Ventures

Make It a Federal Case: Associates Thrive in Criminal Justice Act Cases

“At the end of the day, what the client needs you to do is to speak the truth to them — to really clearly tell them what’s going on and what’s going to happen.”

A lawyer questioning a respected expert witness in federal court.

It’s not an unusual scenario when that lawyer is, say, a senior associate or a partner. But at the time, Francis Yang was a second-year associate. As part of his work on an investment fraud case, he had the opportunity to conduct a direct examination of a witness from a large accounting firm.

“I questioned an expert from a Big Four accounting firm in federal court. Typically, junior associates don’t get to do that,” Yang said. “It’s an experience you don’t often see as a second-year.”

Yang is one of a handful of V&E associates who are gaining unparalleled experience by working on Criminal Justice Act cases under the auspices of V&E San Francisco managing partner Matt Jacobs. Under the federal Criminal Justice Act, defendants are guaranteed legal representation in federal cases even when they can’t afford it. Jacobs, a former federal prosecutor, is a member of a prestigious panel of experienced private practice attorneys charged with representing indigent defendants in northern California when public defenders have a conflict.

“I believe it’s vitally important to do pro bono work and give back to the community,” said Jacobs, whose practice focuses on investigations, compliance and white-collar criminal defense. “For younger lawyers, the benefits range from going to court to learning how to develop a relationship based on trust with a client. It’s a great opportunity for them to make a real difference in someone’s life.”

Since being appointed to the panel over a decade ago, Jacobs has worked with many V&E attorneys on CJA cases as well as summer associates. “Our summer associate program is designed to mimic what it would look like as a first- or second-year associate,” explained Chris James, an eighth-year V&E associate who now helps guide younger attorneys in CJA cases. “We try to make sure that they have all sorts of the same types of case assignments and responsibilities. And working on CJA cases is a really good opportunity to do that.”

V&E has handled CJA cases where defendants stood accused of a myriad of crimes, including mail and wire fraud, bank robberies, illegal firearms possession, and narcotics offenses. One of Jacobs’ most rewarding CJA cases involved representing a 75-year-old Vietnamese immigrant named John Nguyen. Nguyen, a captain in the South Vietnamese Army who survived a prison camp during the Vietnam War, put himself through college and became a tax preparer after coming to the United States. But his American dream threatened to unravel after he did a favor for a mortgage broker acquaintance, submitting a handful of fraudulent tax returns as part of mortgage loan applications. He received about $500.

The government charged Mr. Nguyen with more than a dozen counts of bank fraud and making false statements to a bank. Jacobs and his colleagues suspected that the banks had not reviewed and did not rely on the tax returns in the decision to grant loans to applicants. In fact, the loans were known in the industry as “liar loans,” meaning that the banks knew people lied on the applications but did not care because they were just going to repackage and sell the loans as part of a portfolio.

Aware that the Justice Department had conducted a criminal investigation of some of the banks in question, the V&E team sought discovery of the Justice Department’s criminal investigative file on the banks. After a long fight, the court ordered the government to turn over their files, which ultimately caused the government to back down, dismiss all of the felony charges and agree to a misdemeanor with a guarantee of no jail time.

“The idea that, after the mortgage crisis, the Justice Department did not prosecute any banks or high level bankers but went after low level people like Mr. Nguyen was a travesty,” Jacobs said. “In this case, we basically shamed the Justice Department into doing the right thing.”

Working on criminal justice cases for indigent defendants like Nguyen marks a departure from the types of matters the V&E San Francisco office usually handles — matters typically involving large companies or senior executives. Yet the CJA cases still provide associates with invaluable experiences and takeaways.

James explained that since V&E does CJA cases on a pro bono basis, associates have the freedom to spend large amounts of time doing research without worrying about costs to clients piling up.

“We have a little bit more flexibility in how much time they can spend working on the cases. The cap is sort of taken off on how many rabbit holes they can go down in research assignments,” James said.

Elizabeth Matthews, now a first-year associate at V&E, spent countless hours performing research for a CJA case as a summer associate.

“I felt very involved and under pressure, but in a good way. I also felt like I was helping people, which is why I went into law in the first place — to help those in need,” Matthews said. “It was a great opportunity to have as a summer associate.”

When it comes to the opportunities afforded by CJA cases, however, research is just the beginning. Yang said his work with the expert witness two years ago, for instance, was a key learning experience.

“I helped him generate his expert report. I helped him gather the information he needed. I worked with him to understand substantive material despite it not being my area,” Yang said of the accounting expert. “If I were to work with an expert going forward, I would know exactly what to do.”

Yang and other associates credit Matt Jacobs’ leadership in helping them make the most of their CJA work. Michael Hoosier, a second-year associate, said he relished learning from Jacobs about the right way to communicate with vulnerable clients.

“At the end of the day, what the client needs you to do is to speak the truth to them — to really clearly tell them what’s going on and what’s going to happen,” he said. “Just watching Matt do that was very elucidating and helpful. His approach to counseling clients is a compassionate one but is also very firmly rooted in the facts.”

V&E associates also value Jacobs’ insights as a federal prosecutor.

“He’s someone who will say, ‘Here is the law, here is how a prosecutor’s office operates, and here’s what they’re looking to hear, and here is how you’re going to motivate them to side with your client,'” said first-year associate Michael Riggins.

Even as he advises them in their CJA matters, associates say Jacobs provides them space to work independently.

“He’s good at teaching, but he’s not going to come into your office and check on you to shake the trees and make sure that no fruit falls out,” said Branden Stein, a sixth-year associate. “He gives you the room to do what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Stein, like his colleagues, is grateful to both Jacobs and V&E for including him in CJA work.

“It’s a really valuable opportunity for me,” Stein added, “because it helps me become a more complete lawyer.”