Fordham trial advocacy experts help train New York City Law Department attorneys
In the early hours of a Sunday morning in July 2010, an officer with the NYPD’s Cabaret Unit responded to a report of a fight outside Helium nightclub. The officer arrived to a scene of bedlam. He handcuffed and arrested one of the many combatants, and cleared out the club. Years later, the man he arrested is suing, alleging that the officer’s actions led to a torn rotator cuff. In the courtroom, lawyers and a jury have to assess the scenario: Was the officer’s action police brutality, or an appropriate response to a dangerous situation?
This past July, at Fordham Law, junior lawyers from the New York City Law Department argued opposing sides of this hypothetical scenario. They were taking part in a training session designed to provide them the background necessary to represent the City of New York in a wide array of legal contests.
“The training program happens every year at this time,” says Justina Rivera ’10, a Fordham Law alumna and former assistant borough chief with the NYCLD (Rivera left the department in November for a litigation position at Harris Beach PLLC). “It’s generally for attorneys who have either just completed or are just coming up to their one-year anniversary at the Law Department, or who have lateraled in.”
Rivera visited Fordham for a two-week stretch to help train a fresh crop of NYCLD attorneys. These trainees will go on to represent the city in everything from multimillion-dollar real estate deals to slip-and-fall complaints.
Led by the city’s corporation counsel, a position appointed by the mayor, the NYCLD ranks among the city’s largest law offices and the country’s largest public law offices. The NYCLD has a hand in almost all aspects of the city’s governance. Its lawyers help the city draft real estate leases, issue municipal bonds, and review state legislation, in addition to a host of other duties. Each year, the department’s attorneys work on a caseload of 70,000 active or ongoing legal matters.
“The New York City Law Department is essentially the law firm for the City of New York,” says Rivera. “The department has 16 legal divisions and more than 800 attorneys. From tort to tax, we handle it all.”
Tending to the city’s unique needs demands lawyers with a unique set of skills; helping teach those unique skills is where Fordham comes in. During the NYCLD training sessions hosted at Fordham, the organization gives its new attorneys and lateral hires hands-on experience in the sorts of cases they’ll be facing while representing the city. The trainees spend the first week learning trial skills—such as openings, closings, and direct and cross-examinations—through live performance and faculty critique; they then exercise their abilities during a mock trial.
“While I was at Fordham, I was part of the Brendan Moore Trial Advocacy Team, and I loved it. Once I left Fordham, I continued to coach. I really enjoy teaching, showing people how to do things practically.”
– Justina Rivera ’10
“I am delighted to see my past Fordham Law students return to the School and complete this program after they’ve taken a job at the NYCLD,” says Fordham professor and former NYCLD training coordinator James Kainen. “Plus there are now people who have been with the department long enough and who are senior enough that they are actually teaching in the program.”
At present, the program calls on the expertise of two of the Law School’s nationally ranked programs: clinical legal education and trial advocacy. Thee director of the former, Fordham Professor Michael W. Martin ’92, has almost 20 years of experience directing the training program, which has included overseeing and advising on the case problem. This summer, Martin stepped away from primary leadership to allow Adam Shlahet ’02, director of the Brendan Moore Trial Advocacy Center, to oversee the more than 120 lawyers who attended, a figure that makes the event one of the largest intensive trial advocacy professional training programs of its kind.
“I think what makes working for the Law Department unique is that you get hands-on experience very quickly,” says Rivera. “In a large law firm, you may get to work on just one case; in the Law Department, specifically the tort division, you may have a caseload of 60 to 120 in your first year.”
As Rivera coached a classroom of NYCLD trainees through the Helium nightclub case, the scene unfolded in a way not too dissimilar to an everyday practice for a law school’s mock trial team. Nervous at first, the trainees became more confident as the exercise progressed. Rivera intervened periodically to correct a procedural blunder or tighten a trainee’s line of questioning.
“While I was at Fordham, I was part of the Brendan Moore Trial Advocacy Team, and I loved it. Once I left Fordham, I continued to coach,” Rivera says. “I really enjoy teaching, showing people how to do things practically.”