The Legal Advocate

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

All posts by Marsi Buckmelter

Asked and Answered—Aileen Tsao

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This quarter, we invited one of our scholarship winners to sit for a quick round of “Asked and Answered,” our blog interview series featuring NITA personalities. Aileen Tsao works for the King County Department of Public Defense and is currently assigned to represent individuals accused of misdemeanors in the Seattle Municipal Court—important public service work that made her eligible to apply for a scholarship administered by the NITA Foundation. Aileen was awarded a Craig Spangenberg/John Liber Scholarship, which was founded in 2014 by the International Society of Barristers (ISOB), with the goal of helping public service advocates obtain the “learning by doing” training that’s necessary to hone their trial skills. What this interview with Aileen reminds us is how much self-awareness NITA program attendees develop as a consequence of training—how much more intentional they can be in both thought and practice. It’s a game changer. We wish to thank our friends at ISOB for providing this invaluable experience to lawyers like Aileen, and to thank Aileen herself for choosing a career path that truly makes a difference.

What kind of cases do you typically handle for King County?
Currently, I am in Seattle Municipal Court—so, I defend people accused of misdemeanors that are prosecuted by the City of Seattle (i.e., anything that has a sentence of under one year).

What is the most challenging part about working in public defense?
The sheer amount of cases and clients. As misdemeanor attorneys, we are assigned approximately 400 cases each year. Although some clients will have multiple cases, the biggest challenge is navigating through so many cases and giving each person/case the attention they deserve. Although the cases are misdemeanors, they carry heavy consequences for each person. Loss of housing, inability to get a job, immigration consequences, fees . . . all of which can be significantly more complicated than the jail time itself.

What is the most important personal attribute you bring to your work?
A personal attribute that has certainly been “groomed” by my work is not caring if someone is going to say no, yet asking and asking anyway. Even if it seems you’re asking for the impossible—repeatedly—I’ve really embraced the concept that “the worst they can say is ‘no.’” Sometimes judges, prosecutors, and people in general surprise me. So, even if you’ve been told no numerous times, you just never know until you ask . . . .

It’s been nearly one year since you attended the Building Trial Skills program in Seattle. Looking back, how has it made an ongoing difference in your practice today? What do you do differently now that you didn’t do then?
NITA provided me with useful guidance on practical ways to be creative and engaging throughout my trial (and not in the “bring a PowerPoint” kind of way). For example, I was always aware of the importance of a theory/story/one-liner. In preparing for a trial, I would have a theory, but kind of skim over really hammering down a sentence, thinking, “I’ll get to that later” (i.e., never). Brainstorming requires you to shift out of “How do I make sure I hit every point on cross?” which is hard to find time to do.

Building Trial Skills talked about having a “bumper sticker” for your case. Hearing a group brainstorm different “catchy slogans”—and referring to them repeatedly throughout the case—really solidified in my mind its importance. For one thing, it’s “cleaner” than a theory and forces you to make your big point really concise into a way the jurors can understand. Similarly, the “What is your one-minute opening/closing?” is also a concept I hadn’t thought about. Now, I really prioritize the “one-minute” and the “bumper sticker.” I understand their importance both for forcing me to truly understand my case and in presenting them to the jurors in a way they can come to a not-guilty verdict. 

How did you first hear about NITA?
Judge Steve Rosen recommended it to me after he watched me fumble through admitting exhibits in my first solo trial. You can write the evidence rule down and think, “Yep!” But actually going through the process in the form of ask/answer with an adverse witness in a room full of people is completely different. The evidence drills at Building Trial Skills were invaluable.

What do you enjoy the most about working in the law?
I learn something new every day. There is always something worth working hard for. I’m never bored.

Your undergraduate degree is from the University of Toronto, where you double-majored in Anthropology and something called Peace & Conflict Studies. Sounds intriguing—not to mention necessary in this increasingly conflict-filled world of ours. What was that academic program like?
I loved both of those programs! Both of them shared understanding society and human behavior—why we do what we do. Peace & Conflict Studies was part of International Relations, so it was in a more global context of international conflicts. Anthropology was more in the realm of global development/globalization, but also understanding and respecting cultures on a more local scale. In anthropology, I took an interesting class on incarceration systems in the U.S. that still sits in the back of my mind.

What was the best vacation you’ve ever taken?
Travelling around Guatemala when my husband was working around Antigua for a few months. I learned about the local culture, we stayed in a beautiful treehouse (treehouse!), and my downtime was spent in a hammock eating fresh mangos and guacamole.

What do you collect?
Books. Even in our new paperless world, I still love reading paper. And the batteries don’t die.

What do you do when you can’t sleep?
Read a book, turn off my phone. 

What books are on your bedside table right now?
David Sedaris. Euphoria, by Lily King.

iPhone or Android?
iPhone.

Coffee or tea?
Coffee.

Rain or shine?
Shine!

Early bird or night owl?
Night owl.

Cats or dogs?
Cats.

And finally, what is your motto?
I don’t think I have one . . . ? Though I do tend to say, “There’s only one way to find out.”

The NITA Foundation awards a number of scholarships for our public trial and deposition programs to worthy applicants who have demonstrated a commitment to public service and/or financial need. Please support NITA’s mission to promote justice by training and mentoring lawyers to be effective advocates for their clients and donate now.

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

Give to the NITA Foundation this Quarter

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When you give to the NITA Foundation, 100 percent of every dollar you donate is spent on the mission work that fulfills our goal of including public service lawyers in those who benefit from NITA’s training. As this quarter comes to a close next week, we’d love to count on your support of the NITA Foundation and its important work of awarding scholarship assistance and creating programs for applicants working in careers that meet our public service attorney training objectives. This work is impossible without help from loyal donors like you.

Since 2003, the NITA Foundation has disbursed over $3.3 million in support of our programs and scholarships. There are so many ways to give—cash donations, memorial or honorary gifts, stock donations, planned giving, and even donations of your NITA teaching proceeds or NITA book royalties—and each way helps us award program scholarships to public services lawyers, provide NITA training programs in the public sector, defray travel expenses for program participants, and ensure the rule of law and access to justice in emerging democracies through our international programs. Visit www.nita.org/donate to make a secure online gift and learn more about how you can help.

Point Well Made Indeed

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We knew last fall when NITA faculty Nancy Vaidik and Rebecca Diaz-Bonilla submitted their manuscript for Point Well Made: Oral Advocacy in Motion Practice we had something special on our hands that would fill a knowledge gap in the world of trial advocacy—namely, how to prepare for and optimize your time before the bench in a motion hearing. It was gratifying, then, when we received word from a practitioner in the field to confirm that notion.

Mary E. Levy, Practice Professor of Law at Temple University Beasley School of Law, reviewed the book for the Beasley’s advocacy blog (here). She noted:

Point Well Made is . . . a great resource for law professors and other legal educators who teach in the areas of trial advocacy, oral advocacy, or motions practice. It contains excellent examples, exercises, and suggestions that can be easily incorporated into the classroom or other legal training. In sum, Point Well Made is a valuable resource that provides both law students and practitioners with significant advice and tools for successfully arguing motions.

NITA shares a deep history with Temple, as many of our past and present faculty and authors have been based at Beasley School of Law, including David Sonenshein, Tony Bocchino, JoAnne Epps, Sara Jacobson, Ken Jacobson, and Jules Epstein. Our thanks go to Temple Beasley for its ongoing interest in NITA publications, and to Professor Levy for spending time reading and reviewing Point Well Made.

To learn more about how to make the most of your motion hearings, we invite you to tune into Delivering a (Last-Minute) Point Well Made, the webcast Judge Vaidik and Ms. Diaz-Bonilla recorded in Boulder last month for NITA’s studio71. This free, hour-long recording is a fantastic introduction to the preparation and delivery techniques you’ll learn from their book. You’ll come away with tips and tricks that you can put into practice immediately and get a good sense of what other insider pointers and advice you can expect to discover in Point Well Made.

While you’re at it, be sure to read Help Me Help You, by Judge Vaidik, and Eating Humble Pie, by Ms. Diaz-Bonilla, two articles that were part of The Legal Advocate’s series on motion practice last month.

Hughes Hubbard, NITA Collaborate on Federal Trial Practice Guide

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Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP and the National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA) are pleased to announce the release of a new guide for federal court trial lawyers.

Entitled “Playing To Win: Appellate Preservation for Trial Lawyers in Federal Court,” the guide is co-authored by Hughes Hubbard lawyers Robb Patryk, Ross Lipman, and Jonathan Misk and addresses appellate preservation rules, techniques, and case law applicable to every stage of trial.

“Hughes Hubbard presented NITA with an informative and engaging discussion on federal trial practice, and we are excited to make this guide, the product of their hard work, available to those in our NITA family who practice in federal courts,” said Jennifer Schneider, Director of Publishing and Digital Content at NITA.

The guide is free of charge as a courtesy to trial lawyers on Hughes Hubbard’s and NITA’s websites and their respective social media platforms. Click here to download.

About Hughes Hubbard & Reed
Hughes Hubbard is a New York City-based international law firm that offers clients results-focused legal services and a collaborative approach across a broad range of practices. Hughes Hubbard was founded in 1888 by the distinguished jurist and statesman Charles Evans Hughes and is renowned for its trial and appellate practice in complex cases, including litigation involving issues related to product liability and toxic torts, antitrust and competition, corporate reorganization, international arbitration, and patent and intellectual property. For more information, visit hugheshubbard.com.

Do You Know How to Handle a Media Crisis Related to Your Case?

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Last month, NITA hosted communications specialist Richard S. Levick for “How Lawyers Handle Media in a Time of Crisis, a free, one-hour webcast.

In the Internet age, courtroom victories are Pyrrhic if the client’s reputation and bottom line are savaged by day’s end. The “media” is no longer just beat reporters from the local newspaper; the “media” is now anyone who owns a mobile phone. The lawyer’s job now is more challenging than ever, managing these massive audiences with one eye on the jury pool and the other on consumers and shareholders. This program provides trial lawyers with guidance on effectively doing just that and effectively anticipating what’s next.

Mr. Levick is an experienced public relations professional and spokesperson. He and his colleagues at Levick, Inc. regularly write substantive articles about media management for the firm’s blog, which you can check out here.

Intrigued? It’s never too late to catch this webcast. Register now and watch at your leisure.

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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