About NDLI

Being an excellent criminal defense attorney is a very different thing than being Chief Public Defender or supervisor of a public defender office, running an assigned counsel or contract attorney system, serving as staff in the office responsible for a state-wide public defense system, or serving on the Board that oversees a public defense system.  Most public defense system attorneys serving in all of these positions today arrived at their job without ever having received any education or training in leadership or management, and yet managing and leading is exactly what they are responsible for doing.  The National Defender Leadership Institute (NDLI) provides for the leadership and management needs of public defender, assigned counsel, and contract public defense systems throughout the United States.


NDLI ensures that all public defense leaders have access to the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and tools they need to garner sufficient resources, provide the highest quality and constitutionally effective representation to clients, and establish themselves as visible and equal partners in the improvement of their criminal justice systems. In coordination with the Research and Evaluation division, NDLI plays a central role in public defense system reform efforts, providing coalition-building, communications, training, and strategic planning expertise to reform advocates in the field.

NDLI provides:

  • management and leadership training programs, on both a national level and on a regional level tailored to the specific needs of a system or jurisdiction;
  • help when you want and need it, offered both remotely and on-site, to address specific leadership and management questions and needs;
  • information exchange, through an on-line database of standards, implementation plans, and training materials, and through the nation's only network for public defense system leaders and managers.


The hallmark professional obligation of all criminal defense lawyers is zealous, high-quality representation of each client. Providing effective client-centered advocacy is the core mission of every individual defender and defender organization. Yet public defense systems throughout the country face powerful forces that threaten their ability and the ability of individual public defense attorneys to provide this constitutionally required representation.

Defender leaders face significant organizational and fiscal challenges. The majority of public defense systems in the United States are grossly underfunded and lack the physical and human resources required to carry out their mandates. Without adequate funding and resources, defender agencies are forced to carry exceedingly high caseloads that prevent them from providing high-quality, ethical, conflict-free representation to their clients. Defender system attorneys and staff struggle to do their jobs well, without the time, tools, and training that are needed to do so.

One of the most difficult leadership challenges facing public defense system leaders is transitioning from being a trial lawyer to a manager and leader of staff and colleagues. Leading and managing a defender system is different than representing a client and requires defender leaders to think in new and different ways about the work they are doing. With training and adjustment, trial skills can be valuable assets and provide an effective foundation for leadership and management.

Defender leaders also face public perception challenges. Public defenders and defense systems boards, administrators, and management play a critical role in the criminal justice system. All too frequently, however, public defense leaders are viewed by policymakers, legislators, the judiciary, prosecutors, and the public as the people who "get the criminals off." Such distorted perceptions inhibit the ability of defender leaders to effectively fulfill their roles as equal partners in managing and improving the criminal justice system.

NDLI promotes in defender leadership the skills and habits of mind, action, and heart needed to address the array of powerful institutional forces that deeply affect client outcomes.


National Defender Leadership Institute
National Legal Aid & Defender Association
1140 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 900
Washington, DC 20036
P: 202-306-3792
F: 202-872-1031


At the opening of the twenty-first century, NLADA recognized that strong leadership in public defense is an essential element for building and maintaining effective public defense systems capable of providing high-quality effective representation to clients. Yet there was no national program in existence capable of providing the leadership skills in indigent defense that were direly needed throughout the country.

NLADA took the first step to address this need by convening a meeting in Washington, D.C. in early September 2000. “Standing Together for Quality Public Defense” was a National Infrastructure Project meeting that resulted in a proposal to:

  • continue the concluded work of the Vera Institute of Justice's National Defender Leadership project (NDLP), which had assembled curricular materials and developed defender leadership training techniques, through grant funding from the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) of the U.S. Department of Justice;
  • improve on past leadership training programs offered by NLADA; and
  • disseminate defender leaders' ideas and papers produced at the Executive Session on Public Defense (ESPD) held at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government; through the creation of the National Defender Leadership Institute. With the goal established, the next step was determining how best to carry it out.

Through a grant from the Open Society Institute, in 2001, NLADA brought together an advisory committee to decide on a concrete plan for training sessions to be offered to defender leaders and managers at all levels of expertise and specifically including the needs of assigned counsel and contract lawyers. The report of that committee, "A Passion for Justice," became the foundational document that launched the National Defender Leadership Institute (NDLI).

NDLI provided its first national leadership training, known as “Nuts & Bolts of Leadership & Management,” on May 16 - 18, 2002, in Santa Rosa, California. This was quickly followed by “New Leaders” training on September 18 - 21, 2002, in Austin, Texas, and “Impact Leadership” training on September 17 - 20, 2003, in Scottsdale, Arizona. Within just five years of its launch, NDLI had provided eleven national leadership training programs to all levels of public defense system leaders throughout the country and met the first priority of “A Passion for Justice.”

In addition to national training, today NDLI offers: regional training programs tailored to the specific needs of a particular office or agency or jurisdiction; on-line leadership and management resources through its website; and remote and on-site help for defender leaders as they seek answers to leadership and management questions about providing excellent representation to poor defendants.