Find this feature and more member news and profiles in the October edition of Trial Briefs, available exclusively to NCAJ members.
Ben Hiltzheimer is the founder of Hiltzheimer Law Office, PLLC, with offices in Raleigh and Durham. From 2006 to 2011, Ben was employed as an attorney at the federally funded Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. His tenure there included two years in a targeted litigation role focusing on complex forensics and systemic criminal justice issues in partnership with the Innocence Project.
In his capacity as a trial attorney at the Public Defender Service, he represented indigent individuals charged with felonies in the District of Columbia, from their initial appearance in Superior Court through trial. Ben earned his law degree from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is a member of the 10th Judicial District Bar Association and the National College for DUI Defense. He lives with his wife and three children in Durham.
What attracted you to criminal defense work?
I’ve thought about this question over the years and I have at least three different answers.
On one hand, I started out specifically as a public defender because I wanted to stand in the shoes of the marginalized and push back against the substantial power of a government that often oversteps its bounds, particularly with respect to minorities and the poor. It was that disparity that first attracted me to this fight, from a core belief that one’s rights shouldn’t be a function of race or socio-economic status.
As I got into the work and it became less abstract, another guiding principle that evolved for me was the more general belief that people shouldn’t be judged solely on the darkest moments in their lives – which is often where I meet my clients for the first time. The system tends to view individuals through the narrow lens of a single act, and part of my job as a defender is to put those acts into the context of an entire human life, with hardships and struggles and often a complicated and tragic story to tell.
by Vernon Sumwalt, 2019-2020 President of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice
Trial lawyers are losing the ability to try cases.
Yes, you heard me right. The president of the NCAJ, formerly called the NCATL (remember what the “TL” stood for?) just said that.
Now, I’m not the first to say this. U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Anderson’s Where Have You Gone, Spot Mozingo? A Trial Judge’s Lament Over the Demise of the Civil Jury Trial, 4 Fed. Cts. Law Rev. 99 (2010), expressed concern about the decline of civil jury trials almost a decade ago. North Carolina’s own federal bench has said the same about federal criminal trials. See Conrad, Robert J. & Clements, Katy L., The Vanishing Criminal Jury Trial: From Trial Judges to Sentencing Judges, 86 George Wash. L. Rev. 99 (2018). Why are trials running the way of the dinosaurs? Fewer jury trials means fewer juries. Fewer juries means fewer guards left standing on the last line of our Constitutional system of defense, where our Founders put 12 representatives of our communities—the only unelected ones under our Constitution—to protect the shores of justice from the erosion of popularity, power, and indifference. There are a ton of excuses for this decline: arbitration (and ADR in general), sentencing guidelines, increasing costs of litigation and extensive discovery, inexperience of new lawyers, risk aversion of old lawyers, risks of conviction, dispositive resolutions, the list goes on. Abraham Lincoln, who is said to have tried over 3,000 cases in 25 years as a trial lawyer—about 120 trials a year—didn’t have these obstacles. Neither did most trial lawyers just 30 or 40 years ago.
We, as trial lawyers, cannot excuse this trend to end trials, or else we will lose our Constitution. What’ happened? What can we do to fight back? This is the task of trial lawyer groups — NCAJ included —t oday. To revitalize trial, rebound from this loss, and rebuild our last line of defense for Constitutional integrity. This is our destiny. Who trial lawyers are meant to be.
So, if the hair on your neck stands up or your heart starts to race when I say, “Trial lawyers are losing the ability to try cases,” then good. Very good. It’s time to fight back. We need the fire in your belly to throw NCAJ into hyperdrive to train new trial lawyers. We need you now.
Things are moving at light speed at NCAJ. While gradual, our CLE offerings launch into the realm of practical trial skills on Thursday, September 26, 2019, when William Goldfarb conducts a seminar with two live focus groups in Charlotte. We have a depositions course planned in January 2020 to tackle North Carolina-specific practices and black letter law. Meanwhile, we welcome Mark Kosieradzki to our Sustainer Summit at the Grove Park Inn in October. Koz is a national expert on 30(b)(6) depositions and countering abusive discovery tactics. NCAJ is test driving its first applications for its new focus group program before we open the doors for everyone’s consumption. Our listservs and moot court participants continue to debrief their experiences and share takeaways, so others can experience the ride as close to a “real life” driver’s seat as they can be. We are building better trial lawyers totry cases like they have nothing to lose, because all we have to lose is time.Because the fear of loss holds us back from being who we are and what we are meant to be.
We are trial lawyers.
Vernon Sumwalt is the 2019-2020 President of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice and a partner at The Sumwalt Law Firm in Charlotte. Sumwalt is a North Carolina State Bar Board Certified Specialist in Appellate Practice and Workers’ Compensation Law and has served in numerous leadership positions for both the NC State Bar and NC Bar Association’s workers’ compensation committees and sections.
CARY – Judges and attorneys discussed pervasive gender bias and the possibility of a new CLE requirement that would address matters of inequity – among many other topics – at the inaugural North Carolina Advocates for Justice Diversity & Inclusion Conference Sept. 20 in Cary.
told the crowd of about 50 attorneys that she is concerned that the gender bias
she encountered when she began practicing law in 1988 persists. She recalled
that she would often find herself in a rural N.C. county trying to persuade
others in the courtroom that she was a practicing attorney and not the court
reporter or a legal assistant.
thought that since that was over 30 years ago, that it doesn’t happen anymore,”
she said. “But I have recently heard stories from younger female attorneys who
have had to pull out their bar cards to convince either a sheriff’s deputy or a
judge that they really are an attorney.”
audience members recounted similar instances, and one suggested that the N.C.
State Bar adopt a requirement for a CLE that addresses such issues.
agreed, and pointed to Maine, which requires one annual CLE credit hour that is “primarily concerned with the
recognition and avoidance of harassment and discriminatory communication and
said she had thought adding a program like the diversity and inclusion
conference would be helpful.
all learning more technology as a result of being required to do it,” she said,
referring to the N.C. State Bar technology CLE requirement that became
effective this year. “I see no reason why we couldn’t be required to be
focusing on the fact that racism and sexism still occur in the courtroom far
responded to an attendee’s comment that a new CLE will not necessarily change
hearts and minds by recommending that leaders in the profession call out
instances of bias when they witness them.
is no reason in this day and time that we shouldn’t be bold,” she said. “If we
sense it and believe that it has occurred, we should take just a moment to
address it right then because unfortunately, there are still a number of people
that simply don’t see it. It’s a little difficult to think that’s true, but
they don’t seem to.”
said that when a lawyer decides to speak up about an instance of
microaggression, it is actually giving that person a gift.
are saying that you are invested in them, that you are invested in them being
better citizens of our community,” she said. “They may decide not to take advantage
of the gift that you’re giving them. And you have to let that go if they don’t.”
conference grew from the work of the NCAJ’s Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, now a committee, which
appointed Greensboro attorney Karonnie R. Truzy as NCAJ’s first diversity
officer in 2017. Truzy said the event was part of the committee’s ongoing
commitment to bring awareness to the NCAJ’s need for diversity in programming
thing we really had to get past was getting people to understand that there’s a
need for this,” he said. “Now, we have not only an awareness but an intentional
effort to make the organization more diverse and more inclusive.”
to the panel, the conference included presentations from nationally renowned experts
Lisa Coleman, Chief Diversity Officer for
New York University, and Sybil Dunlop, of Green Espel PLLP in Minneapolis, who spoke
on implicit bias in the legal profession and ways to confront it.
Carolina Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita S. Earls, North Carolina Court of
Appeals Chief Judge Linda M. McGee and Judge Ashleigh Parker Dunston of the Tenth Judicial District will
participate in a judicial panel discussion on the importance of diversity in
the legal profession and the judiciary. Lisa Coleman, Chief Diversity Officer for New York
University, will deliver the keynote address, and Sybil Dunlop, of Green Espel PLLP in
Minneapolis, will speak on implicit bias and diversity. See schedule below.
SCHEDULE FOR FRIDAY, SEPT. 20
1 p.m. Welcoming Remarks and NCAJ Diversity & Inclusion Annual Report: Kim Crouch, Executive Director, North Carolina Advocates for Justice
1:15 p.m. Keynote: Lisa Coleman, Ph.D. Chief Diversity Officer, New York University
2:15 p.m. Judicial Panel Discussion with N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita S. Earls, N.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Linda M. McGee, Judge Ashleigh Parker Dunston, Tenth Judicial District
3:30 p.m. Implicit Bias and Diversity: Sybil Dunlop, Green Espel PLLP, Minneapolis, MN
About NCAJ A nonpartisan association of legal professionals dedicated to protecting people’s rights, the North Carolina Advocates for Justice provides continuing legal education aimed at enhancing the quality of the legal profession, works to improve access to the legal system, and advocates at the state legislature in the areas of criminal and civil justice.
Supreme Court Amends Secure Leave Policy At Urging of NCAJ, Women’s Caucus and Partners
RALEIGH — The North Carolina Advocates for Justice offers its congratulations and thanks to the N.C. Supreme Court for its decision to make parental leave available for attorneys practicing in state courts. Chief Justice Beasley announced the rules changes at a press conference in Raleigh today. Kim Crouch, executive director of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, spoke following Beasley’s announcement.
“We are happy and encouraged by the Court’s decision to amend this rule,” Crouch said. “It will advance the well-being of attorneys and their families during one of the most significant stages of family life. In turn, clients will be provided better representation. It is a positive step forward and a necessary change for all members of the North Carolina State Bar who wish to remain active in the practice of law.”
The Supreme Court amended Rule 26 of the General Rules of Practice and Rule 33.1 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure during its conference on Sept. 4. The amended rule makes it possible for North Carolina attorneys to designate up to 12 weeks without court appearances within the first six months after a child is born or adopted.
Members of the NCAJ, its Women’s Caucus and other supporting legal professional groups proposed the Secure Leave Initiative to the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism in February. The previously existing rule, which guaranteed attorneys just three weeks of secure leave per year, meant that parents with newborns or newly adopted children could be called to appear in court within a few weeks or even days after the birth or adoption. The NCAJ and its partner organizations argued that this did not allow enough time for parents and children to recover and bond, harming the child, the lawyer, and the lawyer’s family and clients.
NCAJ President Vernon Sumwalt joined Crouch in congratulating the Supreme Court on its decision.
“For lawyers who are parents, access to the parental leave they need to bond with their newborns and newly adopted children goes a long way to support the goal of making the legal profession a sustainable, long-term career path,” he said. “This policy also puts the opportunity to become a trial lawyer – or to continue a career as a trial lawyer – within the reach of a greater number of attorneys.”
In addition to extended parental leave, the new rule urges those in charge of court schedules to bear in mind the uncertainty that can surround a child’s birth or adoption date: “The superior court or district court scheduling authority must make reasonable exception to these requirements so that an attorney may enjoy leave with the child.”
Partnering with the NCAJ and its Women’s Caucus on this issue were the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, North Carolina Association of Defense Attorneys, North Carolina Association of Women Attorneys and the N.C. Attorney General’s Office.
The North Carolina Advocates for Justice is a nonpartisan association of legal professionals dedicated to protecting people’s rights. NCAJ provides continuing legal education aimed at enhancing the quality of the legal profession, works to improve access to the legal system, and advocates at the state legislature in the areas of criminal and civil justice. The third-largest Trial Lawyers Association (TLA) in the nation, NCAJ has served its members for over 50 years.
by Vernon Sumwalt, 2019-2020 President of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice
John Muir’s finish to his call to understand our world fits NCAJ’s fun this Fall. Right after writing “the mountains are coming and I must go,” Muir added, “I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.” We all do this, and our Sustainer Summit will give us tons of takeaways to take our trial skills to the next level.
NCAJ started Mountain Magic in 2003 for higher-level contributors to our organization. Although “Mountain Magic” is a great name, we needed to metamorphose this year, if only to mark a new conference format at our old favorite, The Omni Grove Park Inn.
Returning to the conference’s original intent of investing in our Sustaining Level members (Leaders Forum, Circle of Advocates, Presidents Club, Benefactors, Sustaining Patron, and Patrons) will, we hope, give a great big “THANK YOU” to those who take their investment in NCAJ to the next level. And the next level really isn’t out of reach. The lowest cost for a Patron-level membership is an increase of $475.00 from a regular membership for lawyers practicing over 10 years or, looking at it differently, about how much you’d save as the discounted rate for a room at the Grove Park over the course of the Summit, compared to a single night at full price. Follow this link if you are interested in upgrading to attend.
The mountains are calling us, so register today.We look forward to seeing you at the Sustainer Summit between October 17 and 20! Vernon Sumwalt is the 2019-2020 President of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice and a partner at The Sumwalt Law Firm in Charlotte. Sumwalt is a North Carolina State Bar Board Certified Specialist in Appellate Practice and Workers’ Compensation Law and has served in numerous leadership positions for both the NC State Bar and NC Bar Association’s workers’ compensation committees and sections.
NCAJ attorneys & other NCAJ legal professionals protect the citizens of North Carolina who have been harmed. For a snapshot of their work, read NCAJ’s April 2019 Verdicts, Settlements and Dispositions column, linked below.