Spreading Justice

Steve Fury co-founded a volunteer group that helps coach trial lawyers in Africa

Published in 2014 Washington Super Lawyers — July 2014

Eleven years ago, Seattle attorney Steve Fury was asked to help teach a trial-skills program in Malawi. He got hooked.

The personal injury attorney went on to co-found Justice Advocacy Africa in 2010. To date, about 40 trial lawyers, mostly from Washington state, have paid their own way for weeklong trips to Africa, where they serve as trial-skills coaches for lawyers in Botswana, Uganda or Kenya. They also make substantial personal donations to help continue the work.

“We’re humbled by how accepted we are and how hard the Africans work with us,” says Fury, with Fury Duarte, who has also taught trial-skill workshops in Seattle and at the Gerry Spence Trial Lawyers College.

Many volunteers have served more than one stint, and JAA has a waiting list of attorneys eager to help out.

“It’s a huge blessing in my life,” says Mark C. Wagner, a Tacoma attorney who practices workers’ compensation and personal injury law, does a great deal of trial work, and serves on the board of JAA. “It’s really a lot of one-on-one stuff that we do.” Wagner has volunteered in Botswana three times and hopes to return to Africa this year or next. “It isn’t lecture; it’s get-up-and-try sort of stuff.”

Fury’s law partner, criminal-defense and plaintiff’s personal injury attorney Francisco Duarte, also re-upped after his first trip. “It was a remarkable and rewarding experience,” he says. He has made two training trips to Botswana and one to Kenya.

JAA president Fury returns to Africa two or three times a year, usually for a month at a time. He plans to train alumni to transition to all-African faculties at existing programs as JAA moves into new regions that have asked for training.

It all began in 2003, when Holly Hill, now a King County Superior Court judge, reached out for help teaching trial skills in Malawi. She and Fury had both taught for the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. While attending a conference in Tanzania, Hill spoke to a law professor from Malawi about trial-skills training. That attorney asked Hill to design a program for Malawi.

“They ended up with so many signups for the program that she needed some help,” recalls Fury. They recruited now-Chief U.S. District  Judge Marsha Pechman. Seven years—and several more trips to Africa—later, Fury and Pechman formed JAA along with Joel Ngugi, a Kenya native and then-law professor at University of Washington, now judge of the High Court of Kenya.

In the countries where the advocacy group conducts its trainings, the legal system is British-based and English is used in court. “There may be an accent barrier,” says Fury, “but there isn’t a language barrier.”

The system and the language are the easy parts. Much harder is changing a cultural perception by building respect for the legal system and convincing young lawyers that their skills really matter. Students in African law schools, which are for the most part undergraduate programs, generally don’t get to practice techniques for delivering opening and closing statements, direct- and cross-examination.

“I came back so much more excited about the teaching than I ever thought I would be,” says business litigator Harry Schneider Jr. with Perkins Coie, who is now on the JAA board. “Over there, opening statements are very, very rare. Even though it’s permitted under the rules, the judges don’t encourage it and the lawyers don’t insist on it. So one of the things we teach is that the value of the opening statement is considerable. By the time we leave, they say, ‘Gosh, I’ll never again do a trial without an opening statement for the rest of my career.’”

Wagner says, “We’ve also heard more than once, when we first get there, cross-exams like, ‘Isn’t it true, sir, that you are a liar?’ By the end, they’re trying to apply what we’ve taught them about storytelling.”

Students are given videos of their coached skill sessions, and the week culminates in a mock trial. 

At graduation, each student gets a certificate and a trial advocacy book. In a culture where tangible status is everything, says Fury, the certificates are significant rewards.

When Duarte looks back at his first visit, he says, “My perceptions of the challenges of teaching in a foreign country were completely off base.” In the end, he was struck more by similarities than by differences.

“We have the same human drama and the same stories that are being played out and disputed in courts,” he says. “There are certain vocal tics that we all have and things we do with body language that get in the way of communication.

“We are far more connected than we realize. People are the same everywhere. That’s what I’ve learned from the experience.”

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