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Asked and Answered—Isaiah Gross

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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?

Sunrise or sunset?
Sunrise. I gotta earn those.

Popcorn or candy?

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

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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?

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.

Asked and Answered—Tessa L. Dysart

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One could say “be careful what you wish for” has meaning for author Tessa L. Dysart. Three years ago, she emailed our Publications Department to ask whether a third edition of Winning on Appeal, one of her favorite texts for teaching, was in the works at NITA—and before she knew it, the old manuscript was on her desk ready for her to do it herself. The original author, the eminent Judge Ruggero Aldisert of the Third Circuit, had passed away just a few months before Tessa’s inquiry, and the question of who would carry on his legacy through this book was yet unsettled. But with her background in legal writing, intimate familiarity with the federal courts, and robust work ethic, Tessa was a dream come true for NITA and a joy to work with on the update. The third edition of Winning on Appeal: Better Briefs and Oral Argument, co-authored with Judge Leslie Southwick of the Fifth Circuit, came out in time for the start of the 2017 school year. Then, just when Tessa thought she was done writing for us for a while, along came “Asked and Answered” to ask for just a little more. As always, we’re so grateful she obliged.

How did you first meet “Auntie NITA”?
Through teaching. Before I became a full-time professor, I taught Appellate Advocacy as an adjunct. The school used the second edition of Winning on Appeal as the textbook. Right after I agreed to teach the course, I sat down over a week or so and read the book, which I thought was great. It wasn’t until later in my teaching career that I fully understood the unique role that NITA plays in educating attorneys and publishing practitioner guides, as opposed to just traditional textbooks.

Winning on Appeal was originally written by the legendary Judge Aldisert of the Third Circuit and is as near a legacy book as any that NITA publishes. What was it like for you to undertake the update of this book?
Daunting, to put it mildly. The book is a classic. We wanted to be sure that the update honored Judge Aldisert’s legacy while still providing the update the book needed.

How did you make the acquaintance of your co-author, Judge Southwick?
I met Judge Southwick during his Fifth Circuit confirmation process while I was working at the Department of Justice in the Office of Legal Policy on judicial nominations. I was struck by his demeanor, character, and perseverance through that difficult process. When it came time to find a judge to help with the book update, I knew that he would be an excellent choice. Not only is he already a published author, he has served as both a state and federal appellate judge.

You studied in Moscow on a Fulbright. What was that experience like?
Amazing! One of the purposes of the Fulbright program is cross-cultural awareness. I immersed myself in Russian culture. Despite the stereotypes, the Russian people are really quite warm, and they are thrilled when we take an interest in their language and culture. I made it a point to visit museums, experience the theater and ballet (I lost count of how many versions of The Nutcracker I saw while I was there), and eat all the food (well, almost all of the food).

On a more serious note, I was in Russia over 9/11. The outpouring of sympathy and support from the Russian people to Americans in the city was really touching.

How did you become interested in the law, and later teaching?
As a middle child, I always had a strong sense of “justice,” which I usually defined as being able to stay up later than my younger sister and sit in the front seat when my older brother wasn’t in the car. As I grew up, I became better aware of true injustice in our society. It was that desire to fight for what was right that led me to law school. As far as teaching, I sort of fell into that career when my husband, a veteran of the Marine Corps, decided to go to law school and we left the D.C. area. Once I started teaching I realized that it was my calling.

What is your favorite thing about your career?
Definitely the students. I love investing in their lives, seeing them learn, and hearing about all of the amazing things that they do in their careers. I was so fortunate to have amazing professors and mentors in law school and early in my career. It is an honor to fill that role in the lives of my students.

What is something you like to do the old-fashioned way?
Travel. I love a good road trip!

What’s the best vacation you’ve ever taken?
After my Fulbright, I traveled around Europe for a few weeks. I visited about eight countries in three weeks. It was a whirlwind of an adventure, but I got to see most of the big sights.

What movie can you watch over and over without ever getting tired of?
Elf, much to my husband’s chagrin. It came out my 1L Christmas. My sister and I saw it in the theater. She had seen all of the previews, while I, of course, had been living in a 1L bubble. It was so funny to see her quote all of the funny preview lines. Since then it has been an annual favorite for me.

What’s your favorite breakfast?
Gluten-free pancakes that don’t taste gluten-free.

During what moments in life do you feel most at ease and in your element?
When I am with family, especially visiting my family in Oregon. I can put away the business attire and pull out the jeans and flannel.

What’s your secret talent?
Home repair. Our first house was a real fixer-upper and we were newlyweds without a lot of money. I learned that I am really good at painting trim and cutting in the walls and ceiling.

Coffee or tea?
Coffee in the morning, and tea in the afternoon (preferably rooibos).

iPhone or Android?
Definitely Android—the only “i” products in our house are a few ancient iPods. But, I also love my Microsoft Surface. It is great for travel and grading papers.

Early bird or night owl?
Most of my life I have been a night owl. But, in Arizona we don’t observe Daylight Savings Time, so I think that I need to transition to being an early bird. It gets dark so early here.

Call or text?
Email. I never caught on to the texting phase.

Rain or shine?
It doesn’t rain in Arizona (although it does monsoon the month of July, leaving the desert really quite beautiful).

And finally, what is your motto?
I have adopted the motto of my undergraduate institution, Willamette University: “Not unto ourselves alone are we born.”

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

Asked and Answered: Karen Lockwood

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This month, “Asked and Answered” went straight to the top to put someone in the hot seat: NITA’s own Executive Director, Karen Lockwood—and not a moment too soon, either. After a successful, gratifying career as a D.C. trial lawyer and five years guiding the tiller at NITA, Karen will be retiring at the end of this month. With her interests wide-ranging and her to-do list extensive, Karen is a veritable Renaissance woman who’s saved the best years for last. If she’s anything like the other adventuresome sorts we’ve all known throughout our lives, she will be even busier in her retirement than she was during her years hard at work. We hope you’ll join us in thanking Karen for her service and great “NITA-Love,” and wish her an abundance of joy, rest, play, and good health in the coming years. (And Karen, don’t be a stranger, ok? NITA loves its volunteers!)

What accomplishment during your five years as Executive Director made you happiest?
Do I have to decide? We did many things in those five years, focusing on NITA’s strength. So it gets hard to isolate the “most happy.” But here is my answer. I chose three principles for the theme of my first annual meeting of NITA’s Program Directors: Quality, Content, Engagement. They were right for that time—happy enough. Even more happily, they have remained central to who NITA is today, why we excel through change, and how we will excel into the future. But most happily, it turns out that I can continue to be happy about them: the staff embedded those as the Core Drivers in NITA’s 2017 Operating Plan. They live on in the 2018 Operating Plan as well. An Executive Director strives to focus on our truest needs and strongest imperatives, and it is gratifying that these imperatives continue to inspire.

Can you talk a bit about the trial work you did in D.C.?
My commercial trial practice included trials, federal appeals, and SCOTUS briefs. I love this practice! If you think about a giant hotel burning on New Year’s Eve, with deaths and rooftop evacuations (arson, Puerto Rico), IBMs designing and building its first semiconductor plant (fast-track design, Burlington Vermont), the value of the eastern railroad properties that the U.S. carved up to create Conrail and Amtrak (trial before a remote, one-time federal court), and trial-testing a merger of the four largest drug wholesalers into two, then you have an idea of some of my most visible cases. Think of an amicus brief on handicap accommodations on cruise ships (for winning side, SCOTUS), Medicaid for persons with disabilities (Texas, Fifth Circuit), and child support/divorce repping an indigent mother (D.C.), you have an idea of my pro bono work. Starting with posing the questions in two-week expert depos in my first year, moving to my first jury trial for four weeks as lead, it has been learning-by-doing. Learning early—but not too early—from NITA built a strong base for courtroom instincts and conference room foresight. That was the right way to do it!

How did it lead you to meet “The NITA Tribe”?
You know that I talk about us as the most inclusive tribe in the U.S. And yes, that is exactly how I met NITA. A colleague who started practice with me at Hogan—he after his clerkship and I after my JD—waltzed into my office that first year and asked, “When are you taking your NITA program?” (It was 1978.) “What is NITA?” I responded. There began my anticipation. I got ready, with some deposition and trial work already accomplished. It was up to me and timing was perfect.

The Tribe took it from there. Progressively, a suggestion that I teach, an invitation to fill in as faculty at a custom program, a formal invitation to join the deposition faculty, then onto the faculty roster and eventually program director of the D.C. Trial Program. It was like a drumbeat of learning/teaching/loving NITA. No matter how busy, my vacation plans always started with the NITA commitment. When the Executive Director position came along, it continued to be NITA-Love.

That is still how you join in. It starts with taking a program. Meeting us. Joining us.

What do you think you’ll do on your first morning of retirement?
Run and lift weights, for as long as I wish instead of as long as I have! Follow with a hot protein breakfast. If weather holds, fill the gas tank, pick up a friend, and explore parts of the Front Range I have not seen yet. Ahhh . . . sounds good to us all, I’m sure!

Looking farther down the road, what opportunities are you most looking forward to in your retirement?
I thrive on making change, for communities and professions. Retirement is often described to be when one can “volunteer.” But I see it differently. It is that period when the 99 things you would like to have done along the way are open for you to pick up and do. Some 14 of those 99 things are still on my mind. So I’m looking forward to making a difference in the lives, politics, and hope of people. That may touch diversity training; women professionals striving for success; non-profits and small businesses; democracy and the courts and the vote; students from high school on who may love NITA someday; and avocations like singing, fiber arts, cooking, and fun with family. (That is 9 of 14!). I have no idea how they fit together. But I will take them on as a retired person bringing new ideas to the table. It starts with three months to gaze without decision or plan at how they intersect, what is possible, and how to start. Sound like fun? Keep in touch:

You’ve got a fiber arts workshop set up in your garage at home. What exactly is that, and what do you do? (I know: “Objection, compound question.” #sorrynotsorry)
Yeah, you know those three months? I will set up and dwell in that creative studio. The loom still bears a tartan plaid I warped onto it a number (ahem) of years ago. Fabrics for costumes and more sit in the attic back at my Shenandoah Valley farm. The skill of tatting is in notes written to my grandmother’s description. (Ok, I probably will never “tat.”) Get to work, Karen! What better way to let the brain settle and ambitions meld for three months?

What was your dream job as a kid?
Looking back, every dream revolved around changing things for the better, writing, and connecting with smart people. Thanks to distant relatives’ stories about China, there was the early embodiment of “I want to be a missionary,” but I figured out that was a child’s vocabulary. (May I go beyond the “kid” in your question?) In high school, it was journalism, thanks to many 2 a.m. nights as the high school newspaper editor, getting to decide how bold The Tunlaw could be in 1967–68 (so much material at hand!!). The odds of making a living seemed better with medical school, since I entered college with a jump on science and math. Finally, Urban Studies off-campus, plus Kent State (near my Ohio college), cemented my focus on law.

We lawyers make change. We write. We connect with smart people. Voilà! What luck for me.

During what moments in life do you feel most at ease and in your element?
Laughing with fun and daring people, sharing stories, and challenging each other!

What is one activity you do every day without fail?
Eat. At least one square meal. (Awaiting your question about a certain drink.)

People are surprised that you . . .
Sing in a choir, play classical piano, and cry at symphonies.

How would you spend a million dollars?
Start an awesome non-profit that educates communities to engage with each other in teaching why democracy works. Education. Freedom of speech. Talking with those “unlike” us.

If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Omnipresence! (Wow, that feels sacrilegious.) (Web 3.0?)

What could men learn from women?
Wisdom. That is, self-restraint of the type that observes, encourages others to contribute, balances, and thus leads with the future in mind. (P.S., I am a woman.)

What could women learn from men?
Aggression. That is, “using power,” which really amounts to what can feel like aggression of the sort that might halt progress. We can figure this out, but it takes a few good women to lean in together. (P.S., I am a woman.)

For all of us—me, too—I would say we need to learn about the “other,” no matter the gender.

iPhone or Android?
iPhone. It made no difference that one of my law partners in the mid-’90s preached constantly about his “user-friendly” Mac. He demonstrated. He extolled. He bragged. We had to start meeting in my office to shorten the meetings. But when the second-gen iPhone promised entry into a connected system of computers and devices, I converted business and to the Apple platform. Still there. Still great. Still simple.

Coffee or tea?
Coffee. COFFEE!! Why do I have so many teas at home? Perhaps my friends are living by example, hoping to teach me better ways.

Early bird or night owl?
Both. Sometimes in seriatim, sleep being what it is.

Winter or summer?
. . . (thinking . . ) . . . Summer, I guess. The possibilities—fly-fishing, hiking, river trips, colorful vistas for photography, farm gatherings under a large maple tree with horseshoes nearby, laconic laughter into the night, movies shown on the wide white garage door . . . . (I can hear “Someone make her stop!!” among your readers!) But winter . . . . people willing to gather indoors to exchange their best selves. That, too.

Eat in or dine out?
Out! No matter how much we love to cook and bake, what’s better than dinner with friends and new menus?

Asking questions or answering questions?
Asking, for sure. First, to know what occupies someone’s attention in the moment. Second, to talk about something interesting to that person. It’s easy to think that one’s own thoughts are fascinating when we are (a) old (seasoned), (b) lawyers (hard-charging), or (c) well-traveled (with important friends). Truth is, our society is quite transactional—we connect with people who can get us something. If I want to make a difference in the moment, I try to start with questions immediately after “hello.” I constantly try to be better at this . . . .

Finally, what’s your motto?
If you build it, they will come.

Enjoy this interview? Find more of our Asked and Answered interviews with NITA personalities here on The Legal Advocate. Incoming Executive Director Wendy McCormack is a great one to start with.

Asked and Answered—Rebecca Diaz-Bonilla

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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) familyand 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 communicationfor example, voice, body language, and tone. I thought Foolproof would be an efficient way to give practical advicethe basicsto 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 loveslaw and theatereach 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.

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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