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Alumnus tackles issues of espionage, trade secrets in practice and writing

September 15, 2016 | Alumni

Espionage, magic, high-stakes politics, and trade secrets are just some of the topics James D. Robenalt ’81 has tackled over the course of his career. As a litigator, he’s managed and tried scores of high-stakes, complex cases, and as an author, he has written about the presidency and historical events that helped shape our modern political landscape.

A partner in the Cleveland office of Thompson Hine, Robenalt started his career as an associate at the firm 35 years ago after graduating from The Ohio State University College of Law. Having grown up in Lima, Ohio, where his father, John A. Robenalt ’48, was a named partner in one of the largest firms in town, he fully expected to go back to practice after earning his juris doctorate. The practice of law is something that runs in the family, he said. His son James L. Robenalt ’07 is an Ohio State law graduate as well.

“I worked with my father after my first year at Ohio State and my thought was that I was going to go back to Lima and practice law. I ended up getting an offer at Thompson Hine in Cleveland in the summer of 1980 and then in 1981 I joined them as an associate, again thinking I would probably be there about five years and then go back to Lima, and I just ended up staying here,” Robenalt explained.

Knowing from the minute he stepped foot in law school that he wanted to be a litigator, Robenalt started his career by first taking on cases involving attorney and accountant malpractice defense before getting into construction law. In the late 1990s he began working on several trade secrets cases, an area of practice that would eventually become one of the largest parts of his practice today.

“One of my biggest cases was the first case under the Economic Espionage Act of 1996, which involved a Taiwanese company that had planted a spy at a company called Avery Dennison, which makes labels,” he said. “They had a guy named Ten Hong ‘Victor’ Lee who was sending all of Avery Dennison’s trade secrets to Taiwan so that this group could start making cheap knock-off labels in China and Taiwan to compete with them,” Robenalt said. “It was an amazing case. There was an FBI sting operation and the attorney general of the United States actually had to approve the case. That was my big introduction to trade secret law. Since then, I’ve done principally trade secret and espionage cases. It’s a really fun practice.”

In 1990, after having established a successful business practice for himself in Cleveland, Robenalt’s mother passed away. She was just 66 years old. As the family grieved her loss, Robenalt said he began to recall stories his mother had told him growing up about her grandfather, a leader in the Ohio Democratic Party in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and fan of magic. Wanting to know more about his family’s history, Robenalt began looking through old photos and documents in his parent’s attic. His interest led him to FDR’s library in Hyde Park, New York, and David Copperfield’s private complex in Las Vegas.

“My mother’s family was extraordinary. They came from tiny little Kenton, Ohio, which is up near Marion and Lima, and her father was the son of a man who grew up in Kenton, his name was Durbin, and he was just an amazing guy in American history. He started the International Brotherhood of Magicians, and he also helped Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt become president. When he died, he was the register of the treasury for FDR, the second official in the Treasury Department,” Robenalt explained.

“W. W. Durbin was born right after the Civil War and lived through FDR’s time, and during that time he knew Houdini and Blackstone and all of those guys. My mom ended up having seven kids, I’m one seven, and she told us stories about him growing up—he was long dead when I was born—and I never believed her. The stories sounded preposterous,” he said with a laugh.

As he sifted through old memorabilia, Robenalt thought to himself that the story of his great-grandfather’s life was simply too good not to share. “That’s how I got into writing, I really was studying him and I ended up writing my first book called Linking Rings: William W. Durbin and the Magic and Mystery of America,” he said.

It took 10 years to complete and publish the book from the time Robenalt had the thought to share the story of William W. Durbin to the time the first copy was pressed. Years of research and carefully crafted story writing went into the publication, which tells the life story of his great-grandfather.

After the book came out in 2004, which features a great deal of history on Ohio politics and the presidency, Robenalt was invited to speak at Case Western Reserve University in 2004 when then Vice President Dick Cheney and Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate John Edwards were scheduled to have a debate. There Robenalt met several key people who would provide the inspiration for his next two books.

The first was the great-nephew of President Warren G. Harding, Dr. Warren G. Harding III. The other was John Dean, who was Richard Nixon’s White House counsel during the Watergate scandal, and who had written a biography on Harding.

“I met the Hardings and I met John Dean in 2004 because of that first book, and in doing so I stumbled onto a secret microfilm that was, of all places, being stored at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland. The microfilm contained the love letters of Warren G. Harding to a mistress. The woman with whom he had a 15-year affair had kept all of his love letters in her closet, and when she died her family lawyer found the letters. The Harding family sued to keep them quiet and they were put under seal at the Library of Congress for 50 years in 1964. But one of the persons involved in the discovery of the letters made a secret microfilm and it contains over 900 pages of handwritten letters from Harding to this mistress. And once again, I just fell into this story. So that’s my second book, The Harding Affair: Love and Espionage During the Great War. It also turned out she was a German spy during the First World War, so it’s just an astonishing story,” he said.

After his second book was published in 2009, Robenalt found inspiration for his third publication the following year while attending a Continuing Legal Education (CLE) seminar on the Kent State shootings in 1970. He called John Dean afterward to ask him where he had been at the time of the tragedy, since Dean had been involved with the Department of Justice at the time.

As the two continued talking, Robenalt said Dean told him he had often been asked to do a CLE on Watergate, but had never accepted an offer, worried about the quality of the presentation. Dean then asked Robenalt he if would like to work together to create one.

“Six months later, after Dean provided me with a wealth of Watergate materials to study and kind of tutored me through everything—I feel like I have a Ph.D. in Watergate—we presented our first program in Chicago in June of 2011 at one of the law schools. And the word went out like wildfire, and since then we’ve conducted about 120 programs around the country, including a bunch for the Ohio State Bar Association. We kept getting call after call to do programs because people loved it so much, and out of that program came my third book, which is January 1973,” Robenalt said.

Released in 2015, his newest book details one of the most significant months in American history. In just that 31-day period, Robenalt explained, the Watergate burglars went on trial, Harry Truman died, Lyndon Johnson died, Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court, the Vietnam War ended for the United States, and Nixon gave his second inaugural speech. “All of those things were like a great storm coming together at once that changed our politics forever,” he said.

While he didn’t set out to become an historian or author, Robenalt said he attributes the curiosity most lawyers have about life and the world in general to his desire to follow the facts of the mysteries he comes across to find their logical conclusions.

“I think most lawyers are people who are curious in general about things. I’m also in a rock band composed entirely of lawyers and one judge, for example, we just practiced last night – we play for charities and bar associations, things like that. We all have interests beyond the practice of law. We’re curious people, and I think that’s why we’re drawn to the practice of law, it’s an interesting way to make a living.  So I think doing all of this history work, to me, is very much just being curious and then I become kind of obsessed about a story and want to figure it out. I think that is what’s led me to do all of this writing and lecturing,” he said.

“Lawyers make great history writers because we’re steeped in the rules of evidence and we can look at statements and criticize corroborating evidence and build a case and build a story. So it’s very much similar in that sense to the practice of law. This is what this person says, this is what that person says, and you have to figure out what really happened, and that’s what history is—trying to go back and recreate the moments of when things happened,” he said.

When asked how a busy litigator has time to build cases for his clients and tackle lingering questions from the past in his books, Robenalt said, “If you’re really interested in something, it doesn’t feel like work”

“It’s not work for me to do all of this because I like it so much and I’m interested in it, so weekends, nights, vacation time, I really spend a lot of time working at that and I am still a full-time litigator. I’m able to do both because I don’t golf or watch much TV. You’d be amazed at how much time you actually have,” he explained. “Books become a grind at the end when you’re trying to finally get it all edited, but writing them is just a nice distraction and doesn’t feel like work.”

Looking toward the future, Robenalt said he’s been researching the Glenville shootout, which happened in the Cleveland area in 1968 where police were ambushed by black nationalists, as a potential subject for his next book.

He has also been working with administrators and educators at Ohio State to look into creating an Ohio Presidential Center. As a swing state that often decides presidential elections, Robenalt said he believes it’s important to have a place where people can not only learn about the eight U.S. presidents that have come out of Ohio, but for scholars to have a place to research current election trends to help provide accurate, evidence-based analysis of political data.

“Being able to lecture and meet people all around the country has been a blast, you can’t imagine the great stories that you hear from people,” he said. “And I still enjoy practicing law, I still enjoy trying cases, its hard work, but it’s a good way to make a living,” he said.