May 28, 2002

Defensive Move: Robert Wilkins, Ex-Chief of Special Litigation in DC Public Defender's Office, Joins Venable as a Partner in Corporate Defense/White Collar Group

5 min

Returning to law practice after successfully lobbying for creation of a National African-American Museum; Wilkins joins Venable on the heels of Presidential Commission appointment

WASHINGTON, DC (May 28, 2002)Robert L. Wilkins, former chief of special litigation for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia who left his job in 2000 to jump-start the creation of a new National African-American Museum and Cultural Complex, has joined the Venable law firm in Washington. Mr. Wilkins, 38, becomes a litigation partner in the firm's expanding corporate defense and white collar practice.  He will also handle general commercial litigation, including intellectual property cases.

After 10 years of criminal defense work involving everything from petty shoplifters and blackmailers to DNA admissibility and multiple homicides, Mr. Wilkins left the public defender's office to establish a nonprofit organization intent on creating the first National African American Museum. 

Though he forfeited a steady income and his wife was seven months pregnant with their second child when he began, Mr. Wilkins was committed to seeing the project through its initial development phase.  His dedication paid off:  In mid-May, the U.S. Senate appointed him to a special presidential commission backed by $2 million in appropriations to oversee the museum's planning and construction.  Both the Senate and House of Representatives have officially backed the museum and made separate appointments to participate in its creation. 

Mr. Wilkins joins such prominent African Americans on the Commission as baseball legend Hank Aaron; actress Cicely Tyson; Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise Magazine; Robert Bogle, president of the Philadelphia Tribune, one of the nation's oldest minority newspapers; Howard Dodson, head of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; Lerone Bennett, historian and executive editor of Ebony Magazine; Claudine Brown, Director of Arts and Culture for the Nathan Cummings Foundation and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution; and Vicky Bailey, Assistant Secretary of Energy, among others.  Several U.S. Senators and Congressmen have also been named to the commission as non-voting members.

Groundbreaking for the museum, which will ultimately cost between $250 million and $300 million and be placed on or adjacent to the Capitol Mall, is expected to begin within the next two to five years. It will be the first national cultural institution celebrating African American heritage, placing it among other DC-based cultural centers such as the Holocaust Museum and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Now that the catalyst for the museum has been set, Mr. Wilkins is anticipating his return to litigation in what will be his first private-practice legal job. He said that while a switch from defending street criminals to litigating white-collar cases is uncommon, the premise is the same. "I'm helping people deal with life-changing legal problems, and finding creative ways to resolve difficult civil and criminal issues," Mr. Wilkins said.

From DNA Admissibility to Sex Offender Registration, a Constitutional Bent

As section chief in the Washington public defender's office, Mr. Wilkins was often the point person for cutting edge cases on DNA admissibility, grand jury abuse, scope of expert testimony, equitable relief, vicarious liability and First Amendment issues. He proved adept at litigating complex constitutional issues and helping to keep other lawyers from getting into trouble with the court.  He also successfully defended the first blackmail case to go to trial in the District of Columbia in over 30 years.  In addition to litigating, Mr. Wilkins coordinated public policy positions and governmental relations for the agency.

In one of his most prominent cases, Mr. Wilkins served as lead counsel for John Doe #1 et al v. Mayor Anthony Williams, which challenged the DC Sex Offender Registration Act on constitutional and Privacy Act grounds. The U.S. District Court ultimately found the Sex Offender law unconstitutional.

Mr. Wilkins said he chose Venable "because of its strong social values and genuine commitment to serving the metropolitan Washington, DC community." Not to mention, "the firm has the right mix of different practice areas, with an especially strong litigation base," he added.

"Robert Wilkins is a remarkable individual as well as an outstanding litigator who has fought in the trenches of constitutional and criminal law. I foresee a long career, not only as we continue to build a corporate defense/white collar practice at the firm, but as we further extend our roots in the DC community," said William Coston, managing partner of Venable's Washington office. "And we congratulate Robert on his presidential appointment and fully support his efforts to launch the new African American Museum."

Venable takes its community service seriously, most vividly through the Venable Foundation.  Founded in 1981, it supplements the pro bono and voluntary contributions of the firm's attorneys. The Foundation supports a wide range of civic, cultural, and charitable endeavors as well as public interest law and legal education.

Mr. Wilkins, who holds an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, will work on a variety of white-collar defense matters, including environmental crimes cases under Judson Starr, head of Venable's Environmental and Energy Group.  Mr. Starr is one of two former Chiefs of the Department of Justice's Environmental Crimes Section now at Venable. 

Mr. Wilkins is also extremely familiar with civil rights causes, having won a landmark civil rights lawsuit against the Maryland State Police for racial profiling. He served as a panelist on many discussions involving matters of racial discrimination. Because of this work, he received the Practitioner of the Year award from the University of Maryland Black Law Students Association.

Mr. Wilkins was named Pro Bono Attorney of the Year in 2001 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, and received the 2001 Henry W. Edgerton Civil Liberties Award sponsored by the ACLU Fund of the National Capital Area.

Mr. Wilkins received his JD from Harvard University School of Law in 1989, where he served as President of the Black Law Students Association and Executive Editor of the Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. He received a BS cum laude in Chemical Engineering from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in 1986. Mr. Wilkins lives in Washington with his wife and two children.

Photo available upon request.

One of the American Lawyer’s top 100 law firms, Venable LLP has attorneys practicing in all areas of corporate and business law, complex litigation, intellectual property and government affairs. Venable serves corporate, institutional, governmental, nonprofit and individual clients throughout the U.S. and around the world from its headquarters in Washington, D.C. and offices in California, Maryland, New York and Virginia.