Season 1 – Episode 03 ·

Channeling your Inner Performing Artist with Karen Smolar

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Few lawyers have more experience in the trenches trying jury trials than Karen Smolar, the former long-time Trial Chief at Bronx Public Defenders. Karen discusses her take on the verdict in the Chauvin trial, including what the prosecution and the defense did well and mistakes made. Karen then discusses her journey toward courtroom mastery, which involved finding her own unique voice and adapting lessons taken from improvisational acting, storytelling, and voice lessons.

What Will You Learn From Listening to this Episode?

Our show begins with Karen discussing the breaking news of the verdict in the Chauvin murder trial (we taped the show the morning after the jury reached its guilty verdict). Karen discusses the cognitive dissonance she feels as a criminal defense attorney, believing that the jury reached a correct and just verdict but describing the awkward tension being a defense attorney but rooting for the prosecution. Karen discusses her views on what the defense attorney did well and where she believes mistakes were made. She talks about the decision not to put Chauvin on the witness stand.

After discussing the Chauvin trial, Karen goes on to describe her background and pathway to becoming a successful criminal defense trial lawyer. She joined the New York Legal Aid Society directly out of law school. Karen married a fellow trial lawyer, who she describes as her mentor and the best courtroom lawyer she has ever seen. Karen talks about how she initially tried to model herself on her husband’s courtroom style, but later became a better lawyer when she was able to find her own voice.

After trying cases for a number of years, Karen was invited to attend the National Criminal Defense College, which, at the time, was located in Macon, Georgia. Karen describes how the curriculum in Macon was eye opening for her and taught her  a new vocabulary and approach to trying cases. When Karen returned to the Bronx she established a trial skills program based in part on what she had learned in Macon.

In her trial skills program, Karen began to develop innovative approaches to both trying cases herself and teaching trial skills. She brought in improv actors to help lawyers improve their ability to improvise and think quickly on their feet, which is particularly important during cross examination. She brought in storytellers to teach lawyers to become better at constructing and weaving compelling narratives. She even trained with a voice coach to improve how she used her voice in the courtroom.

More recently, Karen became the Dean of the National Criminal Defense College, which has now moved its headquarters to Karen’s home state of Rhode Island. Karen also works as the Legal Training Director of the Criminal Practice at the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Massachusetts, where she trains lawyers in trying cases.

Karen Smolar

Photo of Karen Smolar

Karen Smolar is the Legal Training Director of the Criminal Practice at the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Massachusetts. Before coming to the Commonwealth, she worked as a criminal defense attorney since graduating from law school in 1992. For the last 19 years, Karen was the Trial Chief at the Bronx Defenders in New York City. At CPCS, she works with the Training Unit developing and conducting legal and skills trainings for the public defenders and bar advocates across the state. She also works with other practice areas at CPCS as they conceptualize training across all practice areas. While at The Bronx Defenders, in 2007, Karen created Defenders’ Academy , an national, innovative trial skills program for public and private attorneys across the nation. The program continues to this day and is the only one of its kind in the country that focuses on the intersection between trial skills and performance work and welcomes attorneys from criminal, family and civil practices.

In August of 2017, Karen was appointed to become the Dean of the National Criminal Defense College after serving as a committed faculty member for over ten years. She has also taught Trial Advocacy as an adjunct professor at St. John’s School of Law and Seton Hall Law School. She has lectured on various topics for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the New York State Defenders Association and other defenders offices, nationally. She has also been a guest trainer at various state-wide public defender training programs across the nation.

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