A year-long, pilot mentoring program for private assigned counsel, developed with technical assistance from NLADA, is now underway in Westchester County, New York. Modeled on a program developed by NLADA for the Texas Indigent Defense Commission in 2015, the program includes group trainings and structured, one-on-one mentoring. Housed at the Legal Aid Society of Westchester County (LASW) Assigned Counsel Resource Center, the program was designed in collaboration with the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services (ILS) and the Westchester County Bar Association. Starting small with a pilot group, the goal is to eventually foster a community of private attorneys who provide high quality, client-centered representation to their court-appointed clients in Westchester County. Ideally, the model will be replicable in other New York counties by the ILS.
For this initial cohort, the supervisor of the Assigned Counsel Plan (ACP) at LASW developed a competitive online application process and selected five mentors and ten mentees. The practice focus is misdemeanors, as in Westchester County, Legal Aid Society staff attorneys handle felony cases, while assigned counsel handle misdemeanors and felony conflict cases. The mentors are seasoned attorneys who attended two days of intensive "train the trainers" sessions where they received instruction in adult learning principles and techniques to help them impart their knowledge to mentees in a respectful, relevant fashion. The mentors also created sessions to deliver at an initial week-long training session for the mentees. Among other things, the initial week of training included sessions on client-centered representation, story-telling, effective client interviewing, bail applications, and mental health courts, and featured visits to the local jail and forensics lab.
Mentors will work one-on-one with mentees using a curriculum drawn from a core, twelve-module program that is individualized for each mentee's particular needs (see an example from Texas here). In addition to one-on-one mentoring, the mentors will hold bi-monthly group trainings for the full group on topics relating to local practice. First up, for example, will be a session on assessing sufficiency of accusatory instruments, discovery, and motions practice. CLE credit will be awarded for the trainings, which will be held at a local restaurant. The informal setting is intentional, as developing community and connection is as much a goal of the project as is developing professional skills of mentees, who are solo practitioners.
NLADA enlisted three experts to help with the Westchester County model. Trudy Strassburger, Deputy Director of the Capital Area Defender Services (CAPDS) in Austin, Texas, adapted the train the trainer sessions and the week-long introductory training from mentoring programs she created for Travis County, Texas. Andrea Marsh, Clinical Lecturer and Director of the Richard and Ginni Mithoff Pro Bono Program at the University of Texas Law School, adapted the twelve-module curriculum she first created for the Texas mentoring guide to New York practice. Susan Saab Fortney, Professor & Associate Dean for Research at Texas A&M University School of Law, will evaluate the program.
The initial cohort of Westchester County, NY mentees and mentors, along with LASW program administrators and trainers