Legal Aid Society

Training in the Criminal Defense Practice

The Legal Aid Society’s criminal defense training programs are widely regarded as among the best in the country. Our clients deserve no less. Along with a dedicated Training Unit, our training activities draw on the assistance of hundreds of attorneys and non-attorney professionals from our five borough offices and multiple specialized practice units. Our trainers regularly are invited to lecture throughout the state, the country, and internationally.

Training for New Attorneys

Trial Offices

New attorneys in Legal Aid’s trial offices participate in one of the most comprehensive first-year training programs of any public defender office in the nation. This begins with a dynamic eight-week orientation that combines lectures and workshops, shadowing experienced attorneys and investigators, panel discussions with former Legal Aid clients, independent assignments and readings, days in the borough offices, and other activities. The curriculum includes New York’s evidence and criminal procedure laws, building attorney-client relationships, techniques for investigating cases, ethical obligations, discovery and subpoenas, cross-examination skills, civil consequences of criminal cases, sentencing law, diversity, inclusion and implicit bias in the court system and the workplace, storytelling skills for litigation, and much more.

The New Attorney Training Program is built around “sample cases.” Each attorney is assigned one of eight misdemeanor cases, based on former clients’ cases.  New attorneys follow the “story” of each case by participating in simulations of events such as their first interview, the arraignment proceeding, subsequent court appearances, finding and interviewing witnesses on investigations, filing motions, issuing subpoenas, and more. The culmination is a cross-examination workshop that imagines the “trial” of selected cases.

Overall, the initial training includes over 30 hours of small-group workshops and discussions, as well as lectures presented by some of the most experienced attorneys from the Society. New attorneys also tour the Rikers Island jails and spend a day accompanying a professional investigator in the field. A panel of formerly incarcerated individuals discusses the attorney-client relationship from the perspective of the client.

To develop writing and argumentation skills, each new attorney in training writes an appellate brief in an actual misdemeanor case, under supervision of senior appellate attorneys. The new attorneys later conduct the oral argument in the Appellate Term. This assignment ensures that each trial-level attorney has produced a substantial work of original legal writing that was carefully critiqued at the start of employment. It also lets attorneys see cases “in reverse,” which provides countless benefits for their later trial-court practice.

After joining the trial offices full time, new attorneys continue to receive ongoing training and direct supervision. Their first trials are always “second-seated” by a supervising attorney. New attorneys also gain experience by second-chairing more senior attorneys at trials.

In the early spring of the first year, the new attorneys attend a three-day intensive training on the law and specialized practices that apply to pre-trial suppression hearings. This program is made up of comprehensive lectures and interactive workshops. On the third day, the attorneys each litigate a simulated suppression hearing based on real cases. This training is so popular that many senior attorneys ask to attend it again.

In the summer of their first year, the attorneys participate in the Dennis R. Murphy Trial Advocacy Training Program, which is Legal Aid’s week-long trial skills training program. It is conducted by dozens of experienced lawyers from our trial offices, and the emphasis is on active participation. Most of the week is spent in small-group workshops and simulations. After this program, each of the new attorneys returns to their borough office and then participates in a full-day simulated trial in an actual courtroom.

Criminal Appeals Bureau

For newly hired attorneys in our Criminal Appeals Bureau (CAB), the orientation program spans the first four months of employment and consists of over 30 separate training days. The orientation program develops the skills and knowledge necessary for a new attorney to provide a full array of client-centered post-conviction services and first-rate appellate representation.

Programs include lecture-based seminars, in which CAB supervisors and others lead discussions on substantive matters relating to post-conviction representation. These are reinforced with frequent “skills development” sessions in which participants work through and discuss a series of exercises. New attorneys also get to apply these newly acquired concepts in less formal “Bring Your Own Case” sessions, where participants identify issues and plan strategies for their first cases.  During the orientation period, new CAB attorneys also receive thorough trainings on issues related to diversity and inclusion, as well as programming that addresses the role of race and class in the criminal justice system.

New CAB attorneys are assigned an initial supervisor who works with them intensively for the first several months of their tenure. All new hires are assigned to attorney teams that meet weekly at lunchtime to discuss their cases as well as recent developments in the law. They also attend any Legal Aid Criminal Practice training programs. In addition, formal moot courts are required for new CAB attorneys in their first year of practice.

Continuing Training for All Attorneys

Not only is The Legal Aid Society the largest public defender organization in the country, it is also one of the major Continuing Legal Education (CLE) providers in New York State. We grant over 10,000 credit-hours of instruction to lawyers inside and outside the organization every year.

Each of our offices hosts regular lunch-hour trainings for all staff, covering a wide range of topics, from new court decisions or developments in our practice, to “refresher” trainings on areas of law that are vital to our work, ethics rules for lawyers, immigration law consequences for clients, grand jury practice, jury selection, storytelling in the courtroom, and much more.

Each year we also co-host major training symposia that are attended by attorneys throughout New York State. “Questioning Forensics” is a two-day forum on DNA and other scientific or expert testimony in criminal cases. “Man v. Machine” focuses on driving-while-intoxicated cases.  Legal Aid attorneys can also view free CLE programs at their desktops through an arrangement with the Practicing Law Institute (PLI).

Many of our staff serve on the Boards and committees of major legal, bar and criminal justice organizations, and we regularly provide training and resources to practitioners and organizations throughout the criminal justice system.

Vast Online Resources on Criminal Law and Defense Practice

For use only by Legal Aid attorneys and staff, we have created and regularly update a vast archive of memoranda on criminal law and practice on our intranet system, LASnet. This web-based resource contains a treasure-trove of useful information such as practice guides, sample motions, links to outside resources, an expert witness directory, guides to forensic science, and much more.

Of particular note is a collection of 450 legal treatises and memos developed by our Special Litigation and Training Units. They include manuals on law and practice considerations for litigating suppression hearings and trials, accusatory instruments, hearsay and confrontation, jury selection and discharge, common crimes and defenses, recurring evidence issues, and many other topics. We believe these resources are unmatched anywhere. A sophisticated search function makes all of the information easily accessible, and many attorneys have them downloaded to iPads or tablets for use in court.

Our staff also receive daily e-mails containing all relevant criminal law decisions, as well as regular practice advisories highlighting major developments.

Training for Non-Attorney Staff

The Legal Aid Society is equally committed to comprehensive training for all of our non-attorney staff. All new employees participate in a multiple-day orientation and training program that introduces them to the essential principles of criminal law and practice.

Investigators also engage in a series of trainings that enhance their questioning and observation skills, expose them to cutting-edge forensic techniques, reinforce ethical rules, and develop new investigation strategies. Paralegals participate in a “Continuing Paralegal Education” program that enhances skills and deepens their understanding of criminal law.

For Social Workers, we are an accredited Continuing Education provider and our training programs include such topics as trauma stewardship, storytelling, and various other topics related to mental health and substance abuse.

Recent Impact

This summer, The Legal Aid Society welcomed law faculty and students from Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León in Monterrey, Mexico for a one-day series of workshops, lectures, and trainings on teaching oral litigation for trial lawyers, under the Oral Adversarial Skill-Building Immersion Seminar (OASIS) program. Coordinated by Justice in Mexico, the program aims to foster closer ties between U.S. and Mexican faculty and legal experts from Mexico’s largest public universities working to improve the functioning of the Mexican criminal justice system.

Watch the video below for highlights from this year’s training.

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We believe The Legal Aid Society’s training programs and resources for the Criminal Defense Practice are one of the key reasons why LAS is a preeminent public defense office in the country. They help make LAS such a great place to work – and are a tremendous asset for our mission of helping our clients.