10 Things Learned at ABA/NITA Family Law Advocacy Institute

A week ago, I was in Boulder for the ABA/NITA Family Law Advocacy Institute. It was an intense program that was extremely rewarding. Each day we worked with faculty members, including judges and prominent family law attorneys from across the country, on a particular skill. One day it was opening statements; the next would be cross examination of an expert witness. Most of our exercises were videotaped and we’d go to a separate room to review with a faculty member who would give us feedback. The program ended with a mock divorce trial involving professional actors and real business valuation experts. The following were ten things I learned from the program.

  1. Humans are hardwired to tell and listen to stories. As lawyers, we are trained to think differently. We go to law school and learn how to “think like a lawyer.” We start using words like “heretofore,” “therein,” and “wherefore” because those terms were used by lawyers hundreds of years ago. The downside to all of this training is that we forget how to clearly communicate. The best trial lawyers take a complex case and distill it to an engaging and simple story. Juries and judges will listen to stories; they become bored when they are lectured to.
  2. Start with the endgame. A trial starts off with an opening statement. Next comes the evidence — the witnesses and exhibits. Finally, closing arguments are when the parties argue about how the evidence matters in the context of the law. When I prepared for trials over 8-9 years ago, I would start preparing the opening statement because, hey, that’s logical, right? Kinda. I had success, but I wanted to get better. Through multiple trial advocacy programs, I’ve refined my approach and start first with my ideal closing argument. I think about what I want to say to a judge or jury at the end of the case. I then outline my witness examinations, exhibit list, opening statement and everything else related to the trial with my closing argument in mind.
  3. Knowing the judge is critical. More on this issue in future blog posts. Suffice it to say, RKV Law adds value to our clients because of our familiarity of the judges involved in Aspen or Eagle family law disputes.
  4. Experts make choices. Understanding those choices, the strengths and weaknesses of an approach, is key.
  5. Family law involves people. This is an easy point to forget.
  6. When there is a “battle of the experts,” presentation of credentials and effective cross-examination can win the day. If there a case involves multiple experts, the stakes are always high. I spent several days refining my accreditation of an expert witness. Likewise, I spent an equal amount of time polishing my cross-examination skills for experts.
  7. Never underestimate the ability, skill and knowledge of the opposing attorney. Never overestimate the ability, skill and knowledge of the trial judge. I frequently interact with the same divorce attorneys in Aspen so the first point isn’t an issue for me. However, the second point goes more to the time a judge can devote to your case.
  8. Family Law requires multidisciplinary knowledge and skills. There are rules of evidence, civil procedure, and appellate that must be known cold. Beyond the procedural aspects, Family Law attorneys need to know tax, real estate, corporate, employment, criminal, contract, tort, securities and other areas of the law to be effective. In addition, when kids are involved, we should be familiar with psychology, special needs, child development, addiction and other areas involving social science.
  9. The American Bar Association is a great resource. Many of my faculty members are heavily involved with the ABA. I ordered a number of books and resources on business valuations from the ABA during my course. I recently added the ABA to the list of bar associations I’m affiliated with, and look forward to taking my practice to the next level.
  10. I am lucky. A number of lawyers at the program are solo practitioners. It was interesting to hear how they prepared for trial or handled their cases while being out of the office for a week. I am fortunate to be part of a firm that has three other lawyers who focus on family law. If I have a question on strategy, a thorny issue in a case, or want to chat about a theme for trial, I have some excellent trial lawyers to help me out.
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