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What is the NDLI?

The National Defender Leadership Institute (NDLI) facilitates a national network of public defense and assigned counsel leaders and managers. Through its information network, the NDLI promotes the exchange of ideas and resources among defenders and connects them to peers and mentors in the field. The NDLI's leadership and management training programs enable leaders to maximize productivity from finite resources and build advocacy skills to ensure defenders are co-managers of the criminal justice system.

The NDLI is an initiative of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association and the Gideon Project of the Open Society Institute.

Who is part of the NDLI?

All defense leaders and managers are part of the NDLI network, whether they come from a well-established statewide public defender system, a large urban defender office, a rural private law firm that contracts for public defense cases, or a highly localized assigned counsel system serving individuals who cannot afford a private lawyer.

What are the main activities of the NDLI?

The NDLI has three primary goals. One, organize leaders by building an infrastructure to link defenders at the state, county and local levels for information-exchanges and support networks. Two, train leaders by offering programs to new and experienced defenders with special emphasis on identifying and supporting assigned counsel and contract counsel leaders. Three, advocate for stronger defense leadership by supporting work outside the courtroom in broader criminal justice circles such as judicial reform projects, public policy planning, and community-based initiatives.

Why is the NDLI important to public defense and the larger criminal justice system?

Public defenders, assigned counsel and contract lawyers have no national network of their own. For decades, state and Federal prosecutors have organized themselves on a national basis. Through a national leadership organization they train new leaders, strengthen the skills of experienced leaders, share information, build support networks and collectively address problems facing their profession. The NDLI will serve similar functions. To ensure equity in the criminal justice system, defenders as well as prosecutors must serve their clients, influence criminal justice policy, and explain their role and its importance to the public.

The NDLI is building a national network of public defense leaders who share information about their struggles and their successes, and collaborate about ways to lead the public defense field more effectively. Defenders need and desire the leadership training, management skills courses, and strengthening of their public advocacy skills that the NDLI provides. The American justice system will only operate fairly when the leadership on both sides—for the prosecution and the defense—is skilled, organized, and supported.

Who formed the NDLI?

In early September 2000, NLADA leaders convened a National Infrastructure Project meeting in Washington, D.C. called "Standing Together for Quality Public Defense." Participants in this meeting developed a proposal to continue the work of Vera’s National Defender Leadership Project (NDLP), to improve upon past leadership training programs offered by NLADA, and to disseminate to defender leaders ideas and papers produced at the Executive Session on Public Defense (ESPD) held at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The NLADA Infrastructure Project report stated that the goal of the NDLI initiative "would be to provide training, mentoring and support for defender managers to enable them to become co-leaders on criminal justice issues in their communities, strengthening structures and infrastructure necessary for quality representation and creating them where they do not exist. [The NDLI] needs to identify, to reach out and include potential leaders among assigned and contract counsel to bring them into the national network."

With a grant from the Open Society Institute, an Advisory Committee was convened March 13-14, 2001 in Washington, D.C. and on May 3, 2001 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With facilitation by Michael Kelly of the Center for Applied Research (CFAR), the Advisory Committee was asked to think creatively about the NDLI’s goals, target audiences, program elements, teaching methods, and conceive of an ideal design for the Institute. The Committee was specifically charged with deciding on a concrete plan for training sessions to be offered to defender leaders and managers at all levels of expertise. Advisory Committee members discussed specifically the leadership training needs of assigned counsel and contract lawyers. The Committee conceived of three levels of training programs: 1) "The Nuts & Bolts of Leadership," 2) "New Leaders," and, 3) "Impact Leadership."

For more detailed information about the Advisory Committee’s work and the initial plans for these three levels of leadership training, see the CFAR’s forthcoming final report, "A Passion for Justice: NLADA’s National Defender Leadership Institute."

Why are you spending time and resources on a National Defender Leadership Institute? Couldn't these resources be spent directly on client representation?
Providing effective client-centered advocacy is the core mission for any individual defender or defender organization. The NDLI furthers this mission at many levels in ways impossible for any individual. By supporting whole-client representation and by centralizing a wide variety of resources, the NDLI expands the scope of defender representation to benefit clients and communities. The NDLIs national network of trained defense leaders promotes the defense voice not only in courts, but also among other criminal justice stakeholders, in policy circles and in public discourse. Collectively, NDLI activities further fair process, equal treatment, and just resolutions in the criminal-justice system regardless of one's ability to pay for counsel.