One of the primary initiatives of the NITA Foundation is to provide tuition assistance to legal staffers at public service agencies whose lean budgets often put specialized advocacy training out of reach. But thanks to the generous support of our donors throughout the country, it’s possible for public services lawyers to attend NITA’s advocacy programs so they can fine-tune their courtroom skills as a way to serve the greater good. That’s how I met Emily Cooper, who attended the Northwest Trial Skills (NWTS) program in Seattle this fall. She’s a staff attorney for Disability Rights Washington, which is a nonprofit agency working to protect the rights of people with disabilities in Washington State. Emily represented her office at NWTS through a scholarship underwritten by the NITA Foundation and recently talked to me about her experience.
What’s a typical day in the life of a public services lawyer like?
The only thing that is typical is the overwhelming and persistent need for competent, affordable legal representation. Given finite resources to respond to the demand, many legal aid providers are in the untenable position of figuring out who, out of the needy, actually receives our services (especially costly services like litigation). An analogy I often hear is that practicing as a public services lawyer can feel like drinking out of a firehose.
What legal problems do you help your clients resolve?
The vast majority of cases I work on relate to either discrimination or the abuse and neglect of individuals with disabilities. For example, I went to trial this past spring regarding a class of pretrial detainees who languished in solitary confinement for court-ordered mental health services that were unavailable due to the state’s lack of resources. Without timely receipt of these services, several of my clients died or suffered permanent reduction in their cognitive functioning. (Editor’s note: Click here to read more about this crisis and what Emily’s agency, Disability Rights Washington, is doing about it.)
How often are you in court?
Rarely, but it is increasing. My agency is unique its ability to access and obtain records. See, e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 15043(a)(2)(J)(ii) (providing agencies like Disability Rights Washington twenty-four hour access to records of individuals with disabilities who have died while in facilities). Because we are able to quickly obtain necessary documentation, I am able to quickly discern any underlying issues and try to resolve them with the entity as quickly as possible to prevent any future harm. However, since the latest recession, many governmental services have been reduced and so we are seeing more and more entities push back on reforms or plans of correction that have fiscal implications. So, I went from having no cases in active litigation to three federal class actions in less than a year.
What is the most challenging part of working with the population you serve?
The bias that they experience at every turn. The assumptions the public, the media, the legislature, and even other members of the legal profession regarding people with disabilities (in particular, people with mental illness) are astounding. Implicit bias is not only real, but disproportionately impacts the lives and rights of people with disabilities.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
Winning. It’s not about ego; instead, a win for my client often means long-term systemic improvements that benefit a whole class of individuals. When you are able to secure such a victory for your client—which is usually about obtaining necessary services or being free from discrimination versus a monetary ruling—you feel a part of the larger social justice community. This feels particularly good when you think about how affirming such a ruling could feel to marginalized client[s] who, even years after the[ir] case is over and done, will remember that their rights are equally important and worth fighting for. They may even be able to use similar strategies and techniques to resolve similar issues on their own, thereby truly becoming actualized in their own agency and autonomy.
Is there a particular trial skill you thought you had down cold but realized at NWTS wasn’t quite there?
Oral argument. My grandmother said I could talk the bark off a tree, and I have a long history of feeling comfortable public speaking. However, I didn’t realize how quickly I spoke or how I expected my audience (judge or jury) to understand some of the context. One of the best pieces of feedback I got a NITA was “landing my point on the beach.” The analogy is that I get ideas that were partially formed as waves but, like waves, they overlapped and could be construed as indistinguishable. Taking time to slow down and using clear, short sentences has been beyond invaluable.
How do you think finessing your trial skills has an impact on your clients?
Absolutely. The key to successful advocacy is competent legal representation. I have always had the drive to ensure my client’s story is heard. Now I have the ability to ensure that story is persuasively told.
What surprised you about yourself when you were at NWTS? (A good surprise, or a suboptimal one—just something you were surprised to learn about yourself.)
You need to anticipate what the jury may assume compelled the actors to take one action or another and anchor, in advance, the narrative you want the jury to hear about the parties’ intentions. The jury may not limit their analysis to the facts presented at trial and instead fill in any gaps with their own reasoning. Part of being human is trying to understand or justify an action based on who you are or what you know to be true. A litigator’s job is to give that compelling narrative.
Who are your heroes?
The everyday people you don’t see but who are instrumental in supporting the leaders and innovators you do see and revere.
What’s the perfect day for you in Seattle? What do you do, where do you eat, what do you see?
A perfect day in Seattle would be spending time outside (forests, water, and mountains, oh my!), talking and laughing with dear friends and family, and eating food made by someone really passionate about cooking it.
What’s your motto?
Be open and curious, especially when you think you are right or even afraid. You may be surprised at what you learn.
Do you work for a public services agency and would like to apply for a NITA scholarship? Check out our scholarship information here. We’d love to support you in your commitment to public service.
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