The Legal Advocate

A blog brought to you by the national institute for trial advocacy

All posts by Marsi Buckmelter

Asked and Answered—Shameka Hall, First Recipient of the Robert VanderLaan Memorial Scholarship

Posted On By

Last November, The Legal Advocate reported on the memorial celebration that was held in Chicago to remember longtime NITA program director Bob VanderLaan, as well the establishment of the Robert VanderLaan Memorial Scholarship which was inspired by Bob’s devotion to teaching at NITA. Both the memorial event and the scholarship were ideas brought into fruition by Bob’s dear friends and fellow NITA faculty members Dan Rabinovitz and Jon Barnard. Friends and colleagues from across the country gathered in Chicago to remember Bob, and many more contributed to the scholarship created in his name. Indeed, the fund received so many donations that The NITA Foundation was able to award a scholarship almost immediately. We are delighted to share this interview with the first recipient of the Robert VanderLaan Memorial Scholarship, Shameka Hall. Shameka traveled to Chicago in March to attend our Building Trial Skills program, where she met Dan and Jon as they served as program faculty. “Both Dan and I were genuinely impressed with Shameka’s passion and commitment for her work based upon her application, and even more so when we had the chance to meet her in person,” said Jon. “She was indeed a deserving recipient of the first annual Robert VanderLaan Memorial Scholarship.” Shameka is an assistant capital defender for the Office of the Capital Defender for Central Virginia, where she has provided legal counsel in capital cases since 2015. It was our pleasure to get to know her in this interview, and we hope it will be yours as well.

What is a typical day of work for you at the Office of the Capital Defender for Central Virginia?
Most days are spent going through the discovery on our cases, drafting motions that will help put our clients in a better position, and developing theories that can be used to save our clients’ lives.

How often are you in court?
Every four to six weeks, sometimes longer if we don’t have motions to argue. However, when we have a trial, they usually last four weeks.

How did you first hear about NITA’s trial skills training?
I did a Google search looking for trial training programs.

What did it mean to you to receive this training through the Robert VanderLaan Memorial Scholarship?
It was so amazing!! I read up on Mr. VanderLaan and all that he has done for the indigent community and the public defender system, and I was totally in awe!

What “bad” habit would you still be practicing if you hadn’t gone to the NITA program?
I would probably still be drafting my closing argument last. Now, I draft that first and work the remainder of my case from that.

If you hadn’t gone into the law, what career path do you think you might’ve taken instead?
I would have become either a CPA or I would have gone into computer consultation work.

What three things are vital to your day?
Prayer, breakfast, and music.

What fictional figure do you most identify with?
Mary Jane Paul from Being Mary Jane.

What is your hidden talent?
Befriending people and getting them to do what I want them to do.

What are you looking forward to?
Retirement!! Traveling the world.

If you had to lip sync for your life, what song would you choose?
Yes You Can,” by Marvin Sapp.

What’s the most recent show you’ve binge-watched?
It’s a tie . . . The Handmaid’s Tale and West Wing (for the second time).

Lightening round questions. Coffee or tea?
Neither. Hot chocolate.

iPhone or Android?
Android, all day!

Early bird or night owl?
Night owl.

Cats or dogs?
Dogs.

Spring ahead or fall back?
Fall back because I get an extra hour of sleep.

And finally, what’s your motto?
I will always do and succeed at what people tell me that I cannot do.

Fundraising for The Robert VanderLaan Memorial Scholarship is ongoing. If you would like to make a donation in remembrance of Bob, please click here and select “Robert VanderLaan Memorial Scholarship” in the dropdown menu midway down the page. Your donation makes a difference in the lives of the public service lawyers who receive them―and most importantly, in the lives of the clients they serve.

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

Breaking: SCOTUS Justice Kennedy Announces Retirement

Posted On By

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court of the United States this morning.

Since his appointment to the high court bench in 1988 by President Reagan, Justice Kennedy has frequently served as the crucial swing vote in decisions. His retirement is predicted to recast the leanings of the majority.

Please see the New York Times for more information as this story develops.

[Photo credit: By Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States (Anthony Kennedy – The Oyez Project) [Public domain].]

Asked and Answered—Isaiah Gross

Posted On By

If you’ve ever tuned into one of our monthly webcasts, then you’ve seen Isaiah Gross, the man in the “Asked and Answered” hot seat today. Isaiah is one of the stars of the new intro that opens our studio71 webcasts. During production of the video (which we filmed during the National Session in Boulder last summer), he was so thoughtful and charming that we suspected he’d make for an interesting interview on the blog. Isaiah practices general civil and criminal litigation at Pence and MacMillan in Laramie, Wyoming, where, as you’ll discover, he came into the law field by taking the road less traveled. We’re grateful NITA HQ was a stop along his way.

What kind of work do you do at Pence and MacMillan?
I practice general civil and criminal litigation.

How did you first hear about the trial skills trainings we do at NITA?
My boss attended NITA as a young attorney and said it was a game changer for him. He told me if I want to be a trial lawyer, I need to do it right, and NITA is the best resource.

What bad habits did you have that your training at the National Session helped you break?
My verbal ticks were terrible. Turns out I used to say “ok” after every answer given on direct exam. It was pretty embarrassing when I watched the videos. I also used a pen in my hand as a crutch whenever I was on my feet in court.

What’s your favorite thing about the work you do?
The clients and the attorneys I get to work with. This job is hard and you need clients you enjoy, and you need partners to rally around you when you need help.

You held a number of interesting jobs as a young adult before you went to law school. Can you share a bit about them?
I am a lucky guy. I have always had great jobs, and I think they all prepared me to be a lawyer.

In my early 20’s, I worked my way through college as a wildland firefighter working for the Black Hills National Forest and the Wyoming Hotshots. The Forest Service paid me to ride in helicopters, wield a chainsaw, and hike our National Forests. I was a pretty good gig, and it taught me the value of a hard day’s work. As it turns out, that is applicable to being a good lawyer.

After college, I chased a girl to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and became a whitewater raft guide. I caught the girl in Jackson, but then quickly released her back into the wild to roam free. Girl or no girl, I found a home in Jackson for the next six years. In the summers, I would guide five whitewater trips a day, five days a week. Each trip I had between eight and sixteen new passengers on my raft, and I would provide a safety speak, get to know the people, and hopefully build rapport with them by the end of the trip. Now, when I look at a jury pool, I just imagine they are passengers on my raft. I focus on helping them through the uncomfortable and sometimes confusing trial process, just like I would with clients on the river.

During my time in Jackson Hole, I also worked as a social worker. I worked with adjudicated teenage boys at a wilderness therapy program. I led the boys on ten- to thirty-five-day backpacking and backcountry skiing trips across the Tetons. Our boys were often products of poverty, abuse, and neglect. They taught me the value of empathy and patience. The boys taught me that life is hard, and being kind to those who may have never experience true kindness can very powerful. I try to carry those lessons with me in my practice.

What would you do with a million dollars?
Pay off my student loans, buy a cabin in an undisclosed location, and send my parents to Hawaii.

What movie can you watch over and over without ever getting tired of?
The Big Lebowski. “The Dude abides.”

If you could have dinner with any four famous people, living or deceased, whom would you choose?
The Highwaymen.

What song makes you nostalgic?
“Piano Man” by Billy Joel. I have no idea why. I don’t play the piano.

What bores you?
Watching regular season baseball on television. Who has time to watch that?

Where’s your happy place?
My happy place is on a river with my dog, some good friends, and a fly rod.

Lightening round questions. Coffee or tea?
Coffee. It’s the lifeblood that has fueled every great American.

iPhone or Android?
iPhone.

Sunrise or sunset?
Sunrise. I gotta earn those.

Popcorn or candy?
Popcorn.

Spring or autumn?
Autumn. Spring is referred to as “mud season” in Wyoming.

And finally, what is your motto?
“Leave it better than when you found it.”

If you haven’t checked out any of our free webcasts yet, why not check out our tips and tricks on hearsay next week or direct examination in June, or peruse the topics in our archives? While you’re at it, you can find more of our Asked and Answered interviews with NITA personalities here on The Legal Advocate.

Asked and Answered—Shelmun Dashan

Posted On By

Have you ever had a zippy little email exchange with someone through work and thought, “Now, that’s someone I’d like to meet for a cocktail”? That’s what I’ve thought every time I’ve emailed Shelmun Dashan over the last few years. Shelmun is a legal aid attorney at LAF in Chicago, where she represents clients in the Consumer Protection Practice Group, and she attended a NITA trial skills program through the tuition support of our friends at the International Society of Barristers [ISOB]. When I asked her about what it meant to her and LAF to receive training and support, she remarked, “Investing in [legal aid/public service lawyers] gives you incredible bang for your buck, even though you may never understand how much it means to our clients. The stakes are very high for our clients, so ISOB’s support of legal aid attorneys is a service and credit to the legal system and low-income clients as a whole.” That’s a sentiment that resonates with us, so inviting Shelmun to play “Asked and Answered” was a given. As you’ll see, whether she’s talking about the importance of equal access to justice or counting down the days until she’s snapped into her ski boots in Colorado, Shelmun is smart, cool, lively, and engaging. Next time you’re in Seattle, Shelmun, the drinks are on me.

What do you do for LAF?
I’m a legal aid attorney; what don’t I do? 😁 I am a staff attorney in the Consumer Protection Practice Group at LAF. I have full responsibility for―at any given time―twenty-five to forty-ish clients’ consumer finance problems. Examples of the kinds of cases I’m currently working on include getting a client’s student loans discharged on the basis of his disability to stop the government from garnishing his disability benefits, and a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy in which I filed an adversary proceeding to enforce a loan modification agreement that my client secured in 2016 but the lender “never received” her final documents, didn’t modify her mortgage, and then started foreclosure proceedings against her. I have a fun Fair Debt Collection Practices Act case against a debt collection firm that sued my client last year for a water debt his mother―who died penniless in 2003―owed on a house my client never owned. I have a client who is a senior citizen whose identity was stolen to get credit to buy a car. That meant her name went on the title. The identity thief then racked up thousands of dollars in parking tickets, which the City is now trying to extract from my client. Ironically, this client actually never learned to drive and has never had a driver’s license. These are but a few florae in the garden of consumer protection delights.

You’ve worked in legal aid ever since law school at Harvard. What attracted you to a public service career?
There were push and pull factors. I have always been a justice- and fairness-oriented person. I can’t stand bullies and people who abuse power. My parents also very much instilled in me a sense of service and responsibility to use your abilities and resources to help other people and make your corner of the world less terrible. There’s also the fact that black and brown people bear the brunt of poor consumer protection laws and enforcement; that infuriates me. I find almost everything interesting, so I am sure I could have been happy and had a great career doing something far more “prestigious” or lucrative. But the idea of being an agent―bound by professional rules to fire in whichever direction my clients point me―was very sobering for me. I realized I really wanted a job where what I personally care about is pretty closely aligned with what I am actually spending most of my time and energy and creativity working on. I have been very fortunate that I have been able to do so. I was also incensed after the financial crisis [that started in 2008]―both by the cause of the crash and by the government’s failure to make consumers whole or punish those who were responsible for tanking the global economy. I didn’t really have much of an appetite for representing the institutions who were involved in that.

How did you first hear about the trial skills trainings at NITA?
I am not sure except that many LAF attorneys have attended NITA trainings, so periodically people send around an email if there is an upcoming NITA program for which there are scholarships. It is also possible that my supervisor asked me to apply.

It’s been a couple of years since you attended the NITA program. What do you do differently now, as a result of what you learned, that impacts your clients in a good way?
One of my biggest takeaways from NITA was really thinking hard about strategy with framing, facts, evidence, and civil procedure. I think really hard about good facts and bad facts now. I do a lot more thinking about what the other side’s best arguments are and how I will defang them with other facts or with framing and picking my case theme. I think hard about crafting a cohesive narrative that the judge/jurors will follow and be moved by rather than letting the facts or chronology drag me around in my prep. I also enjoy cross-examination a lot more than I did before NITA.

What work accomplishment are you most proud of?
This is a hard one. I think I feel less proud of work accomplishments and more joy and relief for my clients and what the outcome means for them. There’s also a lot of satisfaction that justice was done or that I got to put a bad actor in their place. Last year, I won $30,000 for a subsidized tenant, stopped her from being evicted and losing her housing voucher, and $40,000 in attorney’s fees at summary judgment. I don’t know that I’m most proud of that, but it’s probably my most splashy accomplishment.

I must say, I was pretty pleased with myself in my first year of practice when I was finally able to write out the preamble on a court order without looking it up: “This matter coming before the court on Plaintiff’s motion to dismiss, both parties being represented by counsel . . . .” I felt like a real lawyer who didn’t have to Google “court order” to complete basic tasks.

You lived in Nigeria for twelve years. When you think back to that time in your life, what first pops into your head?
Fresh tropical fruit, invariably well-seasoned food, torrential tropical rains and how they sound on metal roofs, and Nigerians―who are the most intentionally and unintentionally hilarious people on earth (we can just take judicial notice of this).

You describe yourself as a “skiing fanatic.” Tell us about that.
Ha! I learned how to ski not far from NITA HQ in Colorado (at Eldora!) during winter break my 1L year and loved it. I have returned to Colorado every winter and spring since then (this will be my eighth year). I am now a full-blown skiing addict and evangelist, to the great bewilderment of my family and friends. For a law school graduation gift, my godmother offered to pay for a trip anywhere, so I went and skied Patagonia (Argentina side).

I never feel better than when I ski off a lift and start a run with the incredible mountain view in front of me, the warmth of the sun on the few exposed square centimeters of my face, and great snow underfoot. Heaven.

What are you reading for pleasure right now?
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. I have meant to read it for years and years and finally started recently. I am also technically reading Matthew Desmond’s incredible book, Evicted. But I don’t know if I’d describe that as pleasure reading. As a former eviction defense attorney, the book is too real. I have given myself permission to read it in manageable doses.

What were you obsessed with as a kid?
Ha! Reading and playing soccer. I read so much fantasy. I would hide in trees or under the couch or behind a curtain, hoping that being out of sight would stop people from bothering me so I could read. My mom would always tell me I was going to ruin my eyes from reading for hours by candlelight or kerosene lamp during frequent electricity outages. My all-time favorite book is Ender’s Game (which is sci-fi, I know; stand down, nerds).

If someone who’s never been to Chicago were to ask for your advice on what to see and do for a weekend trip, what would you tell them?
Hamilton. I don’t care how much the tickets are―it is worth it. Walk around Millennium Park and see the Bean and the gardens, and then go walk or bike the Lake Shore Drive trail. Go to a comedy show. Make a pilgrimage to Pequod’s Pizza (there will probably be a line). Brunch at Wishbone in West Loop. Everything they make is delicious. Go to a live music venue like Buddy Guy’s or the Green Mill. You can skip Navy Pier. You can skip the Sears Tower (it is now called the Willis Tower by nobody who lives here). There are many great museums, if that’s more your speed. There’s a free zoo in Lincoln Park―not far from downtown. If you like seeing “city-ness” or shopping, you can walk down the Magnificent Mile. In warmer months, the architecture boat tour gets rave reviews. It really depends on what you like, but whatever it is, Chicago has it. I will also note, we have very good public transportation. And everyone should read Devil in the White City, which juxtaposes the planning and execution of Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 with the story a serial killer who was active in Chicago at the same time. It is a riveting and informative piece of non-fiction.

If you could pick up a new skill in an instant, what would it be?
Musical instrument (Voice? Cello? Drum set? Guitar?) or the ability to pick up new languages quickly. Maybe a martial art. Although, as I think about it now, if I could ski race I’m sure I wouldn’t have any competition if I tried to represent Team Nigeria at the next Winter Olympics.

Lightning-round questions. Coffee or tea?
I love both. I drink them both daily with sweetened condensed milk. My arteries are thrilled, I’m sure.

Early bird or night owl?
The nightest of owls.

Winter or summer?
I’ll give you one guess.

Introvert or extrovert?
It surprises many people that I’m an introvert.

City or country?
Mountains?

And finally, what is your motto?
“The world will not collapse.” It’s actually my dad’s motto, but it is very much part of how I lean into life. It was basically my dad’s way of saying, “[insert problem] is not the end of the world.” Which is literally true of everything. It helps give me perspective and calm so I can focus on what is really important to me rather than being distracted or unduly dismayed by life’s unending stream of annoyances and disappointments.

The NITA Foundation’s scholarship program is made possible through the generosity of people like you. No matter the size of the gift, every dollar makes a difference. Donate today.

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

You Can’t Handle the Ruth

Posted On By

Today is International Women’s Day, and who better to help us reflect on the role of women in society and the law than the iconic Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a woman who seemingly has done it all?

Throughout her trailblazing life, Justice Ginsburg has been a judge, a wife, a mother, a law professor, an author, a cancer survivor, a pop icon, a lace jabot collector 😉—and on May 4, she’ll add “movie star” to the list, when the documentary RBG opens in theaters in the U.S.

On being a woman
“My mother told me two things constantly. One was to be a lady and the other was to be independent, and the law was something most unusual for those times because for most girls growing up in the ‘40s, the most important degree was not your B.A. but your M.R.S.”

“At Columbia Law School, my professor of constitutional law and federal courts, Gerald Gunther, was determined to place me in a federal court clerkship, despite what was then viewed as a grave impediment: On graduation, I was the mother of a 4-year-old child.”

“When I graduated from law school in 1959, there wasn’t a single woman on any federal bench. It wouldn’t be a realistic ambition for a woman to want to become a federal judge. It wasn’t realistic until Jimmy Carter became our president.”

On courts and the law
“We have the oldest written constitution still in force in the world, and it starts out with three words, ‘We, the people.’”

“One aspect of appellate judging is we have to give reasons for all of our decisions. And when you sit down and try to write it out, sometimes you find that your first judgment wasn’t the right one.”

“A judge sworn to decide impartially can offer no forecasts, no hints, for that would show not only disregard for the specifics of the particular case, it would display disdain for the entire judicial process.”

On being a pop icon
“At my advanced age—I’m now an octogenarian—I’m constantly amazed by the number of people who want to take my picture.”

“I think a law clerk told me about this tumblr and also explained to me what Notorious RBG was a parody on. And now my grandchildren love it, and I try to keep abreast of the latest that’s on the tumblr.”

“I do a variety of weightlifting, elliptical glider, stretching exercises, pushups.” (Try her workout here.)

“In 2015, an opera opened about me and Justice Antonin Scalia. It’s called Scalia/Ginsburg. The composer, Derrick Wang, has degrees in music from Harvard and Yale. Enrolled in law school, he was reading dueling opinions by me and Justice Scalia and decided he could compose an appealing comic opera from them.”

“If I had any talent that God could give me, I would be a great diva.”

On life
“You can disagree without being disagreeable.”

“I am fearful, or suspicious, of generalizations. . . . They cannot guide me reliably in making decisions about particular individuals.”

“Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”

“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

“I really concentrate on what’s on my plate at the moment and do the very best I can.”

“The label ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ every time I hear that, I think of the great Gilbert and Sullivan song from Iolanthe. It goes, ‘Every gal and every boy that’s born alive is either a little liberal or else a little conservative.’ What do those labels mean? It depends on whose ox is being gored.”

“When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out.”

“You can’t have it all all at once. Over my lifespan, I think I have had it all, but in given periods in time, things were rough. And if you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it.”

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.
Feature Products

Follow

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: