Michele Roberts rose from a childhood in a Bronx public-housing development to attend the UC Berkeley School of Law. She began her legal career as a public defender, eventually becoming a litigation partner for several top firms. In 2014, Roberts became the first female union leader in major North American professional sports when she was elected executive director of the NBA Players Association.
Michele A. Roberts was born on September 14, 1956, in New York City, New York. She was one of five children raised in a South Bronx housing development by a single mother, Elsie, who supplemented the family welfare checks by cleaning apartments and selling home-cooked food. Elsie also enjoyed attending criminal trials at the nearby Bronx Supreme Court, and Roberts received an early introduction to legal proceedings when she joined her mother for those outings.
Awarded a scholarship to attend the prestigious Masters School in Westchester County, New York, Roberts learned to adapt to a markedly different culture as one of two African-American girls in her class. She went on to attend Wesleyan University and then UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, during which time she volunteered at the law office at San Quentin State Prison.
Upon joining the Washington D.C. Public Defender Service in 1980, Roberts immediately distinguished herself as a formidable litigator with a knack for persuading juries.
"She had a really folksy way of getting along with people who were total strangers," recalled Charles Ogletree Jr., an early supervisor who became a Harvard Law School professor. "She was like the thirteenth juror."
After ascending to chief of the trial division, Roberts left the Public Defender Service in 1988 to open her own practice. She continued to work with low-income individuals, but also became involved in high-profile cases. She joined Anita Hill's legal team during the confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991, and later earned exoneration for Charles Bakaly, a Kenneth Starr aide charged with leaking confidential documents during the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky investigation.
"I don’t live my life saying, 'What ceiling am I going to crack tomorrow?' What I have done, and what I tell my nieces to do, is not to worry about whether you’re the only one, but worry about whether you’re the best one."
In 2001, Roberts officially entered the world of white-collar litigation when she joined the Washington D.C. law firm of Shea & Gardner. She became a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in 2004, and then Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP in 2011, earning accolades from such publications as Washingtonian magazine and Legal Times along the way.
NBA Union Director
After reading about the dismissal of Billy Hunter as executive director of the National Basketball Players Association in 2013, Roberts contacted the search firm hired to secure his replacement. Although she had no experience in labor relations or sports, she was convinced that she was the one to help the union.
"I plan to be the best executive director in the history of this union. But I'm proud of it. And I’m proud of the players for being 'bold enough' to give a girl a chance."
The NBA players, who had approximately 300 candidates to choose from, also became convinced after Roberts explained how she would handle her responsibilities. "Being the executive director of a players union means understanding what the members want, what the members need, and helping them get there," she said.
In July 2014, Roberts was elected the NBPA executive director, making her the first female union leader of the four major professional sports leagues in North America. Her history-making moment out of the way, she continued forging relationships with NBA players and Commissioner Adam Silver in preparation for new collective bargaining talks.
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