I
said, “How are you going to remember all that, and how are you going to
follow-up?” And she said, “Well, I have a pretty good memory”—that’s
an understatement—and she said, “I’ll send e-mails to the appropriate
people who need to follow-up.” She always has a laptop with her. She
typically responds to e-mails within no more than an hour of receiving
them, any hour of the day or night. She always responds personally to all
her e-mails. If you send a message to michelle.rhee@dc.gov, you’re going
to get an answer, and it’s going to be from her and not from someone
pretending to be her. Sometimes it might just be “I am referring your
inquiry to so-and-so who is copied on the message,” but everybody gets a
response. I think in her first year, people calculated that she responded to
ninety-five thousand e-mail messages. So I came away from that session
at the school even more impressed and more eager to work for her.
MR. SHAH: And what has it been like working both for Chancellor Rhee and also
Mayor Fenty?
MR. SANDMAN: It’s been great. Michelle is my client, and I have very few dealings with
the Mayor. I work here at DCPS. These are my clients. This is the office
where I work. It’s been great. It has the atmosphere of a start-up here—of
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a group of people who are inventive and creative and energetic and
focused on doing something important. I love my clients here. I work
every day with people who are passionate about education and very, very
smart. They have good analytical minds. They have an intuitive
understanding of legal issues. I can engage with them on the same level
that I engaged with my colleagues at Arnold & Porter. I go to meetings
here that are very much like meetings of a litigation team in a big law firm
where people are batting around ideas and working together to try to solve
a problem. The work itself matters. It’s important on a human level in a
way that corporate transactions and litigation, at least to me, are not.
Michelle is a very strong manager. I see her implementing
techniques that others write about, but others don’t always follow. For
example, every week there is a session called “school stat,” which is a
presentation to the Chancellor on a particular area of operations measured
against pre-defined benchmarks—what have we set out to do, what goals
have we set, and how are we doing in meeting them. Things are measured
on a scale of red, yellow, and green. If you’ve got reds and yellows, you’d
better be prepared for a rigorous cross-examination by the Chancellor. It’s
very disciplined and very focused. The identification of the benchmarks is
undertaken very thoughtfully. It’s just a classic example of measuring
progress and using benchmarks to manage effectively.
The discipline that she brings to the school-opening process every
year is something that I don’t think the people of Washington could
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possibly understand, unless they could observe it. You might think that
opening schools every August should be just a routine and easy and
something that, because it recurs every year, would be no big deal. It’s a
big deal and it’s very hard, particularly when you have as many schools
being renovated every year as we do here, when you have your principals
in schools, when you have changes in staff. There’s a lot that can go
wrong in opening one-hundred and twenty-three school buildings on the
same day every August.
Over the course of the summer, the Chancellor convenes a meeting
every week-to-ten days of about fifty people to go over everything about
school operations that needs to be in place for opening, from having
textbooks in place in the schools to making sure that the cafeterias are
stocked and ready to serve, to being sure that building renovations are
going to be complete, clean-ups done, and things of that nature. This year,
school opening in the D.C. public schools was a non-event and didn’t get
much attention. The fact that it was a non-event was a huge change from
not so many years ago, when the schools could not open on opening day
because so many of them were in physical disrepair.
The best part of my job is watching Michelle Rhee do what she
does, and I’ve never been disappointed. Often when you get to see
someone of her celebrity up close, behind the scenes, you’re disappointed.
You find that they are not what they appear to be. It’s all a show. I’ve
never had that experience with Michelle. What she does and says behind
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the scenes is completely consistent with what she says and does publicly.
She is absolutely devoted to the kids at this school system. It’s what
drives her. She’s really an inspirational person to work with. She’s a
great client. She has a lot of interesting legal issues.