Sanjay Bhandari: A Multi-Faceted Federal Trial Lawyer
One of the best things about the Federal Bar Association, San Diego Chapter is that each member’s practice is different. If you attend an FBA event, you are sure to meet federal prosecutors, law clerks, federal defenders, attorneys practicing federal law in big firms, Assistant U.S. Attorneys in the civil division, solo practitioners, attorneys who work for federal agencies, and more.
Sanjay Bhandari’s impressive career has included almost every one of those jobs. He’s prosecuted securities fraud, defended both indigent and white-collar individuals, and spearheaded complex civil litigation. His extensive experience in federal court, both on the civil and criminal side, and both as a prosecutor and defense attorney, makes Mr. Bhandari one of the FBA’s pinnacle members. For this reason and many others, he is the subject of this member spotlight.
Following graduation from Cornell Law School, Mr. Bhandari began his career as a federal law clerk. He clerked for the late Honorable Napoleon Jones in the Southern District of California. Mr. Bhandari only had positive things to say about Judge Jones, who was and is known for being a fair and hardworking judge, mentor, and staple in the legal community. Mr. Bhandari remembers that Judge Jones would wake up every day at around 3:30 a.m., would spend the day on the bench or working on his cases, and would then finish almost every day by performing community service or meeting with community groups. It goes without saying that Mr. Bhandari will never forget his clerkship and all that he learned from Judge Jones.
During his clerkship, Mr. Bhandari, like many of us, fell in love with San Diego. He moved to the Bay Area after his clerkship to work on intellectual property litigation at Latham & Watkins, but soon returned to San Diego when he accepted a job as an Assistant U.S. Attorney (“AUSA”). While he enjoyed the Bay Area and all it had to offer, it was hard to forget his beachfront Mission Beach bungalow and riding his bike to work in the wonderful San Diego weather.
As a new AUSA, Mr. Bhandari prosecuted border crimes and eventually, fraud crimes. While prosecuting fraud crimes, Mr. Bhandari was also cross-designated to work with the SEC on enforcement matters, traveling back and forth from San Diego to Washington, D.C., as he juggled his AUSA work and his SEC work. To us, that sounds exhausting just thinking about it, and to Mr. Bhandari, it eventually became too much and he returned working as an AUSA full time. He was involved in several high-profile cases, including prosecutions against a congressman, the Executive Director of the CIA, and a city councilmember. And in his final year as an AUSA, Mr. Bhandari prepared for and tried two massive cases—a fraud case and a bribery case—that took almost the entire year. Many San Diegans have heard of these cases—involving Peregrine Systems, Inc., a multibillion-dollar securities fraud, and a defense contractor who bribed former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham.
Following that rewarding but tiring year, Mr. Bhandari decided to return to private practice, and he worked at Sidley Austin and Baker McKenzie. After a few years, he decided to go out on his own. While starting your own firm may sound terrifying to some of us, for Mr. Bhandari, it was exciting. He was excited to continue to round out his practice and be solely responsible for each piece of the case—from meeting with clients to brief writing to trial, and everything in between. Also during this time, Mr. Bhandari registered to be on this district’s Criminal Justice Act (“CJA”) Panel. The CJA Panel is a group of court-appointed attorneys who represent individuals in criminal cases who are unable to afford counsel. It is a wonderful service and the panel is filled with qualified and enthusiastic attorneys. Although being on the panel could be demanding at times, Mr. Bhandari was happy to do it and found it to be an extremely rewarding experience. He felt he was doing concrete good for people that really needed his help. He gave the example of a 70-year-old former nun for whom he was able to get all charges dropped without any cost to her family.
After a few years of being a solo practitioner, Mr. Bhandari returned to a firm, this time as a partner at Ballard Spahr, many of whose San Diego attorneys later formed McNamara Smith, the white collar defense and trial boutique where he works now. At McNamara, Mr. Bhandari continues to represent clients in both civil and criminal cases. Most of his work is white collar defense, and the remainder is civil litigation. The good majority of his cases are in federal court. Mr. Bhandari’s varied background is apparent and useful in his practice today. He handles antitrust, securities fraud, healthcare, tax, cases under the False Claims Act, intellectual property, and more. Outside of his practice, Mr. Bhandari speaks at conferences with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in an effort to help teach about specialized areas of criminal law.
Outside of the Law
Mr. Bhandari maintains a well-rounded life and has many interests and hobbies outside of the law. Mr. Bhandari lives in Coronado with his wife and two teenaged daughters. He enjoys spending time with family and enjoying all the outdoor activities that San Diego has to offer, such as hiking and tennis. He also is involved in community outreach and other community groups in Coronado, such as the rotary club. He enjoys the rotary club because it exposes him to projects, issues, and people that he would not know of otherwise. It’s a good reminder that it’s important for us to connect with people outside of our daily working lives.
Mr. Bhandari has family living around the world—in Europe, India, and more. He makes a point to travel to see family when he can and to bring his children so that they can understand their roots.
Mr. Bhandari has had and continues to have an impressive and rewarding career. He enjoys what he is doing now and is happy where he is. But he’s been happy elsewhere too, even though the work he has done throughout his career has been varied. Mr. Bhandari continued to stress to us that he’s never had a “master plan.” A lot of young lawyers felt pressure in law school and even in practice to have a plan. We all know at least one person in law school who, since day one, has known what type of law he or she wanted to practice and has never strayed from that path. We were jealous of that person and their linear path, and maybe we still are. But the important thing to remember is that everyone is different. Not everyone has to know exactly what they want to do in law school or in the beginning of their career; in fact, attorneys can excel in many areas of law throughout their career, like Mr. Bhandari.
We asked Mr. Bhandari if he had any advice for someone hoping to have a career in federal law. He noted the importance of becoming an AUSA or a federal defender. As an AUSA, he gained incredible trial experience and became known as someone who could handle a case through trial. There are few areas in the law where an attorney can gain this type of experience and exposure to all stages of a case. As an AUSA, Mr. Bhandari was in court almost every day and was interacting with lawyers and judges on a daily basis. That kind of practice is rare, and it gives one excellent experience and prepares them for almost every other type of litigation.
Mr. Bhandari gave us advice that we all need to keep in mind: be good at whatever you do. Whether you’re at a big firm or small firm, whether you’re out on your own or working for the government, whether you’re practicing civil law or criminal, just do your best and make a positive name for yourself. The rest will follow, and you can have a rewarding career no matter what you’re doing.
* Hannah Brown is a member of the San Diego Chapter of the Federal Bar Association and its Public Relations Committee. She practices intellectual property litigation and commercial litigation at Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani, LLP and clerked for the Hon. Cynthia Bashant and the Hon. Janis Sammartino in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California.