Lawyers Split on Fitness for Office

Linda Singer led the Appleseed nonprofit group before being nominated for D.C. attorney general.
Linda Singer led the Appleseed nonprofit group before being nominated for D.C. attorney general. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Linda Singer was not looking for a new job, she said. She was not even looking to practice law anymore.

She was running a nonprofit group in the District, and for years, she had told the state of New York -- where she had been admitted to the bar -- that she was retired from the law, with no intention of practicing again.

So, Singer said, she was surprised when D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) came calling and offered her the job as attorney general over breakfast at Four Seasons.

The 40-year-old Harvard Law School graduate was not a member of the D.C. Bar until this month, despite having lived and worked in Washington for more than a decade. For 13 years, she had led a Washington-based network of nonprofit organizations called Appleseed, which harnesses pro bono work by law firms to study problems in such areas as education, health care and immigration.

Singer's work at Appleseed focused on policy -- stimulating ideas, advocating change and raising money. It was very little like the job as the city's top lawyer that she assumed this month. And in law offices around town, that has people wondering whether she is the right fit for her new post, which she holds in an acting capacity as she awaits confirmation by the D.C. Council.

She takes charge of a staff of several hundred people with a variety of responsibilities, which include reviewing the city's bond deals on Wall Street, defending municipal agencies in court, prosecuting juvenile offenders, and cracking down on deadbeat parents and usurious lenders.

"She's going to be in the middle of lots and lots of cases of every kind, and that's not been her most recent experience," said Walter Smith, who was second-in-command of the old D.C. counsel office in the mid-1990s.

Smith can look at Singer's appointment from two perspectives. He is the executive director of the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, one of Appleseed's affiliates. "It will be new to her," he said of the city job. "But that doesn't mean she won't be equal to it."

It was DC Appleseed, under Smith's predecessor, that catalogued the chronic failings of the city's law office -- long known as the office of the corporation counsel and renamed under Robert J. Spagnoletti, whom Singer succeeds.

Legal luminaries who have led the office include: John Payton, who came from a partnership at Wilmer Cutler Pickering; John S. Ferren, who stepped down from the D.C. Court of Appeals; and the late Charles F.C. Ruff, a former U.S. attorney who left a partnership at Covington & Burling.

Singer said she thinks that she is well-prepared, too: "I think that the skills that the job requires are skills that I have developed through my career."

After graduating from law school in 1991, Singer spent two years as a public defender in Manhattan. Then she came to Washington and was the founding director of Appleseed, which grew from a one-person operation with a $70,000 budget into a 17-office, 70-employee national organization with a budget of several million dollars.

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