Shortly after I joined Ziff Law, Jim Reed, the firm’s managing partner (and frequent poster on this blog,) told me to sign myself up for the two-week National Session on Building Trial Skills offered by the National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA). “And by the way,” he remarked, “the program is located just outside Boulder, Colorado.”
‘Nuff said. As a former resident of Denver and Missoula, Montana, I am a true lover of the mountains and was ecstatic about the chance to spend some time savoring mountain life. Oh, NITA looked pretty cool as well.
I had no idea at the time that I was about to embark upon a career changing — if not life changing — voyage. Seriously. Two weeks at NITA equaled, for me and I suspect most of my classmates, at least five years of real world trial experience. Unfortunately, as most practitioners recognize, cases are not tried nearly as often today as they were fifty years ago. Increased pressures to settle matters quickly or engage in Alternative Dispute Resolution — such as mediation or arbitration — has created a professional atmosphere in which young attorneys wait years or even decades before ever getting a chance to see a case through to verdict. (The one notable exception is in the area of criminal law, where cases are tried on a somewhat more frequent basis.) (Watch an interview with The Honorable Jim R. Carrigan, one if NITA’s founders.)
I was fortunate to have tried a number of cases as a prosecutor before participating in NITA’s National Session. However, the skills and confidence I gained from NITA are unparalleled. I had an opportunity to test myself against some of the best up-and-coming attorneys in the country — and even the world! The faculty was comprised of seasoned practioners with practical, focused advice on how to become the very best trial lawyer possible, and the lecturers offered insight into cutting edge legal trends and technology emerging from all ends of the globe. (Read NITA’s Blog.)
The session itself was broken down into two mini week-long programs, each culminating with full jury trials performed in front of live mock jurors. Throughout the entire two week period the group of almost ninety participants was broken into three smaller groups, and each group was assigned a team leader and assistant. I had the absolute pleasure of working in a group lead by Temple University’s Beasley School of Law Professor Lou Natali and White Collar Criminal Defense Attorney Hayes Hunt of Cozen O’Connor. Attorneys Natali and Hunt are both no-nonsense, savvy litigators with seemingly endless knowledge and wisdom to share.
Each day of the first week began with warm-up execises led by communications specialist Brian Johnson. These were some of my favorite segments of the entire session. Brian is not a lawyer, but has been teaching lawyers to speak like REAL PEOPLE for the past thirty years. Brian spent an nearly an entire two hour lecture one afternoon teaching us what to do with our hands. Our hands. Where should we place them when asking questions on direct examination? What should we do with them while arguing during summation? What about our feet? Our voice inflection? How can we best use our core muscles to project strength? How to we best appear powerful?
The session focused greatly on critique — from the instructors, our peers, and, ultimately, ourselves. Every day at NITA was game day, and it was crucial to come prepared and ready to perform. Our presentations of various stages of trial — voir dire through summation — were videotaped and reviewed by a rotating crew of instructors, none of whom were afraid or hesitant to tell us EXACTLY what needed to change.
The results were stunning. I was assigned to try my first NITA case with Sydwell Shangisa, an advocate from South Africa who practices criminal prosecution. (Read about one of Shangisa’s recent verdicts,) the second case with Tomas Rodriquez, the Marshalltown, Iowa public defender. NITA invited dozens of local residents to sit in on the trial, and set up closed captioned television monitors which allowed us to watch the jury deliberate. Both cases were document intensive — giving me an opportunity practice using PowerPoint throughout in order to publish exhibits to the jury.
The bottom line is NITA is a must for all practitioners. Period. NITA’s philosophy is fairly straightforward — communicate simply, be entertaining and take risks. The results for me were nothings short of stunning. Two days after returning I began my first civil trial. It lasted eight days, and though 10 witnesses were called and over hundred exhibits admitted, it only took the jury nine minutes to return a verdict — in our favor. But that, I am afraid, is a topic for another post…
Thanks for reading!!
Christina Bruner Sonsire, Esq.