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.