Gal Gadot is a terrific actress, but if you ask me, the real-life Wonder Woman is someone right here at NITA: our own Rebecca Diaz-Bonilla. After all, what else would you call someone who runs her own international consulting firm, writes books (two in four years, with a third in progress), and teaches at NITA programs, while enjoying married life with a big (as in “ten kids” big) familyand who is also a wise, lovely, interesting, generous person to boot? (See what I mean? Wonder Woman.) This past winter, NITA published Point Well Made: Oral Advocacy in Motion Practice, a hands-on practice guide that Rebecca and co-author Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote about effectively arguing motions before the court. I don’t know how Rebecca made the time to treat us to a round of “Asked and Answered,” but I’m awfully glad she did.
How did you first meet “Auntie NITA”?
I met NITA back in 2010 through a longtime client. Teaching alongside Judge Nancy Vaidik and other such talented faculty was addictive, and I’ve enjoyed teaching with NITA ever since.
You’ve now written two books for NITA. What was the inspiration for each one?
I was inspired to write Foolproof after coaching thousands of lawyers, from both the transaction and litigation sides. In my work, I noticed lawyers were taught to communicate well through the written word, but little was being done with non-written communicationfor example, voice, body language, and tone. I thought Foolproof would be an efficient way to give practical advicethe basicsto all lawyers.
Prior to writing Point Well Made, I pushed pause on writing to focus on a few sizeable cases for my clients. Judge Vaidik, now a dear friend, approached me about co-authoring a book on motions practice . . . and I couldn’t resist working with her. We both saw a gap in the market and thought we could fill the need for litigators to learn proper motion delivery. Working with her on this book was an incredible experience; everything just clicked.
What was your first job in the law?
My first job in the law was during law school. I worked for a lobbying law firm in D.C. on banking derivatives and transportation legislation. I worked with friends from law school, and we would leave work and head to law school at night. It was fabulously fast-paced.
In your consulting business, Lumen8 Advisors, you work with lawyers to improve their oral communication skills so they become better advocates and communicators. How did you transition from being a lawyer yourself to helping them in this specific, but important, little niche?
The transition happened at the University of Virginia Law School. We moved from New York City to Charlottesville so my husband could get his MBA at Darden. Almost immediately after we arrived, Bob Chapel, a dear friend and my former undergraduate theater director at UVA, called to tell me that the law school was looking for someone who was an actress and a lawyer. He recommended me, and I met with Bob Sayler, world-class litigator turned law school professor. We hit it off, and we co-developed a course in rhetoric and communication, which we taught at UVA Law School for a few years. Law firms caught wind of what I was doing at UVA and asked me to come and teach my class to their lawyers. Through word of mouth, I was asked to do more and more consulting and, when we moved from Charlottesville, I started my consulting company. Since then, my consulting has expanded from seminars and lectures on communication techniques to individual coaching on live matters and team coaching and preparations for trial.
What is the most common communication problem you see in the lawyers you coach?
The most common communication problems I see is a lack of self-awareness. Superstar litigators sometimes forget how to use their strengths and need to be shown what areas need attention. There is always room for improvement, irrespective of your level of communication proficiency. But I find the best are often the ones that want my help the most. They worked hard to be the best, and want to keep it that way.
What does a typical work week look like for you?
Every day is different. Some weeks, I’m on site with a client coaching a trial team; other weeks, I lecture and coach training workshops, while still other weeks, I do one-on-one coaching with lawyers from a variety of practice groups.
It is said that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. What is that ratio like for you?
That sounds about right. Moreover, a similarly relevant idiom I’ve seen played out in my life is that “luck” happens when [hard work and] preparation meets opportunity. I am grateful that I’ve been inspired to be a bit risky and do something off the beaten path, but I’m thankful to my family for the support they’ve given me as I carved out time to work hard, perspire, and prepare to deliver my very best to my clients. There are only a few lawyer-communication coaches in the entire country, and I’m fortunate for the opportunity to blend two loveslaw and theatereach and every day, joyfully and successfully.
What do you most often do to procrastinate?
As a mom of many kids, I have learned through various self-inflicted trainwrecks not to procrastinate. I constantly fight it, and also realize that I can’t sacrifice the good for the perfect at home and at work. Sometimes life just doesn’t’ allow me to deliver the “perfect,” but procrastination can’t be my excuse.
Outside of your family, who’s been the biggest influence on your life?
A mother of some dear friends. She is confident, smart, and elegant. She lives a life full of joy and purpose, with a big family, many grandchildren, and a deep faith. She suffers tragedy with grace and hope. Just being in her presence inspires and humbles me.
What do you like the most about where you live?
The Washington, D.C. area is full of deep thinkers. On any given night, I could attend lectures or debates on any number of topics. It’s thrilling to be surrounded with brilliant lawyers and policy wonks who are tackling huge problems.
What is your favorite restaurant in the world? And what do you like to order?
Eighteen years ago, my husband and I went to Italy on our honeymoon. We were driving near Verona and stopped into a village restaurant to have lunch. I had the richest risotto, creative salad, and a humble table wine. It was rustic and not fussy. Best of all, I got to gaze at my handsome husband. Pretty perfect.
What guilty pleasure music do you sing to in the car when there’s no one there to hear (or judge)?
You’d be hard-pressed to find me NOT belting out a song in my car, alone or with passengers. My house and car are full of me and kids singing show tunes, pop, and indie hits.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee and tea. My husband makes me a dazzling cappuccino every morning, and I chase it with a couple more cups. In the afternoon, I usually turn my allegiance to an Earl Grey.
Winter or summer?
Winter. D.C. summers are brutal with the humidity. Plus, I like winter fashion better.
Scrambled or fried?
As long as there is cheese on it, I’ll take my eggs any way you make them.
iPhone or Android?
Popcorn or candy?
And finally, what is your motto?
There, but for the grace of God, go I.
Enjoy this interview? Find more of our Asked and Answered interviews with NITA personalities here on The Legal Advocate. While you’re at it, why not download Delivering a (Last-Minute) Point Well Made , the free NITA webcast that Rebecca and Judge Vaidik recorded this spring? It is a solid hour of value-added content, lots of little tips and tricks that you can put into practice at the end of the webcast. Rebecca’s first book, Foolproof: An Attorney’s Guide to Oral Communications, is terrific, too, and bursts with advice that anyone, and not just lawyers, would find useful in their daily lives.
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 email@example.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.
Longtime NITA faculty member Stephanie Smith Ledesma has been appointed as the Associate Dean of Experiential Learning at Thurgood Marshall School of Law (TMSL). In her new role as the Associate Dean of Experiential Learning at TMSL, Professor Ledesma will restructure, help define, and expand the Experiential Learning Department at the law school while increasing the initiatives and offerings in the area of experience-based education. Currently, the law school offers a variety of clinical experiences, over 100 externship opportunities, trial simulation taken by hundreds of students each year, and the NITA Client Interviewing program, a weekend module specifically for law schools that was co-designed by Ledesma and other NITA faculty, including Mark Caldwell, Mike Dale, and Marsha Levy.
Of her promotion, Professor Ledesma said, “I look forward to working with colleagues at TMSL, students, and NITA partners to help build upon and expand the powerful attributes of ‘learning by doing,’ for the benefit of every law student that chooses TMSL as their training ground.”
Professor Ledesma has served as a faculty member, a team leader, and a program director, teaching at NITA public service trial skills and deposition programs and custom trial skills and deposition programs around the country. In 2016, she was one of six faculty members that donated more than 100 hours of her time toward NITA volunteer efforts.
“As a servant-leader, I think one of the most important responsibilities that I have to the legal community, and those whom the legal community serves, is to teach what I have been taught and to share with others as others have shared with and mentored me. I was inspired by NITA faculty and their service to others. These NITA faculty not only became my friends, but my mentors. In fact, these mentors are the reason that I sought an academic position in the legal academy to begin with,” Professor Ledesma remarked to The Legal Advocate.
“I was further inspired by NITA’s ‘learn by doing approach to teaching attorneys how to raise the bar of legal practice and make excellence their goal. By bringing the tried and true NITA pedagogy and methodology to the legal classroom, I believe that I not only fulfill my duty to the legal profession, but I am helping feed future generations of lawyers and attorneys that will continue to have a positive impact on legal representation and advocacy in every corner of the world,” said Professor Ledesma.
NITA wishes to extend its congratulations to Professor Ledesma for her promotion and thank her for her continuing service to the legal community through her work with NITA.
For more information about the Client Interviewing program for law schools that Stephanie and her NITA colleagues designed, please email Michelle Windsor.
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?
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.
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.
NITA author Michelle Sherman recently wrote an article about the nexus of “fake news” and impaneled jurors for the CEBblog, a legal news portal for California’s Continuing Education of the Bar.
In Don’t Let Fake News Cynicism Get in the Way of Your Social Media Evidence, Sherman describes how the definition of “fake news” has changed in recent years to mean “any news story that’s viewed as critical of the federal government or elected officials,” and that this phenomenon is affecting the conduct of trials:
“This cynicism has gained traction and is likely already bleeding into the courtroom through impaneled jurors who are more skeptical of evidence presented at trial. This makes it even more important that lawyers think early on about how to authenticate their documentary evidence.”
Sherman then describes four steps you must perform to help dispel jurors’ skepticism as to the authenticity of the social media posts you enter into evidence.
Learn more about using social media evidence at trial by tuning into Michelle Sherman’s free webcast, Winning with Social Media: A to Z, and reading her book, Winning with Social Media: A Desktop Guide for Lawyers Using Social Media in Litigation and Trial.