Host David Heffernan and Guest Jeannie Jontiff

On Behalf of | Dec 13, 2021 | Podcasts

Welcome to another episode of First off, let’s kill all the lawyers. I’m David Heffernan. I’ve been practicing personal injury law here in South Florida for about three decades now. The goal behind these podcasts is quite simple. I bring in lawyers from various aspects, different careers, different things, talk about different areas of law and sort of one by one hopefully, we can take them off the kill list and prove that maybe Shakespeare was wrong back in the 15th century. This morning it will be an easy task. My guest is a friend, colleague, an excellent lawyer, and I dressed up this morning actually put a jacket on because in some aspect now as you’re going to find out, she’s my boss. So let me introduce Jeannie Jontiff. A pleasure to have you on this morning. How are you?

I’m great. Thanks, David. Good morning. Nice to see you.

Likewise, likewise. So, let’s start with the simple stuff. Let’s go back a little bit. You went to U. M law, and we’ve got some parallel paths there. But before you get there, what got you into the practice of law? Ah,

a very circuitous route. I started out as a musical theater major, I kind of switched into political science, but with still a dance, a minor in dance. And then I don’t know, I kind of started working in the law. I worked in real estate, and I did contracts. And then I thought that was interesting. And then I, I ended up actually taking a position at Kodak Trofim, Throckmorton as a paralegal, and then I kind of said, well, I can do this. I may as well just go to law school.

Well, that there’s certainly a great group of lawyers there to learn under and we know them all, well, tremendous, tremendous firm. So. So that’s where the start goes, then you go to UNM. And then you and I have one common Lincoln that just a couple of years before you I won the Thomas Seewald Scholar Award, ah, which is, which is a nice little gesture, I still have the trophy somewhere the Montblanc pen, which was a nice award. And then obviously, we both had the opportunity to teach in the litigation Skills Program. And now we sort of segue. You’ve got a thriving practice; you and your husband have been doing personal injury law Jonathan. But this year, you shifted gears a little bit. And you’re now the acting director for the litigation skills department. So, let’s talk about how that came about.

You know, I’ve been intimately involved in litigation skills since I took the program. My favorite thing about law school was litigation. Always super passionate about it. And you know, with all that was going on with the pandemic, I kind of, you know, helped out a lot more than I ordinarily do.You know, so they were looking for someone to kind of step in at least interim while we have our interim dean. So they brought me in to help out for the next couple of years. Let’s talk about the litigation skills program. Because, like you, that was clearly the most enjoyable thing I did in law school, clearly the most practical thing I did in law school. In that, it, all of these things started to make sense to some degree, you know, you learned rules, and you learned this, and you learn that but was in a vacuum. And then all of a sudden, you went, Oh, wait, that’s how this works. So talk a little bit about the litigation skills program and what that takes students through.

So at the heart of it, I mean, you know, the lit Skills Program is an advocacy program. So we’ve tried to teach students how to how to really figure out how to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, kind of like, as you said, and they learn in kind of three different forums. So the main litigation skills class, and there’s a lot more to litigation skills than just the main class, but for purposes of our time here, so we have a lecture component, and then we have a pre-trial and a trial class. So a trial class, they’re learning the skills that every trial lawyer needs, you know, how to do an opening, how to do a direct examination, how to do a cross-examination, you know, how to enter evidence, and to know how to put documents and things into evidence. And then, and then in their pre-trial class, they’re learning like the nuts and bolts of how to take a case from beginning to end. And they work a case file the entire semester, in pre-trial while they’re doing these exercises in their trial class. And the culmination is and you’ve done this a bunch of times yourself, is we go down, together, and we have final trials at the courthouse. And so that’s a really exciting part of you know, the program is to have these final trials where we have real juries come in, that we bring in and they try a case which you know, who gets to try a Christ with no downside.

What and it’s funny because that’s what I tell all the students, you know when they get up, do Their final trial and it is I mean, that exercise, and so much credit, I mean, goes to Lonnie, and then Lydia who runs that program. So, so well, but what they do to bring in, and we’ve seen it evolve over the years, you know, we’d have two or three jurors, and then we, you know, now you’ve got eight 910 Jurors sometimes that show up, and to be able to get into a courtroom, oftentimes with a real judge presiding, because we’ve cut many of them that are part, you know, of the faculty, and put on witnesses. And then, and this is where I learned each time, they get to listen to the jury deliberate, which we don’t get to do in the real world, you know, you get to hear them talk in the feedback. And I just think it’s a tremendous, tremendous exercise for them. But yeah, I always commend them. And I go, look, it’s good news is no risk of being sued for malpractice at the end of this trial.

Right? Yeah. And I mean, that’s the extraordinary thing about it, as they actually get to hear what the jurors have to say, and get some fruitful, you know, feedback, which, you know, in the real world, you never, you never know what they do behind closed doors, which is also really interesting to see, you know, the things that jurors see on that, you know, when we’re putting on a case, like there are very often little things that jurors pick up, when you see this in these deliberations that didn’t even occur to you or wasn’t even something you were trying to impart, you know, like, it wasn’t something you were necessarily arguing. It’s just something they pick up on. And they’re like, Well, what about this, and you’re like, we didn’t even talk about that. But so that’s kind of an interesting part, I have to say, you mentioned Lydia Sanchez, and I have to say, the lid Skills Program wouldn’t be with what it is right now, especially without, without Lydia Sanchez, our Senior Program Manager, and we also have our paint, paint Penya. And not daily noon, noon, yes, we have a great team. And that’s really we all work together as a team. And it’s really an extraordinary program, and it wouldn’t be able to be done so seamlessly without you know, our team,

no question they are, they are the continuity that sort of drives that train and keeps it on the tracks and the standing job of, of hurting the adjunct faculty. And to me, that’s one of the things I think that’s appealing as, as a teacher, one, the interactions that we get with the other faculty members, but as students, when you look at it, just talk a little bit about the faculty. I mean, there are federal judges, there are state court judges, there are prosecutors, there are high profile lawyers. I mean, it’s, you know, it’s one of those, I look around and go, How do I get into this little club? Because it’s a pretty special club.

It’s funny, because my husband, former partner used to say, you know, how do you get to be part of the lit skills club? So yeah, it really is. It’s a, it’s a who’s who of Miami and really the whole pogrom program, you know, centers around our adjunct faculty, obviously, they teach the pretrial classes, the trial classes, there anybody in everybody you could possibly imagine this, who’s who in Miami, but more importantly, you know, these students get to interact with, you know, federal judges, federal magistrate judges, state court judges, appellate court judges, you know, local attorneys, former US attorneys, you know, just an amazing faculty that, you know, provide guidance, you know, information, potential, you know, career, you know, opportunities, and, and mentorship, which is really great, because they constantly, you know, have this interaction with these folks. And in very many times, and I don’t know about you, but myself, I have had ongoing relationships with some of my students, I’m still friends with my adjunct faculty members from a million years ago. So it’s really, you know, an amazing opportunity for a young and upcoming lawyers.

Well as, as am I, and it is funny, I mean, David Diehl taught me pre-trial, Judge Hawk was one of my trial teachers, you know, and he still teaches in the program. And so to see that and, and it was funny, it was nice to judge Huck was teaching some other programs called me want to know if I had some certain materials on things and everything else. And, and so yeah, the connections you make on that, and again, students, although and I stole this from somebody else, I won’t take credit for it. But what I tell my students last class of the year is I said, Look, you know, you’re going to go out now and you’re going to become practicing lawyers. And, you know, there’s a chance we may see each other and if we cross paths, always remember this. I taught you everything, you know, but I didn’t teach you everything I know. Okay. You know, I worry about that when you see them out there, because you’re like, well, they’re a lot smarter, and I was at the time. And so it is a lot of fun. And it’s a great program. And I think you’ve seen it and I’m sure now as acting director, you get it. The feedback in the community of looking to hire law students who in fact took litigation skills and took that trial program because it gives them that extra special skill set.

Oh, sure. They’re ready to hit the road. running, I mean, how many, you know, students do you get in that are, you know, first-year associates that have actually kind of tried a case, you know, and that’s a really extraordinary, but the one thing that I that it’s funny because most everybody focuses on what skills just for the trial aspects and the litigation aspects, but really, there are so many students that take lit skills just because of the oral at the casino component. You know, at some point in your legal career, whether you’re a litigator or not, you’re going to, you’re going to need to advocate for a position. And, you know, we teach students how to do that how to issue spot how to find a position, and advocate for it. And so you could use that as a transactional lawyer, as an on a board of director any, you know, think of all the things you’ve done in your legal career that doesn’t involve, you know, necessarily litigation, and how you use those skills, you know, as well that you learned as a litigator in that in that capacity. So that’s the other thing. That, you know, is really, really important, because, you know, we, we have a lot of students that come up that don’t necessarily want to be litigators, and then end up, you know, learning all these advocacy skills that they can lose down the line. We also actually one of our faculty members, former political students said, you know, lift skills, changed her career path. I mean, she started lit skills, not knowing, you know, what she wanted to do, and ultimately, led skills was what, you know, made her believe that she wanted to be a litigator, and then she went on to be a judge. So, but, you know, it really determined her career path. So it’s really an important program because it just opens up so many doors and opens your eyes to so many things, as

it really does. And I’ve had students that it’s fun to watch, because as the semester goes on, you see them sort of find their voice, you know, they didn’t have the competence, they didn’t think they could do those things. And all of a sudden, they started and they’re like, oh, wait a minute, you know, I can do this, and I enjoy it. So one of the other I think key components. And again, it’s something we don’t get to see and we don’t use in the real world is they videotape these sessions. And they have, they have non, you know, legal, they have theatrical people and everything else critique some of the students and again, just on the presentation, how they stand, what they do with their hands, you know, all of these things, that unless you actually see yourself on videotape, people can tell you things. But once you see it, you kind of go, oh, and so talk about that component of the learning process of being able to videotape these things, and then get reviewed with someone watching the videotape with

you. Right, so we have a video review of all their trial sessions. And they’re done by Jen Burke, who is the head of the theater department at the University of Miami, and also by one of our adjunct faculty members. So they get and then swap weeks. And you know, Jen covers the things, the theatrical things, how do you stand? What’s your tone? Is? Do you have inflection in your voice? You know, are you speaking in a monotone way? On You know, do you use? Okay, yes, oh, you know, like little tics that we can tweak, and learn to teach students to maybe take a pause, to take a breath to not have to struggle for every word, and then filler with things that make no sense. So we do that. And then also you have the adjunct faculty that goes with them, you know, goes through the videos with them and says, Well, you know, you could ask this a little bit better. Or you could do this way, or have you ever thought about maybe this is an issue in your case. So it’s really an opportunity to review. I mean, they get reviewed when they do in class,, they get a review, they get a critique right after they perform, but to see it later, and to be able to play it back, I think brings a whole different aspect to it. Because when you’re getting you to know when you do something, and right afterward, you talk about it, that’s one thing, but to see yourself on videotape, and then have someone say, you see when you did this here, you know, and so that really, you know, it’s a game-changer.

Yeah, it’s a tremendous tool. And, you know, as you work with students, and I work with students, that’s one of the things that’s critical is, is for them to find their own style, because you can look at great lawyers and great trial lawyers, and you can take bits and pieces, but it’s really not a skill, because to me, the genuineness of the trial lawyers is what has to be first and foremost, that jury has to believe that this lawyer believes in what they’re talking about. And if you’re mimicking, it’s hard to be that genuine. So, you know, taking these students and crafting them to say, you know, don’t do it, just like that was how would it work within your skillset? I think it’s a tremendous asset.

Well, it’s what you said they find their voice, so you can’t be someone else. I can watch someone do a direct or cross and go, Wow, that was fantastic. Does that fit into my wheelhouse? I don’t know, maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. Because there are certain things that I can do that other people can’t. And there are certain things that other people can do that I can’t, you know, so you have to really be true to yourself and let your own personality come through. So that’s, you know, that’s really important finding your own voice figuring out what you do because what somebody else does, may not, it might actually be awkward. Like, you can’t try to, you know, I can’t try to mimic David Heffernan because I’m not, right. So and it’s a big difference. You know, a lot of this has to do with how you present yourself, some of it has to do with, you know, your physicality, you know, if you’re, you know, a big person with a booming voice or a small person that may need to up your, your tone a little bit more, but it just, you have to figure out what works for you. And that’s what I think we’re really, really good at doing. Because, you know, between all of our adjuncts and the theatre department, we really work on these students to try and let them find their own voice, like you said, which is, you know, huge.

And it’s, and it is critical. I mean, you get into some of our state courtrooms, although I know, we’re building new ones, you know, and they’re kind of tight. So for a guy, my sides, I’ve got to be very conscious of, you know, not getting on top of the jury, or even not getting too much on a witness, I don’t want the perception that I’m beating up on the witness. So, you know, I might tone across your examination a little differently with that witness, whereas you being slightly smaller than I am, yeah, oh, come on. Yeah, just a tad, might be able to be a little more aggressive, and kind of in your face it all of those things. And again, until you see them until you’re told about them until you have veteran judges and lawyers saying, Look, you know, try this, and then they start to see their things. I mean, it’s just, it’s a tremendous, tremendous program.

Right? It really is. And you know, that the problems that we take them through are hugely important and doing that, because also it depends on who your witnesses, right, I’m constantly, I’m constantly telling the students like the one answer, that’s absolutely 100% true all the time. And litigation is, it depends. There are so many factors, right, you have a case, you could have the same set of facts, and have two different witnesses two different people play the witness or be the witness to different types of personas, right, and you would have to do, do what you do a little differently for each one, or maybe completely differently, depending on who your witnesses, right, if you have someone who’s, you know, shy or, you know, if you’re too booming and too up in their face like you said, then obviously, you come across as way too aggressive. But if the witness is super aggressive, then you know, you know, and you’re shy, and, you know, demure, that’s not going to work either. So that’s part of what they learn to because they do these practice skills with, you know, various different witnesses. So that’s a huge factor, you know, learning how to, to make those changes, and sometimes on the fly, because, you know, when you’re in court, you just don’t know all the time, sometimes, you know, rarely, but sometimes a witness comes in that you’ve never had the opportunity to meet. So, you know, you got to figure out how you’re going to approach that witness right then and there, you don’t have the opportunity to like have, you know, a steadfast gameplan, you know, so you

talked about being able to get back into the courtroom for the final trials this semester. I want to go back and sing the praises of Lydia a little more. And much like I think our court system did, but we had to go virtual. And that changed the dynamic of everything, but talk a little bit because, you know, it was a learning curve for us as adjunct faculty. But it was a learning curve for them. And, you know, you started to teach now, how to be an advocate. When you’re on a zoom call, you know, I mean, my students is like, hold on, you got to pretend you’re in court, you know, take off the polo shirt, put on a tie, you know, make your lighting, right. So talk about the difference now to start creating virtual advocates, which some component of that is still gonna be around no matter what.

Right? So, you know, we’ve been toying with how do we deal with that, because there’s always going to be some virtual components. So, you know, we did have a virtual section this semester, next semester, we’re completely alive. But what we are doing is, for instance, you know, for our trials, they the students do a pre-trial conference as you would in the real world, you know, you go to try a case you meet with the judge before you go to trial. You have a pre-trial conference. So our pre-trial conferences are virtual, and they’re going to remain that way. Because in the real world, that’s what would happen. You would have a pre-trial conference, you would go in you would meet with the judge. They do need you to know, you do need to know how to do that. Motion calendar for lawyers is is mostly, if not 100%, virtual right now, you need to know how to screen share, you need to know the technology, it’s very important, you need to know how to do your lighting, which I did a terrible job this morning.

Well, we grab your last minute

that I usually do that blocks the stuff that makes me look like a ghost, but that’s okay. But again, you’ve got to learn how to do stuff on the fly, right? So that’s kind of an important thing for them to do. And virtual is going to be around for a long time. So it’s something that we are incorporating?

Well, it was, it was funny because you and I had the opportunity in judging a final trial a semester or two ago, I mean, time just is now sort of obscured but where we watched that young girl, young woman do a closing with the screen behind her in the PowerPoint was now her background. And you know, her face and she moved around it. This girl we talked to her afterward, was terrified of public speaking and everything else. And it was one of the best closings I’ve ever seen. And I stole a bunch of the technology, because I’m like, that’s fascinating, like, the way she put that together. But in talking to her afterward, I don’t think she would have done the same had she been living in a courtroom, because she was much more comfortable with sort of that being in front of a camera and doing that and not otherwise. So it’s a fascinating dichotomy between the balance between these things.

Well, you know, a lot of our students, you know, are young and into the tech stuff, and used to being on camera, which I think our generation a little bit different. We didn’t have all the techie we didn’t have selfies and you know, all that stuff,

Polaroid cameras, come on, you could get a picture within like, 60 seconds.

Right? But so that’s a whole new dynamic. And so they really can step up to the game, you know. So that’s, that’s really important that you learn how to do that. The one thing I always caution is, if you’re gonna use technology, make sure it works. Because there is nothing worse than being in court and, you know, trying to use technology and failing miserably. I, fortunately, have not had that experience, because I bring someone to help me. So it’s like, I’m in court, it’s got to be like, no snafu is somebody else’s got to be sitting there pushing the buttons while you’re, you know, on your feet thinking and doing your thing, but not everybody has that luxury. So but you do need to make sure it works, right. So practicing is, you know, an integral part.

Well as, as do I cuz I’m like you I know a lot of words, oh, I got I want to push a button. I’m like, No, I want somebody there that can push the button and figure it out to make me look good. But even then, and that’s one of I guess, you know, you learn through trials and tribulations, but the trial practice, you still better have belt suspenders and a few other things. Because I had a guy there with technology I had an expert on and we couldn’t get the graphic up. Now I had backups of just, you know, small little grep. But at least I had something I could show him and show the jury, you know, and I, I got complimented by the judge afterward of she said, Well, you handled that really seamless, and I go well, not inside. I didn’t okay, you know, but you’ve got to have that backup and be ready for just about anything. And again, one of the things that these students can learn is, it’s also appearance sometimes, you know, I learned that as a young lawyer watching a guy was working for go sidebar came away smiling and whatnot. We went to break and I asked him, I said, Oh, that went well. He goes, I don’t It was horrible. The judge ruled against him everything else. I go, well, it looked great. He goes, I know. And that’s what I wanted to think that it all looked great. So again, more skill sets that are taught and litigation skills,

right. Never let them see you sweat. That’s right. Never a lot of sweets, you get a bad ruling. You just keep that you know, that poker face. And it’s really important. It’s important to learn that you know, and so you watch, not only students but when you watch real trials when you watch an attorney react to something going on in the courtroom in an unfavorable way the jury picks up on every single solitary thing they’re watching to see like what’s going on. So if you have a poker face, you know, sometimes things will happen that you think are horrific. And you just sit there and the jury never picks up on it because you didn’t chew them in on something that you thought was bad a witness says something that you think is horrible, and they don’t really pick up on it because you don’t react but if you react they’re for sure gonna know Oh, that was something really bad. They don’t know what it is. They’ll be like Oh, did you see your face? Yeah,

now Now let’s put some focus on it. You know it’s almost it’s that huge hesitation asking a judge you know to strike something that was said because then the judges frame it up again. Well, the witness said X does regard X, you know, you’re like, Okay, well, that didn’t work very well.

Yeah. Now they really highlighted the fact that you didn’t want that to come in. Right? Right. Can’t unring the bell.

So let’s talk about this. You’re obviously passionate about the practice of law, but you’ve always been and that’s why I was thrilled to see you get appointed as the acting director, while all the law school goes through several machinations at this point, but But what is it that makes you passionate about teaching?

You know, watching students grow and learn and seeing them develop, and then meeting them years later, and having someone come back to you and say, wow, you know, you really helped me, you know, you are really it was, it was, you know, made a huge impression on me. I mean, I think that’s invaluable. And I never really knew that it was something the teaching was something that I loved until, you know, I came to teach pre-trial, I taught pre-trial and trial, and let’s go. So, when I first started teaching pre-trial, I was like, wow, this is really great. I like that you get to connect with young students and kind of, you know, keep that youthfulness. And I have to say, you always learn something, as much as you teach, you know, you think you’re teaching a lot of times you’re learning as well. So, you know, the whole package is just really something that’s extraordinary.

100 100%. And I mean, to me, I take lessons away all the time from that, in watching and watching the jurors and watching the interactions and getting what works, what doesn’t so. So where now, while you’re at the rains here for a little bit, so where is let’s Gil’s going, I mean, what’s the next evolution? I guess? Maybe the combination of virtual and technological and how does that grow?

Yeah, so we’re doing, you know, the virtual thing, limited now because now we’re back in person, and we really want to teach those advocacy skills in person, but as I said, we are keeping virtual components of it. You know, we’re also trying to, like, do a little more, you know, get some of our adjuncts involved in the program in different ways. So maybe doing like short, like lunchtime seminars on topics that we can also let young lawyers who out first, you know, like young associates, as you know, who need CLE credits or something. So, we’re investigating, doing things like that, to have like some seminars that are sponsored by the Skills Program, and maybe a local law firm. So we’re looking to doing things like that, but let’s go so it’s more than just the main program because we also have a lit skills to the class. And we also do an externship program, where our students can become certified legal interns and practice in various, you know, and go literally work in various areas in the in, you know, in the county or even outside the county if it’s during the summer. And so, they become certified legal interns, they can work at the, you know, the State Attorney’s Office, the public defender’s office, you know, I think we have one student working at the Attorney General’s Office. So, they do, they go out and they literally work in the community. And, and in various aspects, they can actually speak in court, like, you know, whether with a supervisor, so it’s an extraordinary experience for students. So that’s one of the things that we do.

Yeah, I think the externship program is a tremendous benefit that those who can partake in it. Because again, what we’re seeing now is it’s just extraordinarily difficult for a young lawyer to get in front of a judge to get court practice to conduct a trial. It just, doesn’t happen. So, we’re going through those externship programs. And if you’ve got the ability to be able to go to the state attorney or the public defender and get in the courtroom, there’s nothing better for a young litigator.

Yeah, and, you know, listen is saying that, you know, that cases, not as many cases are going to trial, as, you know, as used to go to trial. So, learning how to, you know, or a, you know, for civil litigators, we have a huge motion practice. So, they learn that skill, too. So that’s hugely important. But yeah, cases aren’t going to trial as much. So, getting trial experience is huge.

No question. No question. And then of course, the best benefit of being an adjunct faculty member is the holiday parties, which isn’t your house this year. So, I can’t wait to see you in a few weeks at that and see everybody else. Jeannie, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Clearly, this is one I don’t think we’ve got to convince anybody to take you off the kill list. passionate, passionate, lawyer, passionate teacher, I think you’re done a tremendous job in the litigation skills department. And obviously, it’s something that’s near and dear to my heart. So, love to see it in your capable hands. Really appreciate you joining us this morning.

Thank you, David. Thank you for having me. Of course. Alright Jeannie director for the litigation skills department at the University of Miami. I’m David Heffernan and we’ll be back next week with another episode of First off let’s kill all the lawyers.