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Saturday, August 22, 2015

NITA Brings Back the Trial Skills for Legal Services Attorneys Course

One of my favorite advocacy courses is NITA's Trial Skills for Legal Services Attorneys Course. The course is taught at NITA headquarters in Colorado. NITA fully funds the tuition and course expenses for approximately 48 attorneys from legal services agencies across the country. The attorneys (or their agencies) are responsible for their own transportation and lodging arrangements. The faculty all donate their time during the course. The latest iteration of this course took place in Boulder on August 11-14.

Obligatory faculty photograph at the August 11-14 2015 Trial Skills for Legal Services Attorneys Course.

Because of funding limitations, NITA could not offer the course for the past four years. This year, however, the NITA Board of Trustees was able to fund the program. Pent-up demand for the course was so high that it completely filled within two days of opening. The Board funded a second offering of the course that will take place in September. I'm glad the Board brought this course back. NITA does a lot of good throughout the country, but it is at its best when it finds a way to help those attorneys who would not otherwise be able to afford the instruction.

There are three reasons this course is exceptional. First is Mark Caldwell, who is the most gifted trial course administrator I've ever worked with; any opportunity to work with him is a delight. Mark puts all of his heart and soul into planning these courses. Over the years, he has experimented with cutting-edge adult learning techniques in this course, knowing that he has a receptive audience and a willing faculty. 

Second is the faculty team. Mark always assembles a gifted, eclectic, interesting, and fun group of faculty to teach this course. I learn something new about teaching and advocacy from my colleagues in every single session of this course. I've met some of my closest friends in the advocacy teaching world at this course. In fact, the genesis for this blog occurred during an informal lunch with a group of faculty members in Louisville, Colorado, several years ago. "Somebody should start a blog," we all agreed, and a week later, Hugh Selby, Charlie Rose and I launched The Advocacy Teaching Blog. 

Third, and most important, is the students. Simply put, it's inspirational and humbling to work with them. They come to the course because they want to improve their ability to help others. Their work is often unheralded and often unappreciated, even by their clients, but they do battle every day in a system that is rigged to the disadvantage of their clients: the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and the infirm. During one of the plenary sessions in this year's course, one of the students shared why she decided to practice law. She told how as a young girl, she was impressed by an attorney's red Maserati and wads of cash. An instructor asked her what about her work made up for the Maserati and the cash, and she answered simply but powerfully: "I get to help people with their problems."

From this course, there were a few lessons learned that I'd like to share.

Good Trial Advocacy Training Has a Normative Effect on Legal Systems. One of the things that has struck me in my work with Justice Advocacy Africa is the sense of mission, the idea that advocacy training should not only improve the individual participant's skillset, but also help improve the system as a whole. In Botswana and Kenya, for example, it is not common for attorneys to give opening statements at trial. Attorneys and judges who've had advocacy skills training learn to appreciate the value of opening statements--even short opening statements in bench trials--and they start asking for permission to give them if they are advocates and expecting to hear them if they are judges. I was a bit surprised to hear that many American judges in the jurisdictions in which our students practice actively discourage, or at the very least do not expect, opening statements. So I thought it was interesting to hear Mark Caldwell give the same speech I heard Pepsi Thuto give in Botswana and Benjamin Njoroge give in Kenya about the transformational impact of opening statements on local practice. Mark encouraged the students to ask for the right to give opening statements, and even if permission was not granted, to at least briefly tell the judge what the case was about before calling the first witness. Mark told a great story about how a recent NITA short-course graduate persuaded a judge that opening statements were a good idea, even in child neglect cases. The attorney stood up in court and gave a very brief, thematic statement: "Your honor, this is a case about a mother's love. A mother's love for alcohol and drugs."

Trial-Ready Advocates Get Better Deals for Their Clients. Nancy Hathaway, a fellow faculty member in this course, is a supervising attorney in Massachusetts, specializing in the juvenile court system. With her permission, I share something she sent to the other faculty members at the conclusion of this course: 

So, I'm in supervision training in my office -- the public defender's office in Boston -- and the topic is in-service, routine trial skills training.  In answer to the question, "Why focus on trial skills?", the training director said, "Because I know I have had clients who, despite being told that the decision whether to plea or try a case is theirs alone, despite having a viable defense, have pled guilty because they could see the fear in my eyes."

I found that incredibly moving.  When we build lawyers' confidence in their ability to try a case, they convey that confidence to their clients.  It gives their clients more options.  That is an issue of equal justice for poor clients.

Thought you all would appreciate. 

It can't be said any better than that.

Repetition Works. Mark has been experimenting with allotted performance times in his courses, and one of his recent innovations is building sufficient time in each performance block for repeat performances. In nearly every session of this course, there was enough time for each student to perform twice. Often, the second performance would come after critique and video review. Sometimes, the repeat performance would occur with different instructors from the ones who gave the original critique. This is in contrast to the typical advocacy course in which the student performs, receives a critique, but then does not perform that skill again during the course. I would highly recommend finding a way for repeat performances. Perhaps Mark will write more on this for us in the future, but what I observed is that the quality of student performances improved dramatically, not only for each individual skill, but in the aggregate, throughout the week. I believe that the opportunity to correct a performance and apply the critique points and advice within a short time after the original performance helps improve the learning process considerably.

Flipping the Classroom Creates Additional Performance Time. For this course, most of the substantive instruction came from professionally produced instruction videos that were posted to NITA's Studio 71. The students were assigned to watch these before attending the course and were reminded every night of which videos to watch that would give them the substantive instruction necessary for the next day's assignments. This frees time for live performances, critiques, video reviews, and repeat performances. It requires greater advance effort from the student, but the payoff is well worth the effort. The value of learning-by-doing programs, after all, comes not from the live lectures and faculty demonstrations, but rather from students practicing their skills in a live environment with expert critiques and commentary to help them improve.

If you get the chance to teach in or attend one of NITA's public service courses, I highly recommend it.


  1. Absolutely fantastic topic! Great blog! Thanks for taking the time and writing this.

  2. This is a picture of some of the best advocacy teachers I have ever had the pleasure to work with. It warms my heart to see that NITA's board has found a way to make this program a reality again. In my mind it represents the heart and soul of why NITA came into existence in the first place.

    So happy to know this is still going strong.

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