Stephen Kolodny talks to Family Lawyer Magazine about the Houston Family Trial Institute and giving back by training lawyers to be the best they can in a courtroom.

Stephen Kolodny, Family Lawyer

Can you give us a brief overview of the Institute? What it is, what is its purpose, where and when it is, etc.?

What has become known as the Houston Family Law Trial Institute is held in mid to late May each year.  Several years ago we moved to South Texas College of Law, the premier [in success] trial advocacy law school in the country and a hi-tech facility which makes our program go very smoothly.

Why do we do it?  The faculty, which consists of what some people consider some of the best family law trial lawyers in the country, believes that we “owe” the family law legal community some “give-back” by training lawyers to be the best they can in a courtroom.  We know that enhancing those skills will also make them better at overall representation of their clients and better able to resolve cases in alternative dispute ways when other lawyers acknowledge their trial skills and courtroom abilities.  Making better lawyers is our goal.

It will take place this year, 2013.  The program will be held from May 18-25 for the “Regular Program” and the Advanced Program on business valuation will be from May 20th to the 23rd.

The Regular Program is an intensive 8-day program, ending with an actual trial in a Houston courthouse. The Program consists of “on your feet” presentation, critique, and instruction, with lectures and demonstrations by respected Family Law trial lawyers from around the country.  Classes are limited to 6 persons, generally with 2 instructors in each classroom.  Critique, comment, and instruction, with demonstrations of how to fix your issues, are done on the spot.  Each “performance” is video-taped and the “student” then has a private video review with a different faculty member, where more personal suggestions may be made.  All videos, including the one done at the trial, are provided to the “student” after the Institute is concluded.  Check our website,  www.familylawtrialinstitute.com, for more detailed information.

We are fortunate to have Roger Dodd teach cross-examination techniques and strategy each year, something he is willing to do because he recognizes the importance of this training and skill development.  I believe I, and most of our faculty, have been involved in the training of over 1100 lawyers over the years, many of whom write us in the months and years after the Institute telling us how helpful the skills they learned and practiced in Houston have helped them in their trials and the overall management of their practice and lives.  We do it for the “give-back”; none of the faculty are compensated for their time, and this is all volunteer work. This would equal about 1.5 million dollars in services donated to the cause.

The Institute is clearly very personally important to you. Can you tell us why?

I have been involved in the Institute for about 27 years, initially with the ABA and then, after some issues with the ABA where virtually the entire faculty resigned, with our own training institute which we started ourselves.  Our faculty has remained very constant, and we are very experienced in this teaching technique which deviates from that taught by NITA.  We believe our method works better for our “students” and the way we teach.  The entire faculty believes it is very important to help train lawyers for the courtroom and the intensity of trial.

In today’s world, real trials are not that frequent and it is harder to develop those skills that we, the faculty, have been able to develop in our earlier years.  I, and other members of our faculty, have been fortunate in the development of our practices and the opportunities to try many complex cases, honing our skills and techniques along the way.  We all participate because we feel the need and desire to “give back” to the profession, to help lawyers who want to be better trial lawyers, or just enhance their trial skills and way of approaching and analyzing cases.  We provide an atmosphere of learning and developing skills that would not otherwise be available.

Who typically attends the Institute? New attorneys, experienced attorneys, or both?

Our “students” have ranged from a 25 year practitioner who is in in the AAML to a woman who had just finished her second year of law school.  Most are lawyers who have been in practice 2-12 years.  The “students” are evaluated on their experience and we set up 7 classes of 6 students each year, trying to group people of comparable skill levels, adjusting in the early days if we find we have made an error in grouping.  We have found this is the best number of overall “students,” and the best class size for maximum teaching benefit which allows the participants to best develop relationships of long duration with each other.  We have found that the participants, particularly those in the same class, develop career-long relationships.

What do family lawyers report as the benefits they receive from the training?

Partners from large firms say 8 days with us in Houston is the equivalent of 5-7 years of actual experience, and actual “students” report their immediate success in trial using the techniques and skills we teach.  Faculty members have had occasion to co-counsel with some of our former “students” and experience their greatly enhanced skills.

Can you give us any more details on the upcoming course?

This year, the program is from May 18-25, 2013, at the South Texas College of Law.  We have special arrangements with the Four Seasons Hotel, which is 1 ½ blocks from STCL, and other hotels that are also close by.  We have been sold out every year.

Our Advanced Program is already sold out, but often the waiting list is cleared.  The Advanced Program is usually limited to 4 people, as it is this year, but we are considering expanding it to 6 “students.”  If anyone is interested, they should contact our Administrative Liaison, Ben Santillian, at bsantillan@stcl.edu.

Our website has more detailed and specific information about the Institute, including identification of the entire faculty which presently includes at least two sitting Family Law trial judges and one Supreme Court justice who had previously been a Family Law trial court judge.

If someone is interested in attending our institute, I suggest they register early as we sell out very quickly and do not expand the classes in the Regular Program, nor do we add classes.  We have found this to be the correct balance for the maximum benefit of our “students,” and this is not an aspect of the Institute that is open to change.

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Stephen Kolodny is a family law trial lawyer, and the Managing Partner at the firm of KolodnyLawGroup Beverly Hills, California.  His long list of accomplishments includes being the recipient of Boston University School of Law’s Silver Shingle Award for Distinguished Service to the Profession and being a Founding Diplomat and Executive Vice-President of the American College of Family Law Trial Lawyers.  He is a faculty member of almost 20 years at the Houston Family Trial Institute. www.KolodnyLawGroup.com