United States Attorney
for the District of Rhode Island
Peter Neronha worked in the litigation department in Goodwin’s Boston office from 1989 to1996. After years in public service, Peter was appointed by President Barack Obama as the U.S. Attorney for the District of Rhode Island, a role he still holds. Peter credits Goodwin’s training with instilling the good habits that have carried him through his career. Read more to learn about Peter’s career in public service and his favorite memories from his time at Goodwin.
When did you work at Goodwin? What type of work did you do?
I started with the firm in September of 1989 and I stayed until November 1996. I was in the Litigation Department and also worked on a bunch of cases in the Environmental Department. I really wasn’t pigeon holed into one particular area. I was trying to get a broad experience and I really feel like I got that in my seven years at Goodwin.
You were appointed by President Barack Obama as the United States Attorney for the District of Rhode Island on September 16, 2009. Tell me about what you’ve been doing professionally since you left Goodwin Procter and how that led to this appointment?
When I left Goodwin, I decided I wanted to try my hand at being in the courtroom a bit more frequently as a prosecutor. At the time, I thought that the best place to do that was to go to a U.S. Attorney’s Office. I tried to get into the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston and in Providence without a lot of success, so I applied to the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office. It turned out to be one of the best things that I’ve ever done. I served under Attorney General Jeff Pine and then under Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse from 1996 to 2002. I got into the courtroom every day trying small cases, and learned to handle witnesses and adversity. Then I moved to the Rhode Island Superior Court doing more significant criminal cases. I believe that the major corruption cases I worked on with federal prosecutors helped me get my foot in the door in a way that I couldn’t get in the door seven years earlier, and I was eventually hired as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Providence in 2002! At the time, I didn’t see myself doing anything other than being an Assistant U.S. Attorney. I really loved the job -- doing organized crime cases, corruption cases, and working with law enforcement in general. I felt like I was doing the right thing, and sometimes that means not charging people at all or recommending a sentence that isn’t the longest possible sentence. I felt that whatever decisions I was making were independent of anything other than what the law and what justice required. I would have done that forever.
Fast forward to President Obama’s election in 2008. I didn’t apply for the open U.S. Attorney position in time for the deadline, but I later got a call from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse who was my old boss at the AG’s office. I remember very vividly, my wife came into the living room with the phone and said, “It’s somebody claiming to be Sheldon Whitehouse.” Of course, it was Senator Whitehouse, and he said, “Peter, I want to talk to you about the U.S. Attorney position.” I thought he was calling to ask about another candidate, but instead he asked me if I was interested in the position. I said, “Well you’re kind of catching me off guard, but yeah I would be. Sure.” I applied in January of 2009, and then didn’t hear anything until April when I interviewed with Senator Jack Reed and Senator Whitehouse. Ultimately, they called and told me that they were going to recommend me to President Obama. The President nominated me in August of 2009. The Senate confirmed me in September of 2009, and I’ve been a U.S. Attorney ever since. It was not really in the plan for sure, but I’ve enjoyed it so far.
As your experience suggests, a job as an Assistant U.S. Attorney is a coveted job. What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue such a career?
I think you have to knock on the door and hopefully at some point the door opens. When I was at the AG’s office, there were four or five openings at the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney’s office, and I applied and I didn’t get hired. You have to keep trying until either there’s something about you that either strikes a chord with the sitting U.S. Attorney or sometimes it’s just a matter of fit. I think the ideal candidates are those that have been at a good law firm -- they know how to write, they know how to think, they’ve had good training and they get the intellectual part of the job -- and have also been in a courtroom a lot -- they can try a case. You need both skill sets to be a really good Assistant U.S. Attorney, but that’s often hard to find. Many candidates are people who have been in law firms for a number of years and now want to become a trial attorney. Frankly, many of them don’t have the trial skills to do it right away. Or, some are from DA’s offices that really have not written a lot or handled complicated cases and don’t have that background. If you want to do this job, I think you have to recognize it’s probably unlikely you’re going to get it on your first attempt. You have to be persistent. A lot of it is just dumb luck, that’s how I got here. I wouldn’t have been an Assistant U.S. Attorney at all if the guy who the then U.S. Attorney had wanted to hire had filed his tax returns and passed the background check. And, if I wasn’t an Assistant U.S. Attorney, I certainly would not have become the U.S. Attorney. The best game plan is to write well, to think well, to understand complicated legal issues and to get some trial skills.
I know you have a long history with Rhode Island, having grown up there. If someone would have told you when you graduated law school that you would one day be the United States Attorney for the District of Rhode Island, what would you have said to him/her?
I never would have thought that I’d be sitting in this chair. A retired Assistant U.S. Attorney who I had worked with as an Assistant U.S. Attorney called and told me, “It’s like the Americans winning the American Revolution, who’d have thought it.” When I told him that the Senators were going to recommend me to the President, my own father said to me, “I didn’t think you had a chance in hell.” I think a lot of Rhode Islanders were fairly surprised because I don’t have any political affiliation or any political background. I was known as a career prosecutor and that’s how I thought of myself. It came as much as a shock to me as to everybody else.
What is the best aspect of your job and what is the most challenging aspect of your job?
There is a lot of interesting stuff that goes on at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. When you’re the U.S. Attorney, you deal with a little of everything, from human trafficking to railroad safety to national security issues. Every day is really interesting, and significant decisions are made in this office daily. One of the challenges is that you really have to play the diplomat, both internally and externally, with state and local law enforcement, state prosecutors, non-profits, the governor’s office, etc. You have to be a problem solver. I really do feel blessed to have been entrusted with the job. It’s a great responsibility, but it’s a great privilege…and it’s never dull, that’s for sure.
How did your training at Goodwin Procter prepare you for what you’re doing now?
I think starting off at a place like Goodwin Procter teaches a young lawyer really good habits. What I learned at Goodwin was how important it was to do a really good job on everything that I touched and to leave no issue uncovered. I remember my first trial as an Assistant U.S. Attorney – every issue that could possibly come up, I had a case on it. I didn’t need eighty percent of them, but I was ready. Those are habits that you get at a place like Goodwin because of the nature of the practice, what the partners expect, what your fellow associates expect, and what the clients expect. The expectation is that you are going to produce an excellent product and those things stay with you through your career. No matter what it is – a letter, a brief, a deposition, a trial – you put everything into it. Goodwin certainly sets you up for a successful career whether you stay there or go on to somewhere else.
What are some of your favorite memories from your time at Goodwin?
There are a few things that stand out. I remember Jim Rehnquist, John Englander, Rich Oetheimer, a bunch of other guys and I used to go over and play basketball in the North End one night a week. We had a lot of fun doing that; it was a blast to go out and grab a beer and pizza afterwards and blow off steam after a long day. I remember flying with John Englander out to Chicago to look at this device for a patent case. We flew all the way out there and flew all the way back just to look at and take pictures of this one device. I remember having a few chuckles with John about that. I remember when the firm transitioned from an entirely formal dress code to business casual on Fridays. It was entertaining to see everyone come up with a business casual wardrobe – myself included. There was a really close-knit class of associates at Goodwin: We had a lot of laughs. We worked hard. It was a good time in my life and Goodwin was a big part of that. Those were good years.
When you’re not at the office, what would you most likely be doing?
I really value the time I spend with my wife and children. I have two boys: one is a high school junior and the other is in eighth grade. We live near the water in Rhode Island in a little town called Jamestown, which is an island in the middle of Narragansett Bay. We do a lot of sailing and hanging out in the summer. I’m just trying to capture that family time as best I can because it doesn’t last very long. One of the boys will be going to college in a year and a half and the other not that far after. Time goes by so fast. I look back and I can’t believe I left Goodwin almost twenty years ago, in some ways it feels like yesterday.
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