ACTL Fellows provide trial skills training for legal aid attorneys

large group outside shepard broad law center
Photo of legal aid attorneys at trial skills training.

Legal aid attorneys learned trial skills from American College of Trial Lawyers Fellows at Nova Southeastern University Law School March 4 as part of an ongoing training series organized by Florida Legal Services.

by Doug Sachs

Linda Smith, 48, her elderly mother and two teenage sons stood to lose their federally subsidized apartment after Jacksonville police found a marijuana plant on the family’s back patio, but before they would be evicted they would have their day in court.

Such were the facts of the hypothetical case at the center of a March 4 training presented to South Florida legal aid attorneys by the American College of Trial Lawyers. The day-long event included hands-on litigation training and direct feedback from veteran ACTL attorneys.

Held at Nova Southeastern University Law School, the training exposed 16 legal aid attorneys from Miami and Ft. Lauderdale to the considerable expertise of eight ACTL Fellows, who are carefully selected by the ACTL based on their mastery of the art of advocacy and their demonstration of the highest ethical and professional standards.

In the training, half of the legal aid attorneys represented Smith, and the other half represented her landlord.  Nova Law School students played the witnesses. Attorney Gordon James of Ft. Lauderdale helped recruit other ACTL Fellows to serve as volunteer judges.

“This was a wonderful experience for the ACTL attorneys,” James said. “I was very impressed with the young legal aid attorneys.”

The legal aid attorneys received information packets in advance so they would be ready to try the case at the seminar. Throughout the proceedings, which included an opening statement, direct and cross examination of two witness and closing argument, the Fellows offered feedback and critique. They commented on the quality of the attorneys’ preparation and questioning, as well as their appearance, style and effectiveness.

Kathy Grunewald, statewide director of training for the Florida Bar Foundation grantee Florida Legal Services, helped organize the event, part of a series that began in September 2014 in Tallahassee. The legal aid attorneys attending the training all work for legal aid organizations supported in part by the Foundation.

The Foundation had helped connect the ACTL and Florida Legal Services after Darryl Bloodworth, chairman of the Florida Access to Justice Committee for ACTL, approached the Foundation looking to start a pro bono project for Fellows.

Amanda Kleinrock, a third-year associate with Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, said she and her fellow legal aid attorneys were grateful.

“Legal aid offices often don’t have the resources to send us to training of this caliber,” Kleinrock said.

She learned several valuable lessons, including the importance of being able to respond quickly to unexpected testimony.

“I learned we need to be more flexible and be able to move with the facts,” Kleinrock said. “For example, one of the witnesses changed his testimony. We need to be ready for that.”

ACTL Fellow Kimberly Cook of Miami volunteered to serve as a judge for the seminar.

“It was a very rewarding experience,” Cook said. “I always end up learning as much from the people we are trying to help as they do from us. This format is much more meaningful than a lecture approach.”

James believes the trial training seminar gives ACTL Fellows an opportunity to make a positive impact.

“I felt we did something good,’ he said. “I think people got a lot out of it.”

The third trial practice training session took place in Orlando July 16, and a fourth session is planned for Pensacola this fall. For more information on this and other Florida Legal Services training, contact Kathy Grunewald, Statewide Training Director, Florida Legal Services, at (850) 385-7900.