Last year, the International Society of Barristers (ISOB) provided NITA with a grant that, in part, “seeded” a program devoted to lawyers working in the public sector. Held in November 2015, the inaugural Excellence in Advocacy public service program afforded twenty public service lawyers the opportunity to attend a NITA Trial Skills program at nearly no cost to the lawyers’ agencies. Many of the Excellence program attendees had applied for a NITA scholarship in the past, but were declined for the simple reason that we didn’t have enough funds to meet the demand. So, we were delighted when our friends at the ISOB facilitated us in offering this special program, where we met Verónica González Rodríguez. She traveled to our headquarters in Boulder to attend the program last fall and recently spoke with us about how it enhanced her work at Servicios Legales de Puerto Rico in San Juan.
What’s a typical day in your office like?
It involves coffee. Lots of coffee. I spend most of my day researching. Besides litigation, we do quite a bit of community legal education. I get to develop and deliver workshops and clear language material to assist low-income people in understanding the law. Because my office handles a wide variety of legal issues—environmental, property, housing, economic development—there is no such thing as routine case.
What legal problems do you help your clients resolve?
I work at a specialized unit that exclusively handles group cases, such as those regarding poor communities or a number of individuals confronting the same legal issue. This generally means environmental justice cases or community displacement. For example, we are currently representing people who oppose the construction of a waste-to-energy facility in their already polluted neighborhood, as well as several communities fighting an attempt to expropriate their homes to build high-end residential/tourism developments.
How often are you in court?
Hardly ever, but it is increasing. Most of my caseload deals with administrative and appeal work. The Puerto Rico Appeals Court rarely has argumentative hearings, so I do most of my arguing in writing.
What is the most challenging party of working with the population you serve?
Sometimes, we don’t seem to speak the same language! I strongly believe in community lawyering and letting clients be main advocates for their cause. That often requires translating from legalese to everyday Spanish. We like to say putting the law in “rice and beans.” Often, I struggle doing just that. And my clients are to kind to say they don’t understand me.
What do you enjoy the most about your work?
Without a doubt, the best part of my job are my clients. They welcome me into their homes and trust me with some of the most important things in their lives. Every day I marvel at their ability to stay strong and even joyful while in front of the most difficult situations.
Is there a particular trial skill you thought you were good at but realized at the NITA program needed further development?
I had no confidence in my trial skills. At the time of the training, it had been six months since I had been in front of a judge! So, all my skills needed further development. If I have to pick one, I will say that I was more confident in my direct examination skills. Yes, I was one of those attorneys who thought that cross-examination was harder because I could always prepare a list of questions for my witness. I was wrong.
How do you think the Trial Skills program has an impact on your clients?
It has made me a more confident advocate—or at least look like a more confident advocate. I have a nervous personality, and feedback from the instructors has helped me channel that energy into what I am actually trying to do. I still have a long way to go, but they gave new tools to get me there. I even got a new, slightly weird trick to stop moving around! [Note: Veronica shared her trick with us, but we’re keeping it on the QT. It’s one of many secrets attendees learn at NITA programs that sharpen their skills in the courtroom.]
What’s the perfect day of activities for you in San Juan? What do you do, where do you eat, what do you see?
There are so many options on this tiny island—from lying on white-sand beaches to hiking through tropical forests. Me? You are most likely to find me in the city, probably walking on the cobbled streets of Old San Juan, in the company of good friends, eating something starchy and deep fried.
NITA would like to recognize the International Society of Barristers for the generous donation that made our Excellence in Advocacy public service program possible.
Enjoy this interview? Find more of our “Asked and Answered” interview posts with NITA personalities here on The Legal Advocate.
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