Legal aid lawyers hone skills at annual training

Friday, June 19, 2015


For three days, attorneys from legal aid organizations across the state gathered at the University of Texas School of Law to learn from some of the most experienced trial lawyers in Texas.

They came to participate in the Texas Access to Justice Commission’s Pretrial Academy, an annual training aimed at lawyers representing the state’s most vulnerable clients.

These legal aid attorneys learned advanced techniques of cross-examination, mediation, and deposition, and many other tools for improving their skills in the courtroom.

“It was useful to show that I don’t get stuck in the same habits, but learn something new,” said Meme Smith, a staff attorney for the Odessa office of Legal Aid of Northwest Texas. “Right now, I’m not usually sitting and observing other attorneys’ techniques.”

Many of the training’s participants come looking to learn about a particular technique.

In Smith’s case, it was depositions. She hasn’t had much experience with them and wanted to get some practice before the real thing, she said.

Watching seasoned attorneys conduct mock depositions helped her understand many nuances of the process, Smith said.

“I was surprised by how many different ways you can get the same thing,” she said. “Seeing well-seasoned attorneys work helped me glean some techniques from them I needed.”

The second day of the Pretrial Academy’s packed program includes a demonstration of cross-examination in the law school’s Eidman courtroom.

The Texas Access to Justice Commission partners with the American College of Trial Lawyers and the National Institute for Trial Advocacy for the training. This year, 30 fellows of the American College of Trial Lawyers volunteered their time and expertise.

That includes Frank Jones and Tom Watkins, who conducted a miniature mock trial with the Texas Access to Justice Commission’s Executive Director Trish McAllister taking the stand as witness.

“To be able to have that insight from attorneys who have conducted hundreds or thousands of these – to be able to pick their brains about it was incredibly useful,” said Greg Zlotnick, a staff attorney for St. Mary’s University of Law Center for Legal and Social Justice.

“For legal aid attorneys, time is very precious and there’s not always many opportunities to interact with attorneys from other practice areas,” Zlotnick said. “As a result, the training doubles as a kind of retreat where it’s easier to stay focused on learning new skills.”

“This was one of the most productive and beneficial CLE [continuing legal education] conferences that I’ve been to,” Zlotnick said.

It’s important to remember that this training is for attorneys representing the state’s poorest residents, Texans who wouldn’t be able to afford a lawyer without the help of legal aid organizations, Smith said. Just because someone is indigent doesn’t mean they should get sub-par representation, she said.

“Programs like this ensure that legal aid attorneys are just as competent and knowledgeable as any other attorney in a given case, which ensures that our clients have equal or better representation like anybody else,” Smith said. “Any attorney who has the opportunity to apply for this program should definitely do it.”

Learn more about the Pre-Trial Academy here.

View some photos from this year's training here.