Discreetly tucked into a corner on the University of South Carolina campus, at the corner of Pickens and Pendleton streets, is a building that serves as an international center for justice. One might understandably assume that it is just another of the University’s dormitories or a large office building, but this special place is the National Advocacy Center, which trains United States Department of Justice attorneys and support staff and is directed by the DOJ’s Office of Legal Education. Pre-COVID, an average of 300 federal employees traveled from the 94 federal jurisdictions and from main justice department offices in Washington, D.C., to Columbia every week. “The NAC’s training ensures that the attorneys who represent the United States have the knowledge and skills they need to get just results on behalf of U.S. citizens,” says Mary Beth Pfister, OLE’s acting director. “We also give DOJ attorneys and staff members from around the country a chance to come together, make connections with each other, and learn from one another.”
You may wonder how the National Advocacy Center came to Columbia since the Office of Legal Education first operated out of Washington, D.C. Some courses were offered there, others in various locations around the country. However, this arrangement was not ideal because Washington lacked appropriate training space. Likewise, when courses were offered around the country, training teams were restricted by the limitations of the venues. Hosting training in Washington was particularly expensive. Visionaries like the late United States Sen. Ernest F. “Fritz” Hollings and Michael W. Bailie, the NAC’s first director, dreamed of building a training facility especially for federal prosecutors, complete with small and large classrooms, courtroom suites for trial advocacy classes, plentiful breakout rooms, a first-class television studio, and more. They wanted an atmosphere where attendees could learn a skill through doing it. Columbia was an attractive choice because of its mild weather and its proximity to Washington. With enthusiastic support of USC, and largely in thanks to Senator Hollings, the dream became reality. The building, designed and built by HNTB of Indianapolis, Indiana; Robert A.M. Stern of New York; and Columbia’s Watson/Tate Architects, Inc., was dedicated on June 1, 1998. Present to cut the ribbon were, among others, Hollings; the late Janet Wood Reno, Attorney General of the United States; and John Palms, Ph.D., former USC president. The Office of Legal Education has shared the NAC’s training space with the National District Attorneys Association, the National Bankruptcy Institute, and the Medicaid Integrity Institute. Now, the Office of Legal Education and National Bankruptcy Institute remain.
Most students and faculty arrive through the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, where a bus ferries them to the door of the NAC. Strategic landscaping disguises the building’s size, which is a whopping 262,000 square feet. Three floors are above ground, with another below. After entering the front door from the rocking chair-dotted front porch, a soaring two-story lobby with a fireplace on one end and a grand staircase ahead lends the impression of entering a grand old Southern home.
Surprisingly, the building has more than 260 hotel rooms. It also, by design, has everything its students need for their stay so they can concentrate on learning. It has gym facilities as well as a small gift shop with snacks, drinks, and justice department merchandise for purchase. At Morty’s Moosehead Lounge, students gather after class to network, socialize, or play a game of pool under the watchful eye of Morty the Moose, a present from the District of Alaska. Works of art given by the 94 federal districts decorate the halls of the building, featuring sights or artists unique to each district.
Countrywide — even worldwide — the facility is famous for its food. Its kitchen and dining hall are staffed by Aramark, the same company that services USC’s other dining facilities. The friendly dining staff excels in offering cuisine as diverse as the parts of the country from which the attendees come. Breakfast and lunch are provided, and tables are bussed by workers from South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department. Students and faculty mingle with one another in the spacious dining room or may choose a table outside. For dinner, they are encouraged to go out into the community and experience Columbia’s restaurants and taverns, providing a financial boost to the local community.
“It is a great chance for us to show off our city,” Mary Beth says. “For many of our visitors, it’s the first time they’ve come to the Southeast. They are often surprised at how cosmopolitan Columbia is.” The Office of Legal Education has many repeat visitors who have fallen in love with South Carolina and have spread that love to their families. “Many of the Assistant United States Attorneys who trained here have sent their children to college at USC or the College of Charleston.”
After creature comforts are covered, it is time to get down to what the NAC does best: training. For attorneys, continuing legal education is both necessary to enhance their skills and required to keep their law license. Training is offered on management and support staff topics, as well as many different legal subjects. Basic legal classes include civil and criminal trial advocacy courses. These two-week courses instruct new Department of Justice attorneys on how best to represent the country in the courtroom. They learn every step of the litigation process, culminating in a mock trial before sitting United States District Court judges. Local high school students act as jurors. Other basics include legal writing, deposition skills, discovery rules, and motions practice. From here, training branches into topic-specific areas — negotiation skills, discovery requirements, computer crimes, cybercrime, civil and criminal civil rights issues, environmental topics, firearms, narcotics, financial crimes, national security, issues specific to Native American territories, and crimes against children, to name a few. Training also includes computer-related education for attorneys and support staff on the newest computer programs, especially those used in the courtroom. The center’s training spaces boast two courtroom wings containing five large courtrooms each, small and large stadium-style classrooms, a large salon, a computer lab, and numerous breakout rooms.
“I’m thrilled to be part of such a prestigious training facility,” says Mark Yancey. Mark, a former FBI agent, Assistant U.S. Attorney, and U.S. Attorney from the Western District of Oklahoma, retired as the Office of Legal Education’s latest director at the end of October after a 35-year career with the Department of Justice. “The NAC is known throughout the world as the preeminent attorney training facility,” Mark says. “Many foreign legal trainers have traveled here over the years to study how we train, including from Spain, the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sri Lanka, the Republic of Georgia, Kenya, Qatar, and Indonesia, among others. They want to emulate what we do.” The Office of Legal Education’s international touch runs both ways. A number of attorneys from the NAC have served as visiting speakers to other countries through the DOJ’s Criminal Division’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance, and Training. Members of OLE’s Faculty Development Institute, which teaches effective training methods and course planning and evaluates the legal education training, are also frequently invited to teach these skills to the partners overseas.
As originally envisioned, the Office of Legal Education partners extensively with USC. It employs many undergraduate and graduate students, who are instrumental to its success. USC students intern with the NAC, including candidates for a bachelor’s in hospitality management, Master of Social Work, and doctorate in education psychology. Many of the OLE permanent employees are USC graduates, including those holding a Master of Business Administration and USC School of Law graduates.
The Office of Legal Education often partners with the USC School of Law. “Our students work with OLE’s publications section, researching and writing articles for the benefit of federal prosecutors,” says William C. Hubbard, dean of the law school. OLE and the law school frequently share faculty. Law school faculty teach legal writing and communication skills to OLE students. OLE teaches law courses at the law school. “It’s a very symbiotic relationship,” Dean Hubbard says.
The Office of Legal Education boosts the law school’s trial advocacy course by adding an additional credit hour on courtroom presentation software. Additionally, OLE offers a Federal Criminal Practice capstone course for third-year law students. “Besides learning valuable skills and obtaining exposure to the federal system, it looks great on a resume,” says Mark of the partnership. “How many other law school students can boast they were trained in part by the biggest law firm in the world?”
The dean agrees. “Our promotional material emphasizes our relationship with the DOJ through the NAC. It’s something no other law school in the country can claim. That is the reason we located the new law school where we did, just one block away.”
The NAC’s partnership with USC does not stop with instruction, employment, and internships. It also offers space when needed for special events. “The center is kind enough to allow us to use their facilities for our first-year students’ orientation reception,” says Dean Hubbard. “This is intentional, to convey that the NAC can be part of their law school education. We also have our Compleat Lawyer award banquet there.” This award recognizes alumni for outstanding civic and professional accomplishments. Additionally, the NAC hosts receptions for USC, such as for commencement speakers.
Sometimes, the partnership involves more unusual needs. COVID-positive USC students were housed there during the pandemic, thanks to coordination between Mark, USC’s Executive Director for Strategic Initiatives Jack Claypoole, and the Office of Legal Education’s Administrative Officer Pedro Morales-Llanos. Before that, the October 2016 University of Georgia-USC football game was postponed from Saturday, Oct. 8 to Sunday, Oct. 9 due to Hurricane Matthew. Many people evacuated the coast ahead of the storm, filling Columbia’s hotels, including the one where the UGA football team planned to stay. “We did not want to be in the position of having anything to do with displacing evacuees,” Greg McGarity, UGA’s then-athletic director, said at the time. “That was something that would not have been acceptable on any level.” The center welcomed the UGA team, gave everyone their own room, and fed them in the building’s large salon.
Not only USC makes use of the NAC’s facilities. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham has hosted National Military Academy Day at the NAC many times. Hundreds of high school students come from around the state to hear from representatives of the nation’s military academies and, when possible, Senator Graham himself. State and local law enforcement officers also use space for training. In November, the facility hosted the National Guard’s Southeast Regional Judge Advocate Conference. “Training events like this are extremely important to make sure we are sharing best practices and keeping every state’s National Guard informed of developments and changes in the law, regulations, and procedures,” says Maj. Kevin Esber. “The facilities, IT support, and capabilities are top notch, and the building is exquisite. The NAC has been very responsive, accommodating, and flexible.”
Another NAC partner is the National Center for Credibility Assessment, housed at Ft. Jackson. “All federal polygraph examiners from the federal law enforcement agencies are trained at Ft. Jackson,” says Mary Beth. “The CIA, NCIS, FBI, and DEA all send their polygraph examiners to the National Center for Credibility Assessment for training.” Instructors from the NCCA attend Office of Legal Education classes, such as those teaching presentation skills. In turn, NCCA instructors teach interviewing skills for OLE when asked.
Clearly, the National Advocacy Center is a special training facility, and a special training facility requires special staff. “It has been my experience that everyone in the department prides themselves on both hard work and good work. That is no exception here,” Mary Beth says of the staff. It is the same work environment that has been in existence since the center first opened. “It wouldn’t be the institution it is without Mike Bailee’s leadership and vision. He built this place and the culture of excellence we strive to emulate and continue today,” she says.
That excellence showed when the pandemic hit. For the Office of Legal Education, the effect was surprisingly positive, especially considering its focus on in-person training. Making lemons out of lemonade, it pivoted to train 35,000 people online in 2020. This was huge increase from the 10,000 to 12,000 routinely trained in person. It was an even better year in 2021, with 47,000 people trained.
“Our staff worked harder during the pandemic than ever,” says Mary Beth. “They worked longer hours, produced more training events, and touched more people than ever before. That was only possible because the staff here cares so much about what they do and the community they serve.”
These are amazing numbers, but online training by definition does not allow for the personal interaction that makes the NAC unique. “We hear from people who come here as students and returning faculty members that there is no substitute for meeting in person, talking about your cases, and sharing proven strategies and best practices,” Mary Beth says. “Also, being here reminds people who might work in a small office in a remote location that they are part of the Department of Justice and part of serving a larger mission.” So far, the Office of Legal Education has not been able to return to its pre-COVID, in-person training capacity due to budget constraints. Its staff hopes, however, to return to normal, in-person training soon.
The Office of Legal Education’s desire for excellence and its dedication to producing outstanding training is what draws DOJ employees to make the sometimes arduous trip from their home offices to Columbia. Once they arrive, the friendly people, beautiful setting, and warm hospitality create the perfect environment for learning. Here, they learn how best to serve the needs of the United States of America.