The Most Interesting Lawyer of the Week: DLA Piper’s Robert Sherman Teaches the Art of the Trial in Trinidad and Tobago

Mention Trinidad and Tobago, and most people conjure up images of beaches, palm trees, or perhaps the scarlet ibis, the island’s national bird. But for DLA Piper, the Caribbean nation is a reminder of a certain police academy, and some remarkable people working in it.

A Spanish colony from the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1498, Trinidad and Tobago was ceded to Britain in 1802 under the Treaty of Amiens.  And while the country obtained independence in 1962, much of its government is based in British law, including the practice of appointing police prosecutors.

“In the lower criminal courts – the Magistrate’s Court – much of the prosecution is done by police prosecutors, many of whom are not trained as lawyers,” explained Robert Sherman, a white collar criminal defense lawyer and partner at DLA Piper’s Boston office. “They are members of the police department who are appointed to serve as the prosecution arm for misdemeanors and other lesser criminal cases. But they are up against seasoned, trial-trained lawyers representing defendants. They have not had the training to fairly present the cases in the court.”

Sherman and several of his DLA Piper colleagues are working to change that. In collaboration with the firm’s international pro bono affiliate, New Perimeter, and the National Center on State Courts (NCSC), firm attorneys have visited the island to conduct multi-day training sessions on trial advocacy. The project is part of a justice reform program funded by the US State Department. Using a purse-snatching incident as a case study, Sherman and his colleagues mentored about 50 of Trinidad and Tobago’s police prosecutors on the different phases of a trial, including opening statements, direct examination, cross examination and closing statements. The main idea, says Sherman, is to teach the prosecutors to take a step back and consider the overall theme of the case they are trying to make.

“We talked a lot about developing a theory about the case. What’s the story they are trying to present? As a prosecutor, if you can capture that in your own mind, much of what you then do flows from that,” he said. “If your theory is that a young woman was walking home in the dark and was  attacked from behind, how does your case theme match up with what you’re trying to prove? We worked with them to learn how to synthesize a bunch of facts into a theory and then build that into a strategy in the courtroom.”

In May, Sherman, along with three of his colleagues from DLA Piper offices around the world, spent three days at the island’s police academy, facilitating a series of lectures and interactive exercises. In addition to learning how to build their own case, the police prosecutors also gained insight into strategies for the defense.

“When we’re doing a prosecution direct examination, we’ll have someone from the police department play the defense lawyer, and one of the DLA attorneys plays the judge. We’ll ask them to make objections and then we will respond to them as judges. It teaches not only the correct style of making objections – when to make them, when not to make them, when they’re over used, when they’re under used – it also teaches them the perspective of the defense lawyer. Being able to present the facts from the other side really helps you understand the building of a case theory. In the end, what you see over the course of the three days is this incredible transformation as advocates. It’s amazing to watch.”

The Trinidad and Tobago project is the second in a series of police prosecutor trainings the firm and New Perimeter have undertaken. The first took place in Guyana in 2011, and the firm is currently working with NCSC to plan additional trainings in the region. For New Perimeter, whose aim is to provide long-term pro bono legal assistance in under-served regions around the world, this work falls squarely within their mission, according to DLA Piper’s pro bono counsel Suzanna Brickman.

“We have several focus areas at New Perimeter, including enhancing access to justice, building sound legal institutions, and promoting economic development,” she explained. “This rule of law work is an exciting opportunity with a lot of impact.”

“DLA Piper has a really strong commitment to doing pro bono work,” Sherman added. “As a global firm, we have the resources to make an impact broadly around the world. The work in Guyana – and now Trinidad and Tobago – is the kind of pro bono project that speaks to our obligations, as lawyers, to give back, and to do it in a way that’s consistent with the global firm that we are.”