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Accessing Your Potential: Accommodating Yourself in the Courtroom

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Accessing Your Potential: Accommodating Yourself in the Courtroom

Most trial attorneys aspire to exude a powerful courtroom presence. However, in reality, courtrooms can be difficult to maneuver—especially if you are young, or petite, or disabled. If you fall into any of these categories, the reality is that courtrooms may be difficult to navigate. Between steps, high lecterns, and jury boxes, the layouts of most courtrooms present physical barriers, which can complicate attorneys’ abilities to command the courtroom. 

However, there’s hope! Any attorney can be a powerful and effective trial advocate regardless of race, age, stature, or ability. The keys are the three P’s: Preparation, Previewing, and Presence.

Transcript

All right. Hello, everyone. My name is Nicole Saunders, and I'm here to talk to you today about accessing your potential, accommodating yourself in the courtroom. So just to give you a little bit of, um, overview of what we will be talking about today, let's talk about why this topic is important. Um, as you know, courtrooms are where justice happens throughout the United States, but they can also be places that can be difficult to access if you are a person with a disability, or if you're a person who is not necessarily familiar with how to navigate a courtroom or you're fatigued. These are all barriers that may come up when you're trying to access and navigate a courtroom. But you can employ the right skills. And with these skills, any attorney can command a courtroom regardless of your background, race, gender, age, stature, or ability. And this this presentation is all about learning how to do that. So this program is geared toward young attorneys, those who are looking to sharpen their courtroom skills. Um, regardless of your race, age, stature or ability, I myself um, under I practice in Florida and in Florida. I'm still technically a young lawyer. I'm under 36 years old. And, um, so these are some of the skills that I use, um, every day back when I used to practice law. And we'll talk a little bit more about that. Um, these are the things that I use to kind of stand out in the courtroom and to, um, access my best potential there. So the three P's that we will walk away with at the end of this are preparation, previewing and president's presence, um, to build credibility and to strengthen professional competence. Um, you also want to be able to combat imposter syndrome and adapt to diverse courtroom environments. And doing all of these things will help you to advance your career potential. All right. So a little bit of information about me. So currently I am an administrative law judge in the state of Florida. So Florida has something called the Division of Administrative Hearings. And that's where it's what we call a central panel of judges who preside over cases having to do with any issue where there's a dispute between a citizen of the state of Florida or a resident of the state of Florida and an administrative agency. So anyone who is licensed, whether it's a teacher, a doctor, um, another health care professional, anyone who's licensed by an administrative agency, um, can have their disputes heard at Doha. I work in a niche area of Doha that specifically focuses on the individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. And so those are all cases that arise under federal law, and they're either being filed by parents of children with disabilities or school districts against the parents of children with disabilities when they need a neutral hearing officer to come in and make a determination as to what should be done in a particular student's case. So before coming to Doha, I worked as a deputy general counsel at the Florida Department of Education, and while I was there, I served as a lead attorney for the State of Florida's Vocational Rehabilitation and Blind Services program. Um, but I began my career on the corporate side. I was a corporate associate at a very large, um, fintech company, and I then honed my skills in litigation, first as an assistant state attorney in county court, as well as circuit court and then an associate at a law firm where I worked in federal court. Um, and after leaving the law firm, I got an opportunity to clerk for a Florida Supreme Court justice. So I've had a lot of experience throughout my career working in diverse environments, and I've seen different types of courtrooms. Um, whether it's in the federal context, the state context, or what's very common today, the virtual context. Um, and so just to round that out, I also, um, like to volunteer in my community. I think it's very important, um, as a lawyer, whether you're a young lawyer or a seasoned, um, lawyer, to give back to your community, whether it's through, uh, pro bono work or through presentations. And so I like to do that and share the information that I've learned during my career with lawyers who are just starting out in the profession. All right. So just a quick disclaimer. This presentation is being provided for informational purposes only. And it's not meant to be construed as giving any type of legal advice. So if you have any specific questions about any types of, um, accommodations or your legal rights to certain accommodations, I would recommend that you reach out to another attorney who may specialize in this area. Um, the area of accommodations and Ada compliance is a field within the law, and it's a rather bustling field within the law. So there are numerous people you can reach out to to get that specific advice. But this presentation is all about giving sort of tips and tricks and ideas for how to accommodate yourself in the courtroom, because that's really important to advancing your. All right. So first of all let's talk about what we're going to be talking about today. First we're going to talk about identifying and quickly rectifying physical barriers in the courtroom setting. Then we're going to talk about understanding your rights as an attorney to an accessible courtroom. They're going to be a little bit different than you think. Um, I remember when I was researching this topic initially, I was quite surprised by the results that I found, um, as to what those rights actually are. But there are workarounds, even when there are some, um, barriers in place legally. Um, next, we'll talk about effectively communicating your accommodation needs to judges opposing counsel and courtroom staff and then how to utilize unavoidable, um, accessibility barriers as tools for effective presentation. That's probably one of my favorite parts of the presentation. Um, because it is, uh, something that I had to learn, um, as an assistant state attorney, how to use some of these things that were really can be huge barriers for my advantage. All right. So the first thing is, um, identifying and quickly rectifying physical barriers in a courtroom setting. So let's just talk about the structure of a typical courtroom. So a typical courtroom in the United States is going to you're going to come inside of the courtroom. You're likely going to enter from the back if you're not the judge. Right. And there is going to be seats on the right and seats on the left. Now, for most people who may not have physical disabilities, they may not think that much about the fact that there are more or less pews on both sides of the courtroom. But as a person like myself who uses the wheelchair, that is an accessibility barrier because I can't just sit anywhere in the courtroom, for example, I can't sit in the middle of the benches in the courtroom. I have to sit on either end of the courtroom, um, seat. So that's one accessibility barrier that I always experience when I came in. The second barrier that you will experience again, if you have particularly mobility issues, is the actual access to where the council sits. So the access where the council sits is usually there's a some type of a door, a door that usually flaps open and closed, but there's a door that blocks entry from the gallery to the front portion of the courtroom where the council sits. Another accessibility barrier, particularly if you're somebody who's carrying in a lot of documents. Um, that's just another difficulty with getting to the council seats. And then the most obvious, um, barrier is the bench. Right? Judges are sitting up high. Um, they are not necessarily, uh, going to be able to communicate with you if you are sitting down or if you're a person who's petite. This happens. I've seen this in both contexts. Um, I went to law school with people who were sometimes very short, and it would be very difficult for them to access the bench, um, simply because the judge is sitting up high in the way that the judge's benches are structured, is that it's meant for people who are of what would be considered average height, to be able to go up and talk to the judge without, um, the judge having to come down from the bench. So those are just some of the easy, quick, off the top of my head barriers to, um, accessibility in a courtroom setting. Okay. So here's what we just talked about. Um, so the podiums, um, the witness boxes, the narrow aisles in the, uh, gallery, these are all, um, barriers in courtrooms that are kind of baked in. You're even if you see a modern courtroom, you're not going to necessarily see, um, these barriers being removed. It's just the general structure of the courtroom. But the best way to think about this is a quote from a man named Roger Crawford, which is the being challenged in life is inevitable. Being defeated is optional. And so when you're coming into a courtroom, for example, and there may be accessibility barriers, so it may not be that you are a wheelchair user, it could be that you're a person who is blind or low vision, and you come in and you require, um, the use of a service animal or the use of a cane. It can be confusing. It can be difficult when you're navigating inside of a courtroom, knowing exactly where is a clear space to move forward toward, uh, where counsel's benches or where council seats are, or where the benches for the judge. These are all different kinds of barriers, and it's a skill to know what they are coming in. So it's very difficult to prepare for a presentation if you don't know what the issues may be. On top of having to research, right. Prep your witnesses, prepare all of your documents. This, um, understanding of the structure of a courtroom and how it could be inaccessible to you should be baked into your presentation. When you're thinking about, how do I want to present my case, think about these things. Just do a quick list in your head of, okay, what are some of the areas that may be a difficult thing for me to use when making a determination as to how to present my case, and this applies again to those who may have long term disabilities, like myself, or even people who've broken a leg or broken an arm, or are requiring some other type of physical assistance to navigate a courtroom, even if temporarily. These barriers would apply to you. So it's important to when you're going into a setting and preparing to present a case to think about what are some of these barriers that you may experience and how you want to navigate them. All right. So like I said, you want to anticipate barriers as you're coming in. I give this image of a maze because that's kind of what it can be like when you're entering into a new environment for the first time, particularly a courtroom. When you're nervous, you're presenting a case, you have your clients there, or you have your boss there. You have some people sitting in the gallery. At times, you have people sitting and your witnesses and all these things. There's so much going on. And so one of the best ways you can prepare yourself for this is to anticipate that there may be barriers when you come into a courtroom. So that's where our first step comes in. Remember I talked about earlier about preparing, previewing and presenting. So preparing part of that preparation is to anticipate that there will be barriers in the courtroom. The structure of courtrooms, physical courtrooms hasn't really changed in I don't even know how long, maybe since the advent of the law. Um, and so certainly has been adopted in the United States. So understand, courtrooms are going to be courtrooms and they're going to look the way they look. So what do you do when you're, um, facing these things? So you want to preview the courtroom. And so can I give a definition with the word preview is in the context of public speaking, which is what comes up often in the law. Is that part of what makes speaking so efficient is your ability to plan ahead when speaking about objects in our environment, planning ahead can be measured by a subject's ability to pre-process upcoming to be named objects before looking at them, right? So if you know what's going to be in a courtroom, previewing means, okay, I know when I come in, there's going to be benches, there's going to be seats, there's going to be narrow aisles. These are the things that I need to be able to navigate, and that will help you boost your confidence and give you more the ability to present a more assured, um, presentation. All right. Um, so the next step is that you need to know what your rights are to an accessible courtroom. And this is an area I would say to really lean in and listen closely. When I first started, um, practicing law outside of the state context. So I talked about how I worked at a, um, a law firm. We practice exclusively in federal court. Um, I was there during the height of Covid, so we really didn't have any live hearings. But if I had had an opportunity to do any live hearings in federal court, this next piece would have been very, very important to me. The Ada does not apply to federal courts. I repeat that the Ada, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was the law, passed July 1990 and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. The law that basically applies when people see ramps, places and elevators places and curb cuts, the law that established all those things, it doesn't apply to federal courts. Um, and so that's something that you have to know going in, is that there may be a very good chance that when you're going into a courtroom, it is not going to be accessible. And not only is it not going to be accessible, but you don't have the backing of the Ada to demand accessibility in the federal courtroom. And I know that sounds very counterintuitive, because it was really surprising to me. Um, even as I was doing research for this presentation. But that is something that has just not been established. Any rights to the Ada in a federal courtroom? But it does not mean that you don't have the right to an accessible courtroom. Rights that exist outside of the context of the Ada. So the Judicial Conference of the United States, which is the policy making body of the federal courts, has adopted accessibility guidelines. And the conference convenes just for some background information. It convenes every two years to consider administrative and policy issues affecting the federal court system. And then it makes recommendations to Congress for, um, legislation that should be applied in the judicial branch. All right. So in September 1994 and 1995, so about four years and five years after the Ada was signed into law, the Judicial Conference adopted a policy that required reasonable accommodations for trial participants and jurors with communication disabilities and access to the courts for all segments of the disabled community. So what does that mean? Trial participant and a juror? So as we know, um, people who are presenting um, cases, um, and the lawyers who are presenting the cases have the access have the right to access a courtroom to be able to present their argument, but that extends beyond just the individual person presenting the case to also to the jurors, because we know that everyone has a right to serve on a jury given certain parameters, unless you've been disqualified by, um, some type of conviction or something like that. Generally, everyone, um, who's an adult in this country has the right to serve on a jury. So it's important that there's a broad range of accessibility features available, again, not under the Ada, but under this guidance that the policy making body has put together. So under this guidance, um, there must be, um, free sign language interpreters or other appropriate auxiliary aids and services to litigation participants, including members of the jury. And you will see this. If you've ever gone into a courtroom and you've seen a person with earphones on when they're sitting in the gallery, there may be a few reasons why the person has the earphones on, or if they're sitting on the jury and they have the earphones on. There may be a few reasons. One of them could be because the person either is, uh, has maybe deaf or hard of hearing, and as a result of that may need, um, heightened sound or turned up volume to understand the proceedings that are going on. That's just one of the reasons where you may see things like, um, earphones in a courtroom. Also, under the guidelines, um, the federal courts must designate an office or specified individuals to serve as access coordinators, from whom participants in court proceedings may request auxiliary aids or services. So you will have someone who you can ask for the services that you need in order to participate in the hearing. If you are a trial participant or a member of the jury. You can um, they also have established specific procedures to which, um, requests for auxiliary aids and services must be submitted, um, ahead of time so that there's an opportunity for, um, the person to be able to coordinate those services. And they can also provide cart services. So that's, um, the real time reporting and the transcription services. Um, those again, for. Yes, for people who may be deaf or hard of hearing. But these days, I think a lot of us know that a lot of people benefit from, um, subtitles just the way that it is. So these are services that are available through the federal courts. All right. So here's a quick little overview of what I just said. I think it's important to provide this visual, um, for those who kind of need to see the step by step of it. So first and foremost, the Ada does not apply to um, state courts either. It doesn't apply to federal courts, and it also does not apply to state courts. However, many states have established their own accessibility procedures similar to the federal courts. So Alabama, for example, has established accommodations for requesting um a um request established procedures for requesting accommodations. Florida. My state has also done that. Um has also provided a grievance procedure. And Illinois, for example, has also created a manual for disability coordinators. Um, the ones you just talked about who are also available in the federal courts for organizing, um, disability related accessibility issues. The main point is it's very, very important to plan ahead. It goes back to that previewing that we talked about a few slides ago. If you know that you will be arguing in court or participating as, um, some other type of trial participant, right? If you are assisting, um, the partner of the law firm in preparing for trial or sitting in for trial, these are all things that you can do, um, that can provide you with, um, some understanding of what your rights are going in. And you need to know what you need. You need to know what you need ahead of time, because you don't want to show up to the court and be completely thrown off by the lack of accessibility. It can truly affect your performance. Because as we know, if you're preparing for something, you're in the trenches and you're digging deeply. One major issue can completely throw off your preparation, and accessibility can truly be traumatizing. Coming into an environment where you think you'll be able to navigate it and you can't can be completely derailing. So it's important to know ahead of time what your needs are. Be proactive and reaching out to whatever court you'll be, um, presenting in front of and inquiring about the disability accommodations available, whether that is a federal court or a state court, or if, um, you are appearing before an administrative body, such as the Division of Administrative Hearings or other, um, hearing officers. All right. So the next thing we're going to talk about now, I've told you what you have to do, right. You got to reach out ahead of time. You have to preview. You have to know what you're looking for and what you need in order to present your case and how to be comfortable in that environment. But how do you do that? Right? That's sometimes one of the most difficult portions is understanding how do you actually do that. So we're going to break this down into the different types of people who you will need to communicate your needs to. So we have judges opposing counsel and courtroom staff. All right, so I love this quote from Judy Heumann. May she rest in peace. She passed away last year, May of 2023. She was a huge disability rights advocate. She was someone who was, um, instrumental in the passing of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Um, which essentially made it so that any programs or facilities or institutions that are receiving federal funds, that they would have to comply with disability related um rights or accessibility, that they could not just receive federal funds and then refuse to accommodate. And so she was instrumental in getting that done. And of course, she was instrumental in getting the passage of the Ada in 1990. Here's a quote that she gave back in 2021 as part of her memoir, An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Advocate. Part of the problem is that we tend to think that equality is about treating everyone the same when it's not. It's about fairness. It's about equality of access. And that's really important in the disability context. And I'll tell you why. One of the things that I bring up as an example, the best way to explain why equity in the context of disability is particularly important is because the needs that an individual disabled person may have will change based on that person's disability. For example, when I worked at a large administrative agency in the state of Florida, there was a woman who worked there who worked with clients, and she was blind and she used a service animal, and that's how she was able to navigate the building. That's how she was able to navigate in front of the very busy street in front of our office. She needed her service animal with her. So for me, in order to be, um, able to work in that building, I needed access to elevators. I needed access to wide door frames. So I was able to actually get inside of the building. I needed zero level entry so that I wouldn't have to go upstairs in order to enter into the building per needs. As a person who was blind was very, very they were very, very different because she had full use of all four of her limbs. But what she needed was for the company to lift the, um, no animal policy to allow her animal to be able to come into the building. So that's why equity is important in the context of disability. One accommodation does not suit everyone's disability, and it's important that we are able to give reasonable accommodations to people. Not every accommodation. I think that's important to keep in mind that it's not every accommodation, but a reasonable accommodation for every person who has a disability to be able to do their job and that may be different based on what the nature of that person's disability is. All right. So remember that your your needs as a disabled person or as another person who again, for some reason needs access, whether it is a temporary disability such as a broken arm, a broken leg, um, some long term disability, um, that may be physical, but for example, we've heard more and more about people who have long term Covid, um, that may impact their ability to breathe. They never had before. Right. That may be a disability that has come up recently for the person. And it's important to know that those needs are unique and they will be different from the needs that I have. So the example that I give is, um, my own disabilities. I have something called paresis, which means that I have the use of my legs, but it's very, very minimal and I have full use of my arms, hands and fingers. So for some people that would be, um, basically, um, consider a person who is paralyzed, um, but just from the waist down. That's not actually accurate in my case, because I am not paralyzed. Totally. I'm totally from the waist down. But I because of my disability, I use a wheelchair full time. That means that when I practice law. Before I, um, became an administrative law judge, I needed help with certain things in the courtroom. So I needed help with, um, gathering evidence and carrying it around a courtroom. So for anybody who has ever tried a case or even watched someone try a case, you know that the process for admitting evidence is pretty intense. You have to show the evidence to opposing counsel. You have to show the evidence to the, um, judge. Then you have to show the evidence to the witness and have the witness identify the evidence before you ever publish the evidence to the jury. That's a lot of movement. And so when I would practice a particular assistant state attorney, I would have my trial partner help me in bringing the evidence around the room. That's a unique need that I had as a person who uses the wheelchair and has a specific type of disability that required that accommodation. Another thing would be approaching the bench. That's another challenge that I have because like I said, I would go up to the bench. But as we see, the benches are much higher than the rest of the courtroom. And so I could not have a sidebar with the judge. And so the judge would have to come down from the bench in order for me to make argument on any particular matter. Um, another issue is being seen during oral arguments. And this is an issue that's not just for people who are sitting full time like myself, but also for people who are of shorter stature, whether it's from a medical standpoint, a person who has some form of dwarfism, or of a person who just shorter than what the podium is. Um, you can be blocked. The podium can actually block the jury's vision of you, as well as the judge's vision of you, and you're not able to actually be seen. And the, um, purpose of the podium, which is to be able to retrieve documents quickly, um, and things like that, it just has no point for you because you can't utilize the podium. So these issues is important to remember the issues that I've described. Don't lie with me. They're not my problem. They lie with the inaccessibility of the courtroom environment. So if you go into it with the mindset of it's not my problem that the place isn't accessible, the place is inaccessible, how can I stop that from derailing the presentation that I've prepared? Instead of coming down in yourself saying, why can't I do these things? No. Instead, say how the courtroom should be more accessible. But if it's not, how do I make this work for myself? All right. So now let's talk about first category communicating with judges and courtroom staff. Three steps. Call ahead. Ask. Try. Call ahead. Ask and try. So first you want to call ahead or ask someone to call ahead and check if the courtroom is accessible. If necessary, define what accessible means based on your unique needs. The number of times I have reached out to a hotel, for example, and said, do you have accessible rooms? And they explained to me that they have rooms that are accessible to the deaf that is not accessible based on my unique needs, because I don't have any type of disability related to hearing, but I do have a disability related to mobility. So it's important to be very, very clear what you mean by an accessible courtroom. What are your unique needs, which goes back to the slide before people you've got to get very comfortable with your disability is or whatever your particular challenge is, and how to explain it in a clear way. It is not something to be embarrassed about. It's not something to sugarcoat. It is what it is. So be very clear about whatever your particular needs are, whether, again, they're temporary or long term, whether it is a broken leg, broken arm, um, an eye patch that may throw off your vision for a while, which may throw off your equilibrium and your balance. Um, if you are a person who may need, for example, um, you have some type of IBS which is irritable bowel syndrome. I mean, I'm just being honest. Um, there are more and more people who are being diagnosed with different, um, disabilities that relate to health conditions that may require you to know where the bathrooms are and very quickly, and to know if there's a bathroom that you can use that may not be directly inside of the, uh, outside of the courtroom. How far, um, is the bathroom from the courtroom? These are questions you need to just ask it. There's no way to put it other than you have to get comfortable with this. This is your life. These are your needs. There's nothing to be ashamed of. And you need to call ahead and ask about accessibility. If the courtroom is not accessible. As for virtual hearing, full stop. That is something that you, if you know you need something and it's going to affect your presentation, ask for an accessible hearing. If my motion explains what the virtual hearing is necessary in order to allow you to participate and remember your witnesses, too. So back when I worked at the Florida Department of Education, I worked as a deputy general counsel. We had different individuals who worked for the department for one reason or another and in one area or another, and they had disabilities themselves. And so when I would be inquiring into accessibility for a building, I'm thinking about the witnesses, too. Right? I'm thinking about can can they access the building? Do they need some type of sign language interpreter? Do they need some type of assistive technology to participate? Again, even under the federal guidance that we talked about a few slides ago, you do have you may not have the right under the Ada to a federal to an accessible courtroom, but you do have the right to reasonable accommodations, and that is for all trial participants. That includes witnesses. So call ahead. Ask what is the situation and what is the what are the accessibility accommodations? And if they cannot give you a straight answer or if there's any kind of confusion about that, um, definitely move for a virtual hearing. Judges are much more open to that these days because, frankly, people have adjusted to the virtual environment. If for some reason a judge will not allow a virtual hearing, um, try to go to the address and examine the room for yourself. Speak to a court staff beforehand and again explain your needs. I don't find that that would be a likely issue. I think that most judges are highly professional, and they understand that disability related issues are real, and some of the most impactful issues that a litigator or a trial participant may face. And so I don't believe you would have a hard time with that. But if for some reason you're running into a situation where the judge is giving you a hard time about a virtual hearing if it is feasible. Um, go down there and examine. Or if you know an attorney in the area, ask them to go down there, examine, take pictures, and give you an understanding of what the courtroom setup is. Um, carrying on with the effectively communicating your needs to judges, opposing counsel and courtroom staff. Remember, if all else fails, you do have the right to file a formal complaint. As we talked about, even with some of the states, there are grievance procedures. This is, however, your last resort if the court refuses to accommodate you. Again, the likelihood of this is very, very low. Judges are professionals. Their jobs are professionals. Courtroom staff are professionals. Um, the likelihood that they would say we refuse to accommodate you just because that's number one, it's ridiculous. And number two, it gets them in trouble. I don't see that happening. But if you find yourself in that position, examine your state, um, grievance procedures, or if you are representing a client or participating in a trial or a hearing in federal court, look into what those procedures are under the Judicial Conference. Remember that most, um, all federal courts and most state courts have rules regarding accessibility. And there I just provide you a link, um, for the administrative manual. Chapter three, General Management and Administration. And this is a guide to the judiciary and practices, um, policies and procedures. And the ABA also created a very helpful guide back in August of 2020, um, for understanding what the procedures are for accessibility in different courtrooms across the country. All right. Next. Opposing counsel. Next category of people. So the first thing again, this is going to be a theme throughout, but I'm going to continue to say it. Communicate your needs to opposing counsel. Opposing counsel one, two and three. If your needs are not obvious right. You want to make sure that the other side, your opposing counsel knows what those needs are. So for example, if you have a processing disability, we there are litigators. There are attorneys on trial attorneys who may have difficulty in processing information. For example, there are attorneys who may have autism and they may need additional time to process information. Reach out to opposing counsel. Ask them if you can examine the exhibits beforehand. Oftentimes, there's a filing deadline, so you should already have access to the exhibits. But if for some reason you need to physically hold them and go through them and understand what they're seeking to offer into evidence in order to formulate your objections or lack thereof, reach out to them, say, hey, I would like to be able to look at your exhibits ahead of time and often in the same courtesy, even if they don't have a disability, just to even the playing field. But it helps you to know when you're in court what exactly your position is on these exhibits. And so you're not if you're having a difficulty with processing or thinking on your feet, as we call it, that's a great way to work around that. It doesn't mean you're not a good litigator. It just means you need an accommodation in this particular instance. If you have a disability that affects movement, um, you can show your opposing counsel, your premarked exhibits before the trial or hearing so that, um, you don't have to approach them with them during trial. So, for example, for me, um, it would be physically difficult to carry a folder from table to table up to the judge over to the witness and then publish it to the jury. So sometimes before when you're just sitting there waiting for the judge to come in, arrive to the hearing 15 20 minutes early, arrive to the trial 15 20 minutes early, and show your opposing counsel your pre marked exhibits or best practice. Get with your opposing counsel a week or two before the hearing, or the um or the trial, and have a sit down and go through the exhibits together so that you're very clear about exactly what the exhibits are. And, um, if they have, they have any objections to it beforehand. And frankly, I think that they would appreciate that because it gives them an opportunity to formulate any objections they may have to, um, to these exhibits ahead of time. And it just helps to move things along. And I can tell you, speaking from the position of a judge, if the parties can come into the hearing and said, oh, we've already formulated what our objections are and what we stipulate to that helps everyone all the way around. So, you know, keep in mind that when you're asking for accommodations, for whatever the reasons are, they may have pay dividends outside of just, um, accommodating you. They may actually streamline the process of the presentation of the case and reduce the frustration on the part of all parties to the litigation. If the opposing counsel for some reason refuses to accommodate you. Again, this is a last resort type situation. You can ask a colleague from your office to assist. So, um, if you have a situation where the, uh, the colleague unis, your colleague somehow assists you in, um. Showing exhibits to opposing counsel beforehand, or in navigating a courtroom or in understanding what the exhibits are. Um, you can ask a colleague to assist. So they're just there's just in many different ways that, um, we can all help one another. All right. The next topic we're going to talk about is utilizing unavoidable accessibility barriers as tools for effective presentation. So it's important to understand where we are. As, um, the Supreme Court quoted in a case called Tennessee v Lane um, found at 541 US 509 531, 2004 unequal treatment of disabled persons in the administrative justice has a long history, a long history. Um, we have made tremendous progress. There is way more accessibility than there used to be. Um, even in my time as a lawyer, I became a licensed attorney in 2016. Um, and there are more accessible courtrooms now than when I even began practicing. So things are moving along and they're moving in the right direction. However, it does not mean that there are not still issues. For example, just in 2022, um, a little over two years ago, there was a record record number of lawsuits filed over accessibility for people with disabilities. So this is not something that is going away or has been completely resolved. Accessibility issues remain. Now, whether those lawsuits were successful, you know, that that bears, um, investigation because there are lawsuits that are filed that are ultimately not successful, but that tells you that the record number lets you know that, number one, people are being more aware of their rights. And number two, that people are willing to seek redress in the courts for violations of rights to accessibility. And sadly, most importantly, it tells you that there are likely continued issues with. So what is the point of me saying this? Don't anticipate that there will be accessibility everywhere you go. There will be barriers. It goes back to a point I made earlier. Understand that when you're going into an environment, there is a good chance that the environment will not be completely accessible to you. So keep that in mind when you're in your preparation. All right. So there was a 2015 study in New York City. So many people, when they think of places that will be extremely accessible, right? We think about Washington, D.C., we think about New York City on the, um, you know, places on the East Coast or certain places in California on the West Coast. You're like, okay, it would be really, really accessible, right? Certainly by 2015, understand, that is 25 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. And when the investigation was done by the New York Lawyers for Public Interest, they found substantial accessibility barriers that included lack basic things like lack of signage for accessible entrances and bathrooms. That's significant, um, that people don't even know where to go. Um, if they need to use the restroom, they're looking for an accessible bathroom. Separate entrances for people with disabilities. Yes, people. Separate entrances for people with disabilities into the building. And again, as a wheelchair user and a lifelong wheelchair user, I can tell you it's never more convenient than the, um, the inaccessible route. So if the stairs are at the front of the building, the ramp is in the back and and it's probably pretty far away from parking. Um, and so these are significant barriers that have real world impacts, because if you park somewhere and you believe that you'll be able to get into the building in five minutes, but you find out that the accessible entrance is two blocks away. And I'm not exaggerating. It has happened before. That will make you late for whatever you're working on. Um, and that will also throw you off oftentimes in your presentation. That's why going back to this previewing is so important. It's not just the courtroom, it's the entire environment for the litigation. It's important for you to know what you're going to be facing when you get there as best as you can. And frankly, if all else fails, in terms of the previewing and knowing where the entrances are, you can always use Google Earth and see if that can give you a better understanding of a street view of where the accessible entrance is. Another issue that they found were inaccessible courtroom entrances, council table, spectator seating, jury boxes and witness boxes. Witness boxes are so inaccessible. I mean, it's pretty shocking, but they continue to be inaccessible. Um, they almost always have a step. So these are just issues that have come up. And lastly, they also found lack of elevator or other means to bring criminal defendants in wheelchairs to the courtroom. And I will stop and pause on that. Um, as a former criminal litigator, uh, that is particularly disheartening given the fact that obviously, um, defendants have the right to confront their accusers. Um, and it is a concern that a person who uses a wheelchair, again, may be long term, may be short term, may not have access to an elevator, um, to be able to enter into the courtroom. Um, because of the proliferation of zoom hearings and the the ability of criminal defendants or any litigants to appear virtually, um, for a hearing, it has helped, I imagine. But, um, that's really important for the, um, confrontation. Right? The six minute confrontation. Right, that defendants are able to actually access the courtroom. But these are issues they found were not actually being addressed in New York City. So the point is, the inaccessibility is unavoidable, um, even in some of the big cities. I highly doubt that all the issues that were outlined by the the project have been remedied. And I can tell you from my own litigation experience in many states of this country, these issues have not been remedied and they remain issues. So what can you do about it? Right. This is the part that I absolutely loved when I was litigating. Having inaccessibility does a few things. That or encountering inaccessibility as a result of a disability. Um. Has a great ability to help you stand out in the courtroom. So one of the ways that I used to handle this was asking the judge to step down for sidebars. And it was a way to literally level the playing field. The judge would come off the bench. I'd never had an issue whether it was in county court, circuit court, any other environment where for the judge to come down off the bench and be able to, uh, have that side bar face to face. I never had an issue with opposing counsel either regarding that. Um, if you use a wheelchair, this was one of my favorite parts of it. Eye to eye contact with the jury whenever I would, um, present a case to a jury. I would be able to look them directly in the eyes. I wasn't looking down at them. I wasn't looking up at them. I wasn't looking at them from the side. I was looking at them eye to eye because I was sitting down. So that is an area where, yeah, you know, it may be a barrier. Um, the jury box itself may be a barrier, or the height of the bench may be a barrier, or the structure of the jury box may be a barrier, but it is also something that may be able to help you in presenting a good, strong case that is persuasive and effective. And if you have a visible disability, you draw attention throughout the proceeding whether you are speaking or not. Use that. So the best way to describe that is through my own experiences. So when I used to, um, practice criminal law as an assistant state attorney, I would have, um, cases where we would have something called voir dire, where it was jury selection. And so. When the jury comes in the room. Honestly, by nature, maybe because people aren't always that familiar with people with disabilities, people would look at me a lot during the voir dire, even when I wasn't speaking. And so the expressions that I made, I was very, very, um, cognizant of the fact that they're paying attention to me. They want to know if I really believe what I'm saying right now. They want to know if I'm being honest. They want to. All of these things matter, right? We want to believe that all decisions are made 100% based on the evidence. And in an ideal world, they are. But in reality, many factors may factor into whether a jury believes, um, the case that's being presented, whether it's from the prosecution or defense at a criminal proceeding or the defense or the plaintiff in a civil proceeding, a lot of factors come into play. And so I would pay attention, I would do that. I would pay attention to that. I would, you know, really be very intense if my, um, um, if my, um, um, trial partner was making a really good statement or doing a really good job, I would show approval and, you know, work that in my favor because I want the jury to know that I believe what I'm arguing right now. Right. And I believe that my my, um, trial partner is doing a good job. And so there's just things like that. Standing out is not always a problem. Frankly, it's a good thing, um, in the litigation space because it helps the case, the jury's attention, it it helps to keep them focused. And frankly, it also helps you to know if you're getting through or not. Um, I remember one of the trials I had, I knew that I was going to lose a juror because when I was making eye to eye contact with him. Right. Because I was sitting and he was sitting because he was a jerk, he wouldn't make eye contact. There was no reason to not make eye contact. Right? Your eye to eye. But let me know that. Wow, I need to do a little more persuading of this juror because it's not looking too good. He won't look at me in the face. Right. And so it's stuff like that that you just notice more when you're eye to eye with someone. Um, and that is just an effective way to utilize, um, your disability for your advantage. Again, whether it's temporary or long term or if you're a person who is of a shorter stature, whether it is from dwarfism or if it's just you're from a short family, um, all the ways that you can utilize these things, um, for your benefit. All right. So another area that I found really helpful when I was litigating was the fact that I could not use the podium. So oftentimes when attorneys go up to a podium, they only have a few things they can bring with them. Um, they can bring maybe a stack of notes they don't want to shuffle around. And the table is where all the preparation, right. Counsel's table is where all the preparation is being done. Right. So it's really, really helpful to be able to stay at the table when you're presenting your argument. And that's what I use to my advantage, because I couldn't use the podium. So I would stay at the table and guess what was at the counsel table? All of my notes, all of my exhibits, all of my questions for the witnesses. And so I could very smoothly look at the table. Present case, present my case. I didn't have to move around too much. Um, and that was really helpful. And what I found, um, pretty quickly, was that other people kind of caught on to that. If you notice now, um, fewer and fewer people use the actual podium to present their arguments. More and more people are presenting their arguments from counsel's table. Um, and, you know, I don't know why that is, but I would imagine that if you've seen enough people utilize counsel's table for preparing their arguments and presenting their arguments, um, and you realize it's actually super effective. That is something that, um, other people adopt and they realize it actually works. And it helped me to have a very smooth presentation. So that's the tip I would give. Regardless of whether you have a disability, if you are at all able to utilize counsel's table as opposed to the podium when you are presenting, whether it's an opening statement, closing argument, directing a witness, crossing a witness, arguing a motion, argue from the table. Argue from where all the evidence is. Argue from where all the exhibits are. Um, that's the best way to make sure that you are presenting a poised and confident presentation of the evidence in the case. All right. So let's talk about what accommodating yourself in the courtroom actually leads to. What are the benefits of knowing how to accommodate yourself in the courtroom. So I identified five big ones here. Um, from my practice experience. First, um, accommodating yourself in the courtroom allows you to build credibility with the factfinder. Second, it allows you to strengthen your professional competence. Third, it allows you to combat imposter syndrome, which we're going to talk about, um, for its beginning. It allows you to adapt to diverse courtroom environments. And fifth, it allows you to advance your career potential. All right. So let's talk about. Building credibility with the fact finder. So in my cases, I'm the fact finder, right? Because all of my my trials have been trials. And so it can be easier, um, to convince a judge right, of what you're doing. And the law is what should, should win the day at the end of the day. But, um, knowing ahead of time what your disabilities are, what your accommodations are, allows. You remember at the beginning of the presentation, I said, it allows you to focus on what's actually important to your case. If you're not being distracted by inaccessibility, you can focus all of your energy on. Preparing your case. If you are confident and poised and can clearly ask for what the accommodations are that you need, that builds confidence. If you are in a courtroom. For example, I loved one of my favorite things when I did, um, litigation. I loved moving confidently, moving the podium out of the way. I knew I didn't need it. I knew it wasn't going to help me. I didn't need it. So what it did was it helped the jury to focus on me, helped the judge to focus on me when I'm giving my presentation. And it built that credibility because it gave me the confidence to know that all that matters right now, as best as I can make it, is the case that I'm presenting not whether my disability is somehow impeding my presentation. So having that confidence, having that ability to accommodate yourself in the courtroom, allows you to build that credibility with the factor, whether it's the judge or the jury. It also strengthens your professional competence. It is very, very important to know what your needs are in a particular setting. It is very important that is actually part of your professional competence. If you don't know what you need in order to be successful in a particular environment, it will show. Everyone knows what it looks like for an attorney to be flustered. Flustered? It happens like we've talked about sometimes it may stem from disability. People may have processing concerns or challenges, but nobody wants to appear flustered, right? Nobody wants that. That may be something that may happen, but you don't want that. So when you're going into an environment and you know how to accommodate yourself, you know, I've already previewed, right? I know what I'm supposed what's going to happen, what barriers I'm going to encounter when I get there. I know how I'm going to accommodate my ability to handle those barriers. That increases your professional competence, because you're going into the environment with a certain sense of confidence and an understanding of how you're going to utilize every portion of that courtroom to benefit you and how you present your case, it truly builds confidence. I speak this from personal experience, coming into an environment and accessible and making it accessible for you gives you command of a courtroom, and it reminds you that this is your case and you are going to present it to the best of your ability, and that's what matters. That's why it's so important to know ahead of time what you need. Reach out. Be confident in the accommodations you are requesting. Know what you need in order to be successful, and then go into the environment knowing that you've done everything you can to make the focus of the case, the case, and not any accessibility barriers that may come up. So in my own experience, um, it helped me to be a better lawyer, frankly, knowing how to navigate a courtroom and how to make it accessible to myself again, whether that was removing podiums out of the way, presenting from counsel's table, making direct eye contact with the jury, asking the judge to come down off the bench, all things that gave me confidence and gave me better confidence in how to present my case. Combating imposter syndrome. So there have been many studies that talk about imposter syndrome. And so just as a quick overview as to what that is. Imposter syndrome is when you're in an environment that you just believe you don't belong, that and that, um, you will be found out as a person who doesn't belong there. Right? That really? Yeah. You've gotten through the process of college and law school and the bar and and you're working somewhere, but somehow, some way, you don't really know what you're doing and someone's going to find that out. That is an issue that happens to people regardless of race, gender, disability, anything, age, anything is an issue that people deal with in the professional context. I will tell you from personal experience, if you go into a room and you go into a courtroom and you know how to navigate it, you are not going to feel as out of place. There's no better way to put it than that. You will feel more in command, more in control, more, um, ready to present your case and less likely, less like you are pulling one over if you know when you're going in there that I know how to navigate this space. I know how to present the best case that I can. I know how to argue this the best way that I can. It will help you to combat that because you can't be, um, afraid and moving podiums around. You can't be afraid in asking a judge to come off of a bench, right? Eventually you get to the point where you're just knowing that I'm doing this. I'm asking the judge to come down because I have something to say. I'm directly looking at the jury because the arguments that I'm making are convincing. I'm moving this podium out of the way because I don't want to distract from the great case that I have. And the more you do that, the more you feel like, yes, I belong here. The best way I can tell you to do it is to just do it. The more you do it, the more confident you feel doing it, and the more you feel like I actually belong where I am. I'm not pulling one over. I'm doing these things because I know what I'm doing and I'm very good at what I'm doing. It helps you forth to adapt to diverse courtroom environments, like I said. Courtrooms are unique these days. While the structure of the courtroom has not changed much in a very long time, how cases are presented has changed, particularly with the advent of virtual hearings and hybrid hearings. So if you know how you need to be accommodated in a virtual environment, it will help you also know how to be accommodated in a physical environment. So if your disability, for example, the best way to put it, your disability for example, requires you to have headphones or a cart services. Right. That um, to understand what's being said or to hear what's being said that would translate in a virtual environment, right, to making sure that you have subtitles. So the accommodation that you need in one environment may bleed over to the accommodation you need in another environment. And so if you know what you need and you know what your needs are, then no matter what environment you're in, you can quickly assess whether those needs are relevant to this environment or whether you don't need that accommodation in a particular environment, and that gives you greater confidence. So for me, again, going back to what I was saying before, my needs are specific to a physical courtroom environment, a virtual environment. I don't have those particular challenges because the navigation of the courtroom is not a problem. But for example, if you are blind or low vision, that would apply regardless of whether you were in a physical courtroom, and you need the use of a service animal or a cane, or if you're in a virtual setting and in the virtual setting, you need objects enlarge, for example. Or if you need a screen reader that will if you know what your needs are and you're very clear as to what your needs are, it doesn't matter if you're presenting in a physical courtroom or in a virtual environment, you are able to adapt to that diverse courtroom environment relatively quickly and know what questions to ask, because you know what your disabilities are and you know what the needs are that you have. That's why it's so important to accommodate yourself in a courtroom setting. Last, um, is about advancing your career potential. So as you saw from my biography, I, my my career has gone in a very particular direction. And I will tell you this, the way that I've been able to go up, up, up in my career, a lot of it has to do with some of the tips I'm giving you today. If you know how to what your disabilities are, you know what your strengths are. You know what your weaknesses are. You know how to accommodate yourself in a particular environment that will show regardless. During when I first started presenting for the Division of Administrative Hearings, I did not have a single in-person hearing. So the skills that I had learned in the trial setting when I was an assistant state attorney pre-COVID, really, um, did not apply post-Covid because I was sharing screens. I wasn't actually physically showing evidence to the parties in a particular case. Right. But because I knew what my needs were in the other environment, I was able to adapt and confidently adapt into a new environment. Same thing, for example, the example I've given, but I think it's probably one of the best ones, is a person who is blind or low vision. If you know what your needs are in a physical courtroom environment and you know what your needs are in a virtual courtroom environment, it really doesn't matter what environment that you're in, you're going to be able to perform well. And because of that, some of the things that may trip you up in other situations, if you were treating accessibility and asking for your needs to be accommodated like something you were dreading, it's going to impact how you present your case. It's going to impact whether you go ahead and make sure that things are accessible, and that will impact whether you do well or not in a particular case, which impacts your ability to advance in your career. So take it from me personally, knowing what my needs are, being very comfortable with those needs are being very clear about what those needs are, and learning how to adapt to the different environments has directly impacted my ability to advance in my career. And so that is the end of my presentation today. Um, I just want to remind everyone that it's important to keep in mind that the disabilities you may have, or the stature you may have, or your age or your gender or whatever you believe is some barrier to your ability to be successful in the courtroom setting. It does not actually have to be a barrier. Know what these challenges are, know what the perceived weaknesses are and learn how to work around them and accommodate them so that you will be able to be a confident, poised litigator and advancing your career knowing that you know exactly what you're doing.

Presenter(s)

NSJ
Nicole Saunders, JD
Administrative Law Judge
Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH)

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