Legal-aid lawyers learn, then teach

Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
By John Flynn Rooney | Law Bulletin Staff Writer

On a Monday and Tuesday last week, 15 legal-aid leaders went through a training program on the ins and outs of trial skills.

The following three days, they taught the same program on opening statements, direct examinations, cross-examinations and closing arguments to about 40 legal-aid lawyers.

The weeklong training program that ended Friday had two parts and resulted from a partnership of the National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA), The Chicago Bar Foundation and Skadden, Arps Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.

Angela C. Vigil a partner in Baker & McKenzie LLP’s Miami office, the firm’s director of pro bono and community service for North America and a veteran NITA instructor called the sessions in Chicago unique.

Vigil has never taught trial skills to legal-aid lawyers who then used the same skills they learned the next day to teach other attorneys.

If you’re going to volunteer time to teach lawyers, there’s no more important group to teach than those that are in court every day for poor people, said Vigil, who is chair-elect of NITA’s board of trustees. The better they are, the more access there is to justice for poor people.

Margaret C. Benson, director of Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, participated in both parts of the program. The NITA instructors were adept at showing how to do an effective cross-examination, Benson said.

The sessions made the participants more effective lawyers, she said. I learned a lot from watching them too.

Other veteran NITA instructors that participated in the sessions included 8th Judicial Circuit Judge Mark Drummond, along with Thomas V. Linguanti, Jaclyn Pampel and Ethan A. Berghoff all partners in Baker & McKenzie’s Chicago office.

Daniel Contreras, a staff attorney at Equip for Equality for six years, attended the final three days of the trial skills training.

He went to lectures and participated with a small group in mock courtroom scenarios that were reviewed by instructors. Those scenarios were also videotaped and later critiqued by other instructors.

Being exposed to the combined experiences of all the instructors who were present and the different tips and advice they provided is invaluable, he said.

Contreras practices special education law and represents students in due process hearings at schools or school district offices.

The instructors provided tips about opening statements and examining witnesses. They used an opening statement in a drunken-driving case as an example of how to present effectively.

Rather than simply telling a judge or jurors the defendant was drunk, the instructors said lawyers should use short, succinct facts about how much the defendant drank and when that person got behind the wheel.

Those kind of strategies stood out, Contreras said, adding he plans to use the show-not-tell strategy at his next hearing.

Robert A. Glaves, CBF’s executive director, said the training the legal-aid lawyers received would cost about $2,600 each for lawyers in private practice. That amount would be out of reach for most public legal-aid lawyers.

To do a program of that magnitude for that many legal-aid lawyers was really impactful, he said. It was a great example how partnering €¦ can make something great happen.

CBF gave an $8,000 grant to NITA to help cover some of its expenses for the program.

Skadden provided space for the sessions at its Chicago office and served breakfast and lunch each day to the instructors and participants.

Charles F. Smith Jr., a Skadden partner and a member of the CBF Board of Directors, said the firm has a long-standing relationship with NITA. Skadden lawyers participate in NITA’s trial and deposition skills training programs. Legal-aid lawyers deserve the same level of training, Smith said.

The public interest lawyers are doing incredibly important work, Smith said. We want to support them in any way we can.


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