Alumni Making a Difference Across the Nation: Matthew Martens '96

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Matthew Martens
Matthew Martens '96 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Garrett Hubbard.

Read the full article in the Spring-Summer 2014 issue of Carolina Law.

Last summer, Matthew Martens ’96 was prosecuting the trial of a lifetime for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Banks of TV cameras awaited him every morning as he entered the courthouse. Every courtroom maneuver was picked over in the media. And some of the most powerful people in the nation — from Wall Street to the White House — were watching the case.

“It was certainly a big case and there was a lot of pressure on our agency to win, but I never felt particularly stressed about it because I knew we were prepared,” Martens says.

It probably also helped that the Carolina Law graduate had more than a score of jury trials under his belt and had spent a decade as a federal prosecutor. Plus, Martens really likes litigation.

“I love doing trials,” he says. “Would I want to do it again? Yeah!”

But unlike the 2013 prosecution of former Goldman Sachs executive Fabrice “Fabulous Fab” Tourre, the next time Martens is in the courtroom he’ll be at the defense table.

After the Tourre trial ended — with a win for the government — Martens joined Washington, D.C., law firm WilmerHale as a partner defending clients faced with investigations or prosecutions by financial regulators or the U.S. Justice Department.

After law school and clerking for two federal judges, including a year as a clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, he started his career as an associate in a New Jersey firm doing litigation. But a partner there — Michael Chertoff — was appointed to a top Justice Department post under President Bush and Martens followed him into government service.

It was an opportunity, he says, that might not have been available to him without his Carolina legal education. Not only did he get a high quality legal education, but he got it without having to take on big loans. That kind of debt, Martens says, can affect the career decisions young lawyers make.

“When the opportunity came to clerk, I didn’t have to think ‘Can I afford this?’” he says. “It allowed me to do things early in my career that I think were instrumental in developing as a lawyer.”

Shortly after Martens got to the Justice Department, the terror attacks of September 11 occurred, and then the Enron scandal shook Wall Street. Martens, at the Justice Department and later the SEC, was tapped to take a leading role in tackling some of the biggest financial cases prosecutors have faced in decades.

But after more than a decade in a prosecutorial role, it was time for a change.

“In terms of what I enjoy the most, it’s defending people against government overreach,” he says. That may sound odd coming from a former federal prosecutor, but he adds, “I hope that mindset caused me to use good judgment as a prosecutor during the time I did that.”

Though he has spent more than a decade as a prosecutor, the challenge on the defense side is not that different. He’ll still need to explain complicated business issues in a simple, compelling way to jurors who may have little financial knowledge, with or without TV cameras watching his every move.

“I like the adversarial system,” he says. “I like the strategy and the combat of litigation.”

-May 13, 2014

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