Tell, Show, Do . . . The NITA Method
by Stacy Chesney
With the smell of sweet sage wafting through the air, the participants and instructors for the National Institute of Trial Advocacy’s (NITA) Tribal Advocates Project gathered to commence the final day of their week-long training.
Corrine Pocatilla, an elder of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, stood and thanked the instructors for their wonderful encouragement and feedback, then offered a prayer in her native language.
Traveling mostly by car from places like Chiloquin, Oregon and Pine Ridge, South Dakota, these tribal advocates, many non-lawyers, were sent by their respective tribal courts to participate in NITA’s hands-on learning method.
Tinker Perkins, a public defender from Idaho who got his start as a police officer, and his partner, Will Edmo III—both lay advocates—were sent by their Shoshone-Bannock tribal court to learn and practice courtroom behavior. "The feedback we get in the performance groups is the best part," said Perkins. "I’ve been to other training sessions, but the faculty here are great, and watching myself on video shows what I have to work on."
Lucy Real Bird, a bright-eyed young woman from the Crow tribe in Montana is a college graduate with a degree in early-childhood education. By default, she became a Case Presenter for the juvenile court of her tribe. Having arrived at the NEC at the beginning of the week feeling great intimidation, on Friday she described her time as, "The best five days of my life."
This is only one type of training offered by NITA. There are courses for firms, providing training ranging from their national trial advocacy program to targeted programs for pro bono and legal services attorneys to specialized training like advanced depositions and managing associates. NITA is also available for in-house training programs. According to Terre Rushton, associate director of In-House Programs at the NEC, "one of the biggest surprises is the large number of firms who are calling us for conference facilities or focus groups. . . . We’re very open to that."
NITA’s training meets people at their skill level. The methodology is: tell people about it, show people how to do it, then have them do it. Hon. Robbie Barr, a NITA instructor since 1993 says, "What NITA teaches practitioners is that what a lot of them are doing by instinct can be broken down into skills to practice and perfect." John T. Baker, a veteran NITA instructor, said, "It’s a very constructive critique system because we tell them how to improve the next time they perform. . . . They can self-critique when they leave instead of getting stuck using the same old techniques."
Several weeks after the tribal session ended, attorneys in the Hanley Advanced Advocates Program tried their hand at direct- and cross-examination at the NEC. These lawyers, says faculty instructor Tony Bocchino from Temple University, "are exceptionally good." Ranging in experience from 5 to 18 years, watching these participants grill witness "Elliot Millstein" is fascinating. Exhibiting poise and calm, these experienced attorneys test their limits by trying new approaches to questioning. Rearranging order and taking on different styles are just a few of the techniques employed by these trial veterans.
Said Steven Reisberg, an attorney from New York, "This is a great place to share ideas and get several perspectives. The firm is not always the place to let your lawyer hair down." His "colleagues agree, joking, "What happens at NITA stays at NITA." Vicki Nash, from California, added, "It’s great here because you can take risks and try new things to improve your skills."
With its central offices in Indiana at Notre Dame University, NITA has been waiting for an official "home" to accommodate its programs that are often run at colleges and universities around the country. Built in November, the NEC in Louisville delivers. This 26,500 square foot
Mark Caldwell, manager of Specialty Programs for NITA, explains the effort that goes into selecting the diverse instructors, most of whom are not paid. "We try to reach out to the best and brightest of trial, bar and bench. We talk to those who currently teach to learn whom they admire and we call judges to hear who the hot trial lawyers are." Hon. Barr describes the diversity in faculty as a variety of racial, gender, geographical and experiential make-up. "You get a sense of the cutting-edge ideas from across the country."
Across the hall from the Hanley Advanced program, judges and attorneys gather for NITA’s "Teacher Training." In this room, professionals from as close as Denver to as far as Scotland gather to create and practice cross-examination drills for NITA students. Kenneth Campbell, director of training and education for the Advocates in Scotland—basically the head trainer for all trial lawyers in Scotland—was in attendance, as were seven others from the UK. He explains that the relationship with NITA began more than ten years ago when two colleagues came to a course and decided to take the ideas back to Scotland.
Why? "Because it’s tried and tested and it works," he says. "The students’ performance is immediately reviewed in a structured way, so they are able to understand why something has worked or hasn’t worked and what they can do to fix it."
Denver instructor, Hon. Sandy Brook of JAG describes the training as "a tremendous bonding experience" for the students. "You’re not sitting, listening to lectures—you’re learning by doing. . . . You get to know the people in the small groups; . . . those small groups help one another."
Said Derek Brooks, a Hanley participant from New Mexico, "One thing you can say is that it’s intense. As long as you stick it out, you’ll learn something. Here, you get friendly, constructive criticism that you don’t always get in the real world. . . . I always find NITA inspirational."