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Section Sponsors Training for Public-Interest Litigators

By Lisa R. Bliss, Litigation News Associate Editor – June 16, 2011

The room was hushed when Dina L. Biblin, Washington, DC, gave her closing argument in defense of a woman whose seven-year-old son was removed from her custody due to her alleged excessive use of corporal punishment. Biblin’s audience watched and listened carefully. Some made notes and others exchanged knowing glances when she made particularly persuasive points.

Biblin was not speaking to a real jury, but to 35 public-interest lawyers who convened May 16–18, 2011, in Atlanta, Georgia, for training in trial skills sponsored by the ABA Section of Litigation. Biblin practices with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). She gave her closing argument to demonstrate some of the techniques of persuasion that the participants were studying.

The training session, entitled Critical Trial Skills for Legal Services Attorneys, was presented free of charge to public-interest lawyers by the Section of Litigation, the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, and Emory University Law School. Most public-interest law organizations do not have funding available to send their lawyers to these types of intensive trial skills training programs.

Mariel Sivley, Atlanta, a staff attorney with the Georgia Law Center for the Homeless, says that her Center’s budget is quite low for CLE and trial skills training. “[T]o pay the market price for training like this would mean that I would not be able to attend,” she says. “I received pin-pointed advice about how to improve my cross-examination, how to improve my body positioning to relate to the court and jury, and how to better intonate during different times in a hearing.”

“Of all the training sessions I ever do, this is the most satisfying,” says Judge Mark A. Drummond, Quincy, IL, who is a chair of the Section’s Legal Services Advocacy Training Project. Drummond believes that this project has a direct impact on its participants. By way of example, he notes that a legal aid lawyer who attended a previous training finished the training on a Friday and tried her first case the following Monday. The jury returned a verdict in her favor in 15 minutes. She wrote a letter to Drummond saying that the techniques she learned contributed to her level of confidence, to her efficiency in the courtroom, and to her client having a roof over her head.

“This is the best trial skills training that I have attended,” agrees Beth Stephens, Atlanta, a staff attorney with Atlanta Legal Aid Society. “I appreciated the diversity of instructors and perspectives,” she says. “It was valuable to receive instruction from a judge, private practitioners, academics, government attorneys, and legal services attorneys.”

“Our participants are truly doing good work for little pay,” Drummond observes. “They are so appreciative of the time that the Section and Section leaders devote to them,” he says. “They are amazed and honored by the caliber of trial lawyers that we bring to these training sessions to work with them in helping the poor.”

The faculty trainers, such as Biblin, are all volunteers. The Section’s Legal Services Advocacy Training Project holds the training sessions in different parts of the country twice a year. The training project, which began in 1992, is a signature public-interest outreach program of the Section, says Benjamine Reid, Miami, FL, another chair on the Legal Services Advocacy Training Project. “It is especially gratifying that Section members volunteer three days of their own time and use their own resources to travel to the training to serve as teachers and mentors for public-interest lawyers,” he says.

Using a NITA case, the training covers topics such as developing a case theme, opening statements, introducing and using trial exhibits, direct and cross-examination of witnesses, impeachment, and closing arguments. More than a dozen experienced litigators, from all parts of the country, participate as faculty trainers. Participants practice different trial skills and gain immediate feedback from faculty in small group sessions and in one-on-one video reviews of their performances.

Participants in the Atlanta training session were public-interest lawyers from Georgia, Illinois, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Virginia. The next training session will be held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, July 25–27, 2011.

Keywords: litigation, public-interest litigator, training, CLE

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