A partner at the Fairfax-based firm of ShounBach, Roberta Henault has built a solid reputation handling complex and multi-jurisdictional divorce cases. In her mid 40s, she possesses a fundamental competence and a direct style - clients will recognize a steadfast yet modest manner, not far removed from her New England roots. And with a record of working with some of the profession's leading attorneys in recent years, she has earned a respected place in Virginia law; she is certainly part of the growing success of ShounBach, which stands out now as the largest firm focusing on family and matrimonial law in the region. Today the firm has 13 lawyers; Henault is one of five partners. She's built an important focus area as well: Each year she handles dozens of cases involving military families, whose unique challenges - of constant relocation, lengthy separation and career benefit packages - give their divorce matters a layer of complexity all their own.
Born in San Diego and raised in Abington, MA, on Boston's suburban South Shore, Henault says her parents - her father was a career police officer, her mother a legal secretary - were her greatest influences: "They sheltered my brothers and I from the harsher realities of life," she recalls. At Abington High School she "dabbled" in soccer and basketball, and went on first to Russell Sage College in Troy, NY, a gritty post-industrial town on the Hudson, and a world away from where she grew up. "I wanted to go home, but my parents made me stick it out." But after a year she transferred to Stonehill College where she graduated at the top of her class, majoring in psychology with a minor in criminal justice. From there her life took a unique course: Looking for work in the early-90s recession, she moved to Washington, first landing on a friend's cousin's couch in Arlington - "You do what you have to do," she says. "I wasn't exactly a big-city person until I moved here." She joined a unit of the National Academy of Sciences as an administrator, and though much of the work was clerical, she collaborated with civil engineers on management of research projects. Married, she applied to law school - "It was pretty instinctive: I knew I wanted to be a lawyer" - and enrolled at Boston's Suffolk University Law School. "I had to go somewhere that offered night classes - I was supporting us." But her then-husband stayed in Washington, and with her home life strained, she took a leave from school. It stretched three years. Ultimately she divorced: "For many of us in this profession, our life experiences have a true impact on the way we approach our work and relate to our clients. I know that's true with me."
Returning to law school in the mid-90s, Henault already had a maturity well ahead of most peers. Even after passing the Massachusetts bar, she chose to return to Washington, partly for the warmer climate but also "people had been good to me here." She took the Virginia bar exam sitting next to her brother, John, who'd also pursued a JD. (Today he is a government contracts litigator in Washington.) Her first work was reviewing documents of major corporate mergers - including the 2000 AOL-Time Warner deal - for major firms that needed short-term lawyers. It was a track that never appealed to her: "I wanted to represent people - people appreciate what you do for them." She considered elder law, but joined a divorce law firm in downtown DC - "almost as a volunteer" - to determine if the specialty was for her. Within weeks she knew it was, and in the process earned a full-time position from Glenn C. Lewis, then at the top of his game.
An important early influence: David Spratt, today an instructor at American University's law school. She joined a newly launched practice of Richard Gibbons, preparing cases and sitting "second chair" on several trials. In 2006, barely five years as a divorce lawyer, ShounBach's Ed Walinsky, who'd opposed Henault on several cases, recruited her. (She recalls the firm's uniquely challenging interview process: All of the firm's lawyers at a conference table peppered her with questions.) In January 2011 she was named a partner, a true milestone and distinction. Today she handles a range of cases, from referrals from JAG lawyers at several local military installations to matters referred from previous clients.
Away from the office she gardens, looks after her dogs Bruin (a mixed-breed rescue) and Bella (a boxer) and shares season tickets to the NHL Washington Capitals. She lives in Manassas.