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Miriam Conrad, longtime federal public defender, is retiring. She took on tough cases, including Boston Marathon bomber Tsarnaev

Miriam Conrad, who is stepping down next spring, said, “Our work is telling our clients’ personal stories.”Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Miriam Conrad has dedicated her three-decade-long law career to defending the poor and sometimes those — like Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev — who committed unspeakable crimes. She sees it as her duty to convey a picture of a defendant ”as a whole person” and to help judges and juries see that picture, too.

That dedication and compassion will be sorely missed, colleagues say, when she steps down next spring from her position as the chief federal public defender in Massachusetts after more than 15 years in the post — a decision she just recently announced.

Conrad, responsible for cases in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, can be fierce when cross-examining a witness, her colleagues say, and tenacious with expert witnesses and law enforcement. As a boss, they say, she’s down in the trenches with her team, laughing at the absurd, always available for advice, and able to “deliver a kick in the posterior” when necessary.

“She’s a superb lawyer,” said retired federal judge Nancy Gertner. “She’s as good as it gets; she’s dogged and courageous and untiring, and cares unbelievably deeply about her clients.”

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Joseph Burhoe was jubilant as he left the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse with Miriam Conrad, federal public defender, in 2018.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file

Conrad was Bill Fick’s boss for a decade, and he was part of the five-member team that defended Tsarnaev in 2015.

“She built the office into a great collection of lawyers and support staff, and created an environment where she took care of all the bureaucracy and got us the necessary resources to do what needed to be done for our clients,” said Fick, now in private practice.

The emotionally charged Tsarnaev trial was a demanding two-month ordeal under a media spotlight that took place at an exceedingly quick pace for a death penalty case, Fick said. The case is still pending. Tsarnaev was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was overturned on appeal.

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Miriam Conrad (center, with red collar) defended Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev, along with lawyers David Bruck and Judy Clarke. EPA

“I really quite frankly don’t know how she managed to keep running the office and remain on the team,” Fick said. “But it worked.”

While the trial was underway, Conrad also was fighting for resources.

“She fought hard for more staffing and money for her office,” said US District Judge Patti B. Saris, who at the time was chief judge for the District of Massachusetts.

She hasn’t let up, said the current chief judge, Dennis Saylor.

“If she has 11 things that she wants brought up, she’s not going to stop at 10,” Saylor said. “She’s very effective and a very strong advocate.”

When she formally steps down March 31, Conrad expects to remain involved in the legal field, perhaps representing poor defendants part time or volunteering on policy initiative work.

But first, Conrad is “thinking of just taking a gap year,” focused on travel and relaxation, she said.

Before Conrad had a law career, she worked as a journalist. She earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University and in the early 1980s worked as a crime reporter for the Miami Herald. She next worked at the Kansas City Times, now called the Kansas City Star.

A car accident in which Conrad suffered a pulverized heel when she was 25 would help steer her toward the law. She used a settlement from the accident to pay for her third year of law school at Harvard.

It was a natural progression, Conrad said. Her training as a reporter taught her to write quickly and clearly, to view facts as sacrosanct, and to tell her defendants’ stories.

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Miriam Conrad, longtime chief of the Federal Public Defender Office, has announced that she'll retire next spring. Barry Chin/Globe Staff

“It’s storytelling,” said Conrad, who is 64. “Our work is telling our client’s personal stories to convey a picture of who they are as a whole person.”

Conrad graduated from Harvard Law School in 1987, clerked for a federal judge, and in 1992 joined the Federal Public Defender Office in Massachusetts, where she worked as an assistant public defender for 13 years. She is serving her fourth four-year term as chief defender.

When Conrad went to law school, she had no plans to become a criminal defense lawyer. She was even considering returning to journalism, Conrad said. That was until she started work as a public defender, and then she knew she’d found her calling.

“It just felt like home,” Conrad said. “It’s been incredible to have this opportunity to do something that I love so much, and to have had the opportunity to do meaningful work with an incredibly talented and dedicated staff.”

As chief defender, Conrad draws accolades from across aisles, benches, and circuits.

“She has a large footprint, not only in the circuit but within the country,” Saris said.

Saris has watched Conrad grow from a fledgling lawyer, to a standout chief public defender, to the voice of the nation’s federal defenders testifying before the 2018 US Sentencing Commission (which Saris chaired).

Conrad has testified several times before the sentencing commission, most recently about first-time offenders and alternatives to incarceration.

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“In the courtroom, she is very forceful, and when she’s advocating institutionally for positions she’s not somebody along the lines of, ‘Hey, let’s reach a compromise,’ ” Saris said. “She’s a zealous advocate for both defendants and defense policy.”

Gertner, the retired judge, recalled a pornography trial that Conrad played a role in that was based on Photoshopped images. In a withering cross-examination, Conrad challenged a prosecutorial expert who claimed he could use metadata to authenticate photos. Among those he allegedly authenticated was a doctored image of Shrek, the movie ogre.

“This was not Miriam’s strong suit,” Gertner said. “But she dug in. It was at first deadly dull . . . but she did one of the most amazing cross-examinations of the witness that I can remember.

“The takeaway was she was unafraid to take on experts, unafraid to do the work,” Gertner said.

In 2016, Harvard Law School named Conrad as one of its International Women’s Day honorees, nominated by a student, faculty, or staff member for her work as a public defender and mentor and “in recognition of her commitment to zealously advocating for and providing top quality legal services to indigent clients.” Also honored that same year were Senator Elizabeth Warren, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and former US attorney general Loretta Lynch.

“To do the work as long as she has,” said Fick, Conrad’s former employee, “you have to see the humanity in everybody and take seriously the responsibility to focus on the needs of the client and not really anything else.”

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Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.