In this installment of “Asked and Answered,” The Legal Advocate’s series of interviews with NITA personalities, I’m talking with longtime faculty member Joleen Youngers. I first met the force of nature that is Joleen last year at the Northwest Building Trial Skills program in Seattle, where I watched her connect with attendees as she mentored them through the grueling demands of the program. Her deep courtroom know-how, together with her snappy wit, intellect, empathy, and considerable personal style, make her a dynamo you won’t soon forget.
How many years have you taught for NITA?
It’s all a delightful blur of places and people, but my best guess is about fifteen years.
How many NITA programs do you teach at a year, and where? Is there a particular program that’s dearest to your heart?
I routinely teach at the Pacific Trial Skills and Depositions programs in San Diego, and am a team leader and teach at the Northwest Building Trial Skills program in Seattle. I also go to private programs, public programs, and other places as invitations arrive and I am able to attend. But nearest and dearest has to be San Diego, where I have gone for many years. It is a family reunion of sorts when the faculty arrives.
Why do you teach?
I was a teacher before I was a lawyer and love the role. As a lawyer, I still teach—not only in NITA programs, but in front of juries. On a more selfish note, teaching trial skills keeps my skills sharp. That helps because so many cases of my cases settle and I do not spend a lot of time in front of a jury.
What is a typical day in the life of a New Mexico litigator like?
There is no typical day litigating in New Mexico. The state is small in population but large geographically, with a diverse and somewhat quirky population that is reflected in the legal community and those whom we serve. The following statement of former territorial Governor Lew Wallace rings true:
Every calculation based on experience elsewhere fails in New Mexico.
In any given day, I may be arguing a motion in Santa Fe, meeting with a family that lost a loved one at the other end of the state, taking depositions, mediating a case, or any number of other activities.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
Simply put, time management.
How long is your commute between your Santa Fe and Las Cruces offices, and how often do you make it?
Zipping right along the Rio Grande corridor, with blue skies and broad vistas, the trip takes me four hours max. I try to avoid lengthy phone calls and use the drive to clear my mind. It provides a rare opportunity for quiet reflection or listening to loud music while singing off-key without embarrassment. I traverse my version of the Santa Fe Trail a couple of times each month.
What changes in the legal system would you most like to see?
I’d like to see more trials and fewer dispositive motions. So many lawyers spend so much time and resources on motions for summary judgment that then are either denied or appealed. I often think that cases would progress more quickly to resolution with less expense if they went to trial without all the pretrial motions.
What are your thoughts on image and power in the courtroom for women attorneys? In the late 1970s, “wardrobe engineer” John T. Molloy wrote Dress for Success and doomed generations of professional women to a dreary uniform of skirt suits, low pumps, minimal makeup, and hair buns that dialed their femininity down to zero—giving the impression that femininity was a liability in the workplace. You make no apology for being a woman in your manner of dress and grooming. What advice would you give to a young woman litigator hoping to strike the right note with a professional, but unmistakably feminine, image?
As NITA instructors, we often coach participants to find their own style of advocacy—that a style of advocacy that works for one of us may not work for another. The same applies to dress. Thankfully, things have lightened up for courtroom attire for women, allowing us to ditch the boxy suit and white shirt. My advice is women is to dress in a manner that makes them feel good, feel confident, and feel comfortable, but not in a manner that makes them seem vulnerable or awkward. For example, too high of a heel can make a woman look as if she is teetering, rather than firmly planted and strong. There’s a big difference between 4½” platform heels and a classic pump with a 2–3″ heel. It’s important that your clothes fit well so that you are not tugging at them, as you might with a gaping neckline or a shorter skirt. You need to be able to sit and stand with without self-consciousness. Also, get a good tailor. This applies to men as well. Make sure your sleeves are not too long—if they cover your hands you are limiting your gestures and diminishing one of your tools of persuasion.
That said, being put together in your appearance is part of your image. Avoid looking sloppy or looking ostentatious. If you are sloppy, you may send a message that you just don’t care that much or that you can’t get yourself together. If you wear large jewels and carry a flashy $3,000 handbag, you may evoke a negative response in jurors who think you are just too fancy to connect with them.
I certainly dress differently for trial than a day at the office or even a day of depositions. Being mindful of the forum is important, and being in court should convey a certain solemnity and respect, although you need not disappear into the background.
A final note: I often get asked to respond to the quandary of whether to wear pantyhose or not. Again, be mindful of the forum and the custom where you practice. The last thing you want to worry about is any adverse reactions to your dress when you should be worried about your case!
If you hadn’t gone into the law, what career path do you think you might’ve taken instead?
The answer to that question would depend on whether I could have any fantasy career or whether I had to make a living. A fantasy career would be in the arts, doing studio ceramics and sculpture. A more practical alternative likely would have been going from teaching in the public schools to teaching at the university level. But I am glad I went into the law. I love advocating for the little guy.
What book have you re-read the most in your life? Perhaps not necessarily a favorite book, but the one that keeps drawing you back into it?
Hmmm . . . you mean besides the Rule of Civil Procedure and the Rules of Evidence? They certainly keep drawing me back, but I assume you are asking for something more. This is a tough question. I love to read. I have diverse interests and really cannot pick any one book. I just can’t.
What historical figures would you most like to have dinner with, and why?
I’d like to have dinner with Thurgood Marshall because I’d love to hear firsthand about what it was like to argue Brown v. Board of Education and then how it was to decide landmark cases as a Supreme Court Justice. And then there is Mahatma Gandhi, with whom I would love to dine and would hope to soak up some of his wisdom and courage. Finally, dinner and drinks with Dorothy Parker and Oscar Wilde would be divine for pure entertainment.
Who are your heroes?
Ruth Bader Ginsberg—the Notorious RBG
My friend Maureen Sanders, a great New Mexico lawyer
My daughter, Allie
What did Breaking Bad get right about life in New Mexico?
Some of the good and a fair amount of the bad and ugly. I prefer to think of New Mexico by its self-proclaimed moniker: the Land of Enchantment.
What are your top three recommendations for visitors to Santa Fe to do, see, and eat?
I’m assuming you want three recommendations in each category, so here goes . . . .
Lots of old, old buildings—the sense of history permeates “The City Different”
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains and spotted hills of New Mexico
Tia Sophia’s for great red and green chile
Geronimo for fine dining
Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta in late September
For what fault do you have the most tolerance?
Impatience. I suffer from a lack of patience and fear I become insufferable as a result. For that reason, I tolerate it well in others.
What are your passions outside the office?
Oh, so much to do, so little time . . . I love to cook, listen to music, read, spend time outdoors, and hang out with family and friends. Fairly pedestrian, I know, but these are the ingredients of a contented life for me.
What is your motto?
Never, never, never give up.
Like what you read here? Be sure to check out this “Asked and Answered” session with beloved NITA faculty member Judge Robert McGahey.