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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.

Asked and Answered—Judge Matt Williams

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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?

In 1984, I started training with Eric Heintz and Grandmaster Woojin Jung. I love the discipline, humility, and focus that Tae Kwon Do teaches. It cools down your brain.

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.

So . . . how many Justin Biebers could you take in a fight?

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.


Asked and Answered – Melissa Gomez

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In the courtroom, you can do all the right stuff—tell a meaningful story of your client’s case, show compelling evidence, demonstrate courtesy to opposing counsel and witnesses, follow the rules of the court—and yet an individual juror will sometimes observe or fixate on something so random, so unconnected to the case, that you would have to be Caesar’s Soothsayer to anticipate it. Existing outside a lawyer’s control, jurors can be a real source of anxiety—and yet, they are but one piece of the psychological morass inside a courtroom. It’s not just the jurors you have to think about, says psychologist Melissa M. Gomez. It’s also opposing counsel, the judge, and the witnesses, all bringing their own unique perspectives and life experiences with them and affecting the atmosphere of your trial. In her book, Jury Trials Outside In, Dr. Gomez posits these outside dimensions bear an often overlooked impact on how you communicate and behave in the courtroom—and teaches, from a psychological perspective, what you can do about it. Jury Trials Outside In doesn’t just ask fascinating questions. It answers them, too. 

 How did you first meet “Auntie NITA”?

I had written my book and was discussing finding a publisher with a client, who happened to be involved with NITA. He connected me to the NITA publishing department, and voilà!

This brings up an interesting point: despite your years of experience as a jury and trial consultant, you’re not actually a lawyer. How did you become interested in the law and make it the focus of your life’s work?

Alas, the law is not the focus on my life’s work. Psychology and what makes people learn, perceive, decide, and react in a particular way to a particular situation is my life’s work. The jury trial is a fascinating place where these elements of psychology apply across all the humans involved (the jurors, witnesses, lawyers, judge, public opinion, etc.).

Without giving away any identifiable details, what are some of the most interesting situations you’ve dealt with as a trial consultant?

I think what is most interesting about my job comes down to a simple concept: People are people. In my job as a jury expert, I have worked with lawyers, television stars, CEOs, billionaires, people in poverty, doctors, felons, nurses, politicians, engineers, truck drivers, scientists, . . . you name it.

Jury trials cause stress to everyone, whether they are the jurors, the lawyers, the witnesses, or the judge. The results of a jury trial often change lives. People react in different ways, but everyone feels it. We are all human beings. And I have liked just about every person I have met—regardless of who they are and what their job title is.

How did you come up with the idea to write your book, Jury Trials Outside In?

It started off as writing down my stories from the courtroom, and then, as the pile of my stories grew, I saw themes emerge that I wanted to connect to basic concepts of psychology, sociology, etc. It just flowed from there.

What is your writing process like?

Airplanes. I click away on airplanes. I usually just let words and ideas stream out onto the keyboard, and then I go back and read what I have written. I make the sentences tighter. I do some research on the idea that is developing and then add the results of that research into the text. Then I do it again on the next flight with the next set of ideas.

I then piece it all together like a puzzle and comb it through a few times. By the time anyone sees it, I have gone over it at least five or six times.

What is the most important personal attribute you bring to your work?

An ability to see outside of my own perspective, to find connections between concepts, and to narrow complex information into its basic elements.

What bores you?


If you could buy anything and price was no object, what would you buy?

A piece of art work by Picasso.

What is your favorite breakfast?

A banana with almond butter.

Besides your family, who in your life has known you the longest?

My graduate school advisor and professor from the University of Pennsylvania. She now does contract work for me when I conduct mock trials. I trust her completely.

What was your favorite book as a child?

Artie the Smartie. It was a story of a little fish that wanted to make a big splash.

If you came with a warning label, what would it say?

I found this question hilarious, so I put it out to friends and clients on my Facebook feed. Here are the responses.


My favorite is the one from Alan Feldman, a client of mine: “Warning: Disregard advice at you (or your client’s) own risk!”

Coffee or tea?

Iced coffee.

Cats or dogs?

Dogs with silly names. Mine is named Figaro so we can sing the song when we call him.

Classical or modern?


iPhone or Android?


Sweet or salty?

Why choose? I like a combination of the two.

Spring ahead or fall back?

Neither. I am philosophically opposed to Daylight Savings Time.

And finally, what is your motto?

If it scares the crap out of you, it is probably worth doing.



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


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?

Coffee or tea?

Rain or shine?

Early bird or night owl?
Night owl.

Cats or dogs?

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.

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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