|Monte L. Neilan
According to Yogi Berra--the late New York Yankees’ baseball player, manager, and coach--“You can observe a lot by watching.” It’s hard to argue with that! As trial lawyers, we frequently find ourselves watching and observing. In depositions, at hearings, and in trial, we watch and observe witnesses with rapt attention. But, in this message, I’m writing about our observations of processes more so than our observations of people.
That above-quoted Yogi-ism presupposes an inherent value or good in our observations. But, why are they good? Perhaps our observations are good insofar as they are useful. If so, then the trick is making one’s observations useful. And, that begs the question: “How is a particular observation useful?” More to the point, how do trial lawyers make good use of their observations of processes? Let’s come back to this issue . . .
Since the previous edition of the Prairie Barrister, there has been a lot to observe at NATA. On May 12, 2017, your association’s board of directors met, in Omaha, with its committee on strategic/ long range planning. The committee is being skillfully chaired by past-president Jim Paloucek of North Platte. One function of the President’s Message is to help keep Nebraska trial lawyers informed about their association. So, allow me to report on the recommendations flowing from that meeting in Omaha. Those recommendations are organized into three categories: mission and governance; organizational structure; and financial stability. Later this year, your board of directors will take up those recommendations at a regular meeting.
First, there are key recommendations pertaining to NATA’s mission and governance. Specifically, our mission statement should change to reflect changes in our association’s membership. The proposed mission statement reads: “Dedicated to the improvement of the trial practice, the preservation of the justice system, and the protection of the constitutional right of trial by jury.” In addition, there are several recommended bylaw changes intended to increase board effectiveness. The Omaha meeting also generated a recommendation that NATA create the new position of “board oversight chair”-- a sort of sergeant-at-arms.
Second, NATA’S executive director, Stella Huggins, has provided decades of faithful and effective leadership. She is the association’s institutional memory, a steady hand, and cheerful voice when one of our members calls for assistance. But, eventually, Stella will retire. We must face that reality and prepare for the future. After debating innovative alternatives for months, the strategic/long range planning group is recommending that: a) NATA continue to serve its members with a full-time executive director; b) the board conduct an organized, methodical, transparent search for a new executive director in 2018, and; c) the board begin developing a formal method for allocating the executive director costs between NATA and NATA PAC.
Third, there are recommendations for NATA’s continued financial stability. The board should consider establishing a separate financial reserve account with specific policies for funding and using that account. NATA should consider offering additional CLE webinars to provide members with better service and to increase revenues. Finally, the board should consider creating written policies to guide our new executive director with financial accountability.
If you have observations about our association, or how it should be functioning or changing, then please contact me or any board member. My phone number in Scottsbluff is (308) 630-0808. I look forward to hearing from you!
On June 8, 2017, it was my honor and duty, as an officer of the court, to serve on the Merit Selection Panel for the Reappointment of U.S. Magistrate Judge Cheryl Zwart. The panel consisted of a broad cross section of lawyers and laypersons. There was a structure and a process to the panel’s work. U.S. District Judge John Gerrard welcomed panel members, briefed us, and then allowed us to use his chambers for our work. Associate Professor Steven Schmidt, of the UNL College of Law, deftly guided the panel’s private discussions. There was a seriousness to this work and many of the panel members had never before met. Initially, I was concerned about the interpersonal dynamic that would emerge. But, my concern was misplaced. As a trial lawyer, it was gratifying to watch each member of the panel participating, meaningfully, in the discussion. Eventually, Judge Zwart joined us and spoke of her work and herself. When she invited questions, I asked, “How can older trial lawyers, myself included, and associations, like NATA, help magistrate judges improve the system and its processes?” I was surprised by Judge Zwart’s response.
The question I asked Judge Zwart was not particularly novel or insightful. Her response was. Over the years, I have asked many judges substantially the same question. Typically, in response that question, I am told that lawyers need to be better prepared, especially with respect to the rules. That has usually struck me as a fair and appropriate response. But, Judge Zwart’s response was simply great. Judge Zwart asked me to tell other trial lawyers that she wants our feedback—feedback based upon . . . our observations.
So, it seems that the time you have spent watching has not been time wasted. There is at least one way for trial lawyers to make good use of our observations. Appropriately, respectfully share those observations with your judge. If you’re lucky, the judge will do the same for you!