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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?
iPhone.

Popcorn or candy?
Popcorn.

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.

Legal Service Corporation/NITA Public Service Program

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This year, NITA’s National Program for Legal Service Attorneys was hosted in Boulder at our headquarters and successfully trained a core group of 32 legal service attorneys from across the nation in trial skills. This program, which took place August 29 – September 1, was led by NITA Program Director Jude Bourque of the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office. Jude has taught over 50 NITA programs since 2004, including public, custom, and public service. He has been involved in 10 of NITA’s Legal Service Corporation programs; this year was his first as Program Director of the Legal Service Corporation program.

 “The faculty was incredible. The instructors included a rotation of seven Program Directors, two judges, six law school instructors, and seven full-time practicing attorneys. NITA’s best instructors came out to teach,” stated Jude.

 NITA’s learning-by-doing method has always been implemented in our programs in order to get all attendees on their feet and practicing the skills they learn. This program was no different. As Jude stated, during the four days there were 14 workshops in which the participants performed different trial skills, culminating in dynamic closing arguments. Jude believed the participants were eager to learn, willing to experiment and improve, and really supported each other.

 Many of the participants had wonderful things to say after attending the program. “The course was absolutely amazing! It was a wonderful, engaging experience that I won’t forget! I had the chance to meet many wonderful advocates… and many wonderful mentors. I came away from my time in Colorado feeling more enthused and have gained the confidence in myself and my work. Thank you!” stated one participant.

 Likewise, others said they learned a lot during the four-day program and felt they gained the confidence they needed to go to trial.

 This year’s Legal Service Corporation program was both a success for the 32 participants, as well as the diverse NITA faculty. Of Jude’s time as Program Director he stated, “I have been blessed to teach NITA programs from coast to coast and even overseas. The programs I’m most honored to teach are the Legal Service programs, by far. The 2017 NITA National Legal Service Trial Skills Training was one of the best groups of lawyers ever.”

Monthly Theme: Bias Part 2

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This month’s theme on The Legal Advocate is Bias In The Courtroom. This is our second article on the subject. Part 1 was written by Karen Hester titled a A Trial Lawyer’s Guide to Minimizing Bias.

Interrupting Implicit and Explicit Bias

written by NITA guest Blogger Karen Steinhauser via a FB post written by Karen

I normally don’t post much on Facebook other than pictures but I needed to post this:

I recently was fortunate enough to be the co-director for the NITA National Trial Program. We had participants and faculty from all over the country. This year, we added a session to the program that we had never done before entitled, “interrupting implicit (and explicit) bias. Our focus was addressing the many types of bias that occurs in the courtroom and the effects it has on lawyers’ abilities to be effective advocates, and second how we can interrupt the bias, whether we are the victims of it or observers of it. It was truly one of the most powerful things I have ever been a part of.

A number of things were made very clear. First of all, we all have biases and it is important to recognize and understand that those biases are so that we can interrupt our own biases. Second, these issues are prevalent in the courtroom and in the legal profession in general. Third, for the victims of the bias, it is incredible painful and the pain can last a lifetime; fourth, we all have a responsibility when we see something to say something and to be mentors to others who may not know how to deal with these issues.

These issues, of course are not just limited to the legal profession, and I think these sessions need to be a part of every legal and non-legal organization. I truly believe we need to be addressing it at our law schools and other professional associations. It certainly is as much part of professionalism as knowing the basic rules of Ethics.

I have to thank our incredible faculty who were willing to share with the participants their own stories, as painful as they were, and the participants who truly understood that advocacy isn’t just about knowing how to do a good opening statement or closing argument… that it is about advocating for each other as well.

Esperanza Immigration Rights Project/NITA Public Service Program

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For the first time, NITA and Esperanza Immigration Rights Project joined together to offer a public service program for legal service attorneys in Los Angeles. This trial skills program was held August 7-9 in Santa Monica, CA for 19 attorneys. Program Director, Whitney Untiedt, who has taught at over 50 NITA programs since 2008, brought her knowledge of advocacy skills and passion for NITA, to this training program.

At the conclusion of the program Whitney Untiedt said, “The participants in the Esperanza Immigration Advocacy Program were exceptional learners – dedicated to their clients, and excited to try new techniques to advance their skills. The participants embraced the NITA learning-by-doing method, raised thoughtful questions about best practices in bench trials, and participated in meaningful discussions. They were well-prepared for the performance sessions, and as a result each and every participant was able to demonstrate measurable growth over the course of the three-day program.”

Not only did Whitney see the growth of each individual after the program, but the participants as well saw their skills improve. One participant stated, “[This program] was an incredible opportunity that will reap rewards not only for me, but also for all of my future clients.”

Some of the skills taught during this trial program included: direct examination, making and meeting objections, witness preparation, cross examination, and more. NITA is thrilled to have had the pleasure to work with Pro Bono Coordinator, Kimberly Plotnik, on putting this program together.

Robert VanderLaan Remembered with Scholarship Fund, Memorial in Chicago

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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 rabinovitzd@gtlaw.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.

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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