Last month a new training program for indigent defenders was launched in Western New York—titled the Western New York Advanced Trial Skills Program.  The brainchild of Monroe County Public Defender Tim Donaher, who, with the support of the Office of Indigent Legal Services lead by William Leahy, and the New York State Defenders Association, developed this first of its kind program in the area.  It broke new ground in the region in the way indigent defense providers, both public and private, are trained.  Not only does it provide instruction on trial skills, but also focuses on the importance of incorporating client–centered representation in all phases of the development and presentation of a defense.  This program is the first of many that will be structured in this fashion, designed in a way that will hopefully become the model for future programs—a process that has already started.  CLEs in surrounding areas are starting to pattern their format after this model, which will lay the foundation for the further strengthening of indigent defense throughout the region and around the State.

It is never easy to put together a new style of program, especially one directed at more experienced lawyers, who can be resistant to change.  This program seeks to change the way we train and inspire indigent defenders.  Instead of more traditional straight lecture format, both lecture and small group sessions were employed.  Lecturers were asked to build their presentations around a single plenary problem which attendees also used during small group sessions.  Using the same problem in both lecture and small groups, is aimed at providing presenters a way to enhance the learning process.  Instead of telling war stories, presenters are able to use the facts of the plenary problem to show how to apply the lessons from their lectures.  By using the same fact pattern, attendees are more vested and engaged in the program, because the examples have more meaning and relevance to them.  In the old–style lecture format, attendees are not provided examples that have the same relevance to them individually, which can lead to a loss of interest, causing more time to be spent looking at the internet and sending text messages than actively participating in the learning process.

The small group sessions are also handled in a new fashion.  Instead of the standard perform and critique format, small group sessions are designed around the student–focused model.  Attendees participated in feedback, which causes them to be more attentive and focused on their fellow participant’s performance.  Instead of faculty focused critical analysis which concentrates on what the attendee did wrong, faculty members are encouraged to provide supportive feedback.  Some criticize this style stating it causes attendees not to learn, because they are not being told what they are doing wrong.  That simply is not what supportive feedback entails.  The goal of supportive feedback is to focus on changing the style, not the substance.  Feedback starts by letting the attendee know what they did well.  Then faculty members provide suggestions on ways to improve those areas that were not the strongest or alternative ways to convey the message in a more effective and persuasive manner.  The lessons for improvement are there, but they are not conveyed in a way that hurts the attendees’ confidence.  Too many times when feedback is presented from a negative, faculty focused, critical point–of–view, attendees lose confidence in themselves.  They focus on the negative and do not absorb the lessons for improvement.  By changing the way feedback is given, attendees walk away with both new legal skills as well as confidence in their own ability, as opposed to trepidation and fear of being wrong.  Unlike old programs, this new style gives lawyers the opportunity to actively participate in the learning process and to put those skills in the education setting.  By providing participants the opportunity to see themselves succeed, instead of passively sitting back and listening to others teach, they leave the program confident that they can see similar success in the courtroom.  Attendees left this program with a new set of skills and a renewed energy which will benefit both them and the clients they serve.

Regardless of all the planning in the world, the program would not have worked were it not for the amazing work of the faculty.  The faculty included a strong and committed group of lawyers from around the State, who practice in a variety of jurisdictions (State and Federal; public and private; large office and solo practitioner).  Lawyers with great legal skills, who are dedicated to their craft and the clients they serve.  Experienced, dedicated, passionate professionals who were committed to the education of the attendees as well as working within the program and the goals it sought to accomplish.  Every faculty member bought in.  They focused their presentations and teachings on the goals of the program and did not try to pursue their own agenda.  Every faculty member worked with each other, listened to each other, and supported one another.  No one questioned or challenged another’s teachings, the problems used, or the objectives of the program.  Each presentation supported the teachings of the prior lectures and all were built off the same foundation.  As a result of this team approach, attendees were given a consistent message by a group of individuals committed to working with each other, toward the accomplishment of a common goal.  Gone were individual agendas.  Center stage was the success of the program and all who attended, both participants and faculty.  The focus was in developing a cohesive program that provided attendees with not only legal knowledge, but also the confidence and inspiration to be creative and dynamic in the way they defend and advocate for the people they represent.

The program incorporated the best parts of a number of different models like the National Criminal Defense College, NYSDA Basic Trial Skills, Gideon’s Promise, and Louisiana Defender Training Institute, to name a few.  It sought to continue and build upon the client–centered and public defense community movement advanced by Jonathan Rapping (Gideon's Promise), Jeff Sherr (Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy), and Ernie Lewis (National Association of Public Defense), who not only seek to improve the legal skills of attorneys, but also create a movement that raises the level and spirit of public defense across the country.  The program in Western New York, seeks to join in and expand the reach of this movement.  Achieving these goals requires a willingness to be open to new ideas, a commitment to client–centered representation, and a desire to always find new ways to improve the way we train and inspire lawyers.  For this movement to succeed there must be a willingness to adopt new methods.  Gone should be the idea that what is different is wrong.  Instead, the focus should be on providing lawyers with the skills and inspiration to be creative and dynamic in the way they defend their clients.  To always strive to improve and not do things simply because that was the way they have been done in the past.

Change is never easy.  Trying new ways of doing things can be daunting and unsettling.  But progress never rises out of passivity.  Together we can continue to raise the level of public defense.  Achieving these goals requires not only an open mindedness by those who attend these programs, but also those who participate as faculty.  The program in Western New York demonstrates what can be accomplished when a group of talented lawyers work together, committed to the goals and format of the program, willing to try new ways of doings things, instead of limiting themselves to way things have always been done in the past.  By working together, united in our efforts and vision, committed to the same goals, we can further raise the level of public defense nationwide.  It will not only benefit everyone within this community, but also the people we represent.