The Legal Advocate

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Asked and Answered—Judge Matt Williams

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NITA faculty member Judge Matt Williams has what you might call a larger-than-life personality. He’s a judge on the Washington State Superior Court bench and a Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. He’s extensively traveled the world—Africa, Central Asia, South America, the Middle East, and all over the United States—with NITA to teach trial advocacy skills. He’s taught martial arts and self-defense classes. He even flies his own planes and wrestles alligators in his spare time . . . ok, we’re kidding about the alligators, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he did. In 2016, NITA saluted his creativity in teaching methodology by honoring him with the Prentice Marshall Award for the Development of Innovative Teaching Methods. We hope you’ll enjoy getting to know Judge Williams as much as we did.

How did you first meet “Auntie NITA”?

It was the summer of 1989. I had just completed a grueling traumatic brain injury trial that involved a lot of travel and living in a hotel for five weeks . . . it was my last trial as an Assistant Attorney General, and I was up against one of the top trial lawyers in Washington.

After the jury’s verdict was read, I went home, slept for two days, then immediately got on a plane to Daytona, Florida, where I journeyed to a remote federal training facility in the wilds of eastern Florida. I was starting a new job as a Federal Aviation Prosecutor. As part of the orientation to that position, I was required to attend a two-week aviation orientation/training program.

It turned out that a full week of that program was an in-house NITA advocacy program. The NITA faculty included iconic trial lawyers Ron Williams, Tom Martin (now a retired federal judge), and Stan Davis. For reasons that still escape me, they took me under their wings and adopted me into the NITA family.

For the next five years, I served as faculty, then as the program director of that aviation-based program. In the meantime, Mike Reiss (then the program director of the Seattle programs) recruited me to teach for NITA in Seattle. He made arrangements for me to attend teacher training in San Francisco

Why do you teach?

We learn so much from our students! Not only do they teach us new and better ways to approach the work, but it is a joy to see advocates grow and advance in their craft.

As a judge, I have the great pleasure of watching my students from NITA programs and from the law school gain experience and master their craft. In the process, they show me evolving best practices.

Each generation of advocates brings new perspective to the science of advocacy. They incorporate past practices, but also they innovate new methods in the context of our evolving social structures. Each generation creates new solutions and new best practices. I think that you have to be in the room and see those techniques and practices to understand how they are received.

Teaching (and practicing these new techniques) helps me keep current and keep my skills sharp!

Earlier this year, you joined the Washington State Superior Court after six years as a King County District Court Judge. What differences in your work life have you observed going from one bench to the other?

The pace is far more deliberative.

What is wonderful is that I am always in trial. I get to work with some of the best advocates in Washington. I get to see the latest (and best) technologies and methodologies being put to practice, and I get to interview the jurors afterward to find out what worked and what was a total bust.

Finally, I also have the opportunity to mentor and guide less-experienced advocates as they make the transition to more weighty criminal and civil trials.

What is the earliest recollection you have of realizing that being a member of the judiciary was something you’d be interested in and capable of?

In 1987, I tried a med-mal case in a small county in Iowa. The local judge was very gracious, but also very smart and extremely prepared. I remember thinking how much I admired that Judge’s demeanor.

Since 1991, I’ve had the great honor of working closely with Judge Jack Nevin (although some call him Brigadier General Nevin). Jack is one of those incredible minds that comes along once in a generation and who can’t help but inspire everyone around him

Tell us about your work in support of anti-corruption initiatives and the international rule of law. Where do you go? What do you do?

I’ve had the great privilege of working with multiple governmental and non-governmental organizations to provide training, resources, and perspective on the development of culturally specific solutions to the problems of case management, corruption, and human trafficking that plague many nations. Some of that work is as simple as teaching techniques of gathering, analyzing, and presenting information in ways that are non-invasive but effective (think OFLQ and OEQ).

Some of that work is to assist in the development of solutions to problems that may seem insurmountable. Part of that process is overcoming the common misperception that the American Justice System is one unified justice system. This perception is shared by many around the world, and even many attorneys within the U.S. It is spread by the relative uniformity we see in federal court practice (although even that practice can be quite diverse) and the fact that most attorneys practice within one court system or geographic area.

In fact, the American system of justice is actually hundreds (if not thousands) of small, culturally specific justice systems, all of which operate under the umbrella of our federal Constitution.

When we look at the essence of what each process or procedure within any justice system is trying to accomplish, we quickly realize that all justice systems are basically trying to accomplish the same thing. There are just many different starting places and many ways to “skin a cat.” Just because they are different doesn’t mean they are wrong . . . they are just different. The difference between the adversarial system of justice that we have here in the U.S. and the inquisitorial system that is used in many other parts of the world is a good example.

Most of my work is in understanding the underlying goals and then finding transferable solutions, techniques, and systems that can be explored, developed, and then taught in a sustainable fashion. Some of those solutions are easily recognizable within our systems . . . some less so. The key is to find the solution that will support and be supported by local cultural values, rather than in conflict with those values.

If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice when you were just starting out as a young lawyer, what would it be?

Follow your own path. There is no “track.”

What led you to becoming a pilot?

Fear of heights. (Besides . . . airplanes are just cool.)

What is the most interesting flight you have ever piloted?

Ferrying an aircraft from Des Moines, Iowa, to Seattle, Washington. Over the Rocky Mountains. In the dead of summer. Can you say “density altitude,” “updraft,” “downdraft,” or “thunderstorm”?

You’re a Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. When did Tae Kwon Do enter your life, and what made you pursue it all the way to Black Belt?

In 1984, I started training with Eric Heintz and Grandmaster Woojin Jung. I love the discipline, humility, and focus that Tae Kwon Do teaches. It cools down your brain.

My teachers taught that the martial arts are not a set of physical skills but, rather, a matter of focus and philosophy. They taught that the force that “breaks the board” doesn’t come from the body, but from the mind. Many of their students who loved the physicality of the sport (think UFC) never made the transition to Black Belt within their school. It took a different philosophy and focus. Interestingly, before he was a Tae Kwon Do instructor, Mr. Heintz was a Deputy Attorney General in the Iowa Department of Justice.

So . . . how many Justin Biebers could you take in a fight?

None. I’d run away! (Or I’d call the court marshals . . . they are really good with aggressive rock stars . . . and not just because I bring them donuts every Friday!)

You’re a judge, a pilot, and a Black Belt. If you could have any other superpower, what would it be?

Friends are the greatest superpower of all. As individuals, we are isolated, narrow-minded, and without perspective. But as a community, we can accomplish anything

You have twenty-four hours in Seattle without a single commitment. Describe your perfect day in Emerald City.

Two shots of Nespresso (to wake me up enough to drive to Starbucks), then to Starbucks for “my drink” (see below). Cycle 25 miles on some of King County’s excellent river/waterfront trails. Shower and meet friends for a waterfront lunch. Fly up to the San Juan Islands to meet family for a beach walk. Cook dinner for a group of friends at the island cabin. Play board games and watch the stars. Drift off to sleep to the sounds of R&B.

Coffee or tea?

Venti quad-shot, almond-milk mocha, with 14 pumps of sugar-free mocha and 12 Splenda (five carbs).

Rain or shine?

I live in Seattle . . . like there’s a difference?

iPhone or Android?

I currently have an iPhone (and two iPads) . . . because “there’s an app for that.”

Movie theater or Netflix?

Yes! Although most of the movies I watch seem to be on airplanes.

Fruits or vegetables?

I know all 78 ways of preparing broccoli and cauliflower. (Seriously.)

And finally, what is your motto?

“Thought before action . . . if you have time.” (Thank you, Dick Francis!)

Enjoy this interview? Find more of our Asked and Answered interviews with NITA personalities here on The Legal Advocate.


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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system.

NITA’s Goals are to:

  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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