The Legal Advocate

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Domo Arigato, NITA and PSIM!

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written by NITA program Director Beth Sher

When I was invited to go to Japan in late August with NITA’s Executive Director Karen Lockwood to participate in a NITA training program in Tokyo, I was very honored to be asked. I accepted the invitation with a great deal of excitement and more than a little anxiety. While very comfortable as a NITA teacher, I worried about the language barrier, teaching with translators, inadvertently insulting someone through deed or words, or embarrassing myself or NITA in any way (including by my lifelong and thus far unsuccessful struggle to master chopsticks). Little did I know I would have the opportunity of a lifetime: to bring the NITA method to an eager and willing group of young Japanese lawyers and students, to work with remarkably patient and talented translators, and then to get to know the beautiful and amazing city of Kyoto in the company of our most gracious and attentive hosts and a superb tour guide.

Our host was the PSIM consortium — a 10-year old organization dedicated to the improvement of Japanese legal education. PSIM is currently headed up by Professor Akira Fujimoto of Nagoya University School of Law, our most amazing host and an energetic and passionate educator working hard to change the face of legal education in Japan. He was aided throughout by his remarkable assistant, Ms. Yoshiko Ohashi. The program took place in two parts: a stimulating, daylong PSIM symposium featuring presentations by Karen Lockwood, two dedicated professors from the University of Denver (Celia Taylor and David Thompson), a Japanese law professor, and a panel discussion on issues related to experiential learning – an area of focus for PSIM in an environment that has not yet fully embraced non-traditional learning. The next day Karen and I ran a mini trial skills program for approximately 12 Japanese lawyers and law school students, which the PSIM member professors observed first-hand.

What I learned from our short and intense teaching program – a skills program focused on storytelling, direct, and cross – is that NITA’s method works across borders, languages, cultures, and time zones. Admittedly each of us – students and teachers – needed to adjust to the rhythm of translation (sometimes simultaneous, sometimes sequential), but there was no doubt we understood each other. As a faculty member, I could see and hear it as the students improved from session to session, learning from the critiques and incorporating new ideas in subsequent workshops. But for the need to translate each of these reflections from Japanese to English – and a few anxious moments while we awaited their feedback – we could have been at any successful NITA program in the U.S. The dawn of recognition, the growing self-confidence, the willingness to try again – these hallmarks of success familiar to any teacher were as gratifying in Japan as they are to every NITA faculty member in every program. They learned by doing, and so did I.

Working with three fabulous translators was a unique and extremely helpful experience for me, never knowing when in my litigation practice I might need to examine a witness who does not speak English. Learning to simplify my language and to speak slowly and clearly was great practice and a not-so-subtle reminder of the many facets of being understood. Watching Japanese law professors, who are not as experienced with experiential learning as we in NITA are, understand and appreciate the value of learning in a non-lecture format was immensely rewarding. Chatting with the participants and professors in the receptions each evening – finding ways to be understood and to share our common interest in improving legal training – was enlightening and delightful. But the most rewarding aspect of the program came at the end, when we invited each participant and the observing Japanese law professors to share one thing they had learned or observed. “I learned it is okay to make mistakes because that is how we learn,” said one young lawyer who had been somewhat reluctant at the outset of the program. “I learned I need to encourage my students more when they do well, and smile more when I am helping them to improve,” said one professor. “There are too many things to name just one,” said one shy but grateful lawyer. “I learned how important it is to tell a good story, to control the witness with yes and no questions, and to have my witness talk more than me.” As with Reflections at the close of any U.S. NITA program, it was clear and gratifying that we had taught as best we could, and they had learned more than we could have hoped.

After the program, our hosts escorted us to Kyoto for several days of learning and sightseeing. Kyoto is a city of over 2,000 temples and shrines, and we merely scratched the surface of her treasures. Everywhere we went the people were warm, friendly, respectful, eager to help, and very proud of their city and their heritage. The food was authentic and delicious everywhere we went – and I am proud to report I became a successful (even if not graceful) user of chopsticks by the time we left. We were lucky to have an experienced local tour guide for much of our visit, who enriched our understanding and constantly amazed us with the breadth of his knowledge. (If you ever go to Kyoto, I would be pleased to put you in touch with our new friend, Doi-san.)

I close with a personal reflection. I drive a Japanese car, own Japanese televisions, and use a Japanese camera. But if I could import only one thing from Japan, it would be their extraordinary sense of hospitality, courtesy, and gratitude offered to friends and strangers alike. I am immensely grateful to Akira and Yoshiko for making us feel like visiting dignitaries and members of the family, all at the same time. I can only hope that our paths will cross again, including here in the U.S. where I can attempt to repay the kindness shown to me in Japan. As we learned during our visit, there are many ways to say thank you in Japanese. As far as I’m concerned, there still aren’t enough for me to express my gratitude – to PSIM and to NITA – for this experience of a lifetime.

Beth Sher
Day Pitney LLP

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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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