The Legal Advocate

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Robert VanderLaan Remembered with Scholarship Fund, Memorial in Chicago

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This winter, NITA lost a beloved member of its family, when Program Director Bob VanderLaan passed away on February 28 in his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. In the words NITA’s Executive Director Karen Lockwood, “Bob’s tremendous energy and talent in teaching touched countless people through NITA. He taught with NITA for thirty-five years, and his immense heart, genuine charm, and energetic legal advocacy made Bob unforgettable to everyone he taught—and taught with.”

Losing Bob was a tremendous blow to the NITA community. Two of his closest NITA friends, Program Director Dan Rabinovitz and longtime faculty member Jon Barnard, have taken the lead to memorialize Bob’s legacy by creating a NITA program scholarship in Bob’s name. Dan recently spoke to The Legal Advocate about the new Robert VanderLaan Memorial Scholarship, how he and Jon will host NITA’s collegial faculty in celebrating Bob’s life at one of Bob’s favorite places in Chicago this fall, and what made Bob such an inspiration to those who knew and loved him best. 

How did you meet Bob?
In the early 1990s, during the Midwest Regional Trial Program in Chicago, several faculty members, including Bob, regularly attended performances by Chicago bluesman Son Seals. During the same period, I was an Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney and played trumpet for Son Seals. At one of those shows, Bob learned I was a prosecutor, and shortly thereafter, he spearheaded an effort to obtain a scholarship for me to attend NITA’s National Session in Boulder. During that National Session, in 1994, Bob was my team leader and we became friends.

What qualities made him unique among NITA instructors?
Bob’s infectious level of energy made him unique literally everywhere he went. When you look up the phrase “natural charmer” in the dictionary, it shows his picture. He had a seemingly magical way of critiquing a student’s performance, by delivering the appropriate criticism, while at the same time making a student excited to continue to improve. This approach was not only consistent, but it was completely natural and totally effortless.

Do you have a favorite memory of working with him?
There are so many to choose from, but I think my favorite memory of working with Bob was when he was selected to be the Program Director of the National Session, which coincided with NITA’s fortieth anniversary celebration. He was so proud to have been selected to lead that program at that special time. He threw himself into leading that event in such a meaningful, soulful way that it made each and every person associated with that program felt proud to be working with and for Bob. The same natural ability he had to make a student feel great was just as powerful a tool for relating to the faculty members who taught with him.

What did you learn from Bob?
I learned how to be a better trial lawyer, a better instructor, and a better person. And I learned the importance of being able to survive on only a few hours of sleep, when necessary.

You’ve established NITA’s Robert VanderLaan Memorial Scholarship as a lasting tribute. How did it come about?
Almost immediately after Bob’s passing, [fellow NITA faculty member] Jon Barnard and I began brainstorming about organizing something that would honor Bob in a way that preserved his memory and spirit. This tribute is part of the way we are coping with the tremendous sadness we both feel. We wanted to do something that struck the same balance between work and play that dominated Bob’s life. And so we decided to raise funds for a scholarship in his name, so that for a very long time, each year at least one student gets to participate in a program Bob regularly taught. So that’s the work part. But Bob was also someone who loved to have fun—in many ways. One of those ways was to gather with friends, raise a glass or two, and tell and listen to great stories. So the second part of our tribute is an event where those who also enjoyed doing that with Bob can do that together.

What’s the best way to make a donation to the fund?
Making an online donation is fast and easy when you click this link: donate and from the “Select Fund/Amount” section, use the dropdown menu and select The Robert VanderLaan Memorial Scholarship Fund option. I want to mention that the founding donors of this scholarship fund have pledged to match the first $30,000 in donations that NITA receives—in effect, we will double your contribution if you donate now. Each year, this scholarship will provide tuition, travel, and lodging for one attendee to attend a program at which Bob taught.

Describe the plans for the memorial you and Jon Barnard are hosting in Chicago on November 11.
We are going to gather at one of Bob’s favorite Chicago places—Mike Ditka’s restaurant—and we are going to eat, drink, be merry and tell a bunch of Bob VanderLaan stories. Over that weekend, the Bears play the Packers in Chicago. We hope that element will elevate the energy at Ditka’s that evening. But I should add that if people plan on attending, they should let us know in advance, so we can make sure we have a big enough room, by emailing me at rabinovitzd@gtlaw.com.

How would you like Bob to be remembered?
I hope Bob is remembered as the smart, warm, funny, tough, talented, dedicated, and experienced human being that he was. I hope he is remembered as someone who through teaching for NITA for over thirty-five years helped literally hundreds, if not thousands, of young lawyers become better trial lawyers. And finally, I hope he is remembered as someone who day in and day out was fun to be around.

NITA would like to invite you to join Dan Rabinovitz, Jon Barnard, and Bob’s family and friends at Ditka’s on Saturday, November 11, 2017, to remember and celebrate Bob’s life. RSVP directly to Dan to make reservations and receive further details on the memorial. Please make your travel plans early, as we expect the Bears‒Packers Midwest rivalry will make hotel rooms and Airbnb rentals in Chicago scarce as game weekend draws near.

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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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