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Lawyers tap their feelings to connect with jurors

Times Staff Writer

The lawyer stood sobbing in the center of a darkened hotel conference room, ringed by dozens of other personal-injury lawyers.

As the attorney recalled the final moments of his mother’s life, his voice cracked and his body shook with repressed grief. And all around the circle, the lawyers watching him also began to weep.

Then the others began to make their own confessions: “My parents died ... ,” one began, his voice husky with tears. “I was disconnected from my father ...,” another said. “All of a sudden, I thought about my mother ... ,” a third added.

In the corner, Jude Basile, a tall, charismatic attorney in black jeans and black cowboy boots -- a diamond ring on one finger -- nodded approvingly.

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Basile is a trial lawyer specializing in wrongful-death and personal-injury lawsuits. He also is a proponent of psychodrama, a group therapy technique that is becoming increasingly popular among lawyers -- particularly those who sue big businesses and corporations -- as a way to prepare for trial and connect with a jury.

Basile and his mentor, lawyer and author Gerry Spence, say the technique helps attorneys become better people. Proponents also contend that it can help them persuade juries to award millions of dollars to their clients -- about 40% of which typically goes to the lawyer.

Psychodrama, in which participants gain insight by acting out scenes from their own lives, was developed by Romanian-born psychiatrist J.L. Moreno, who brought it to the U.S. in the 1920s.

Though it has waned in popularity among psychiatrists, Spence, well known for winning cases on behalf of Karen Silkwood and Imelda Marcos, became convinced that psychodrama had great benefits to lawyers.

He made it a centerpiece of his Trial Lawyers College, a three-week summer symposium founded in 1994 and held at his ranch in Wyoming. The program became so popular that Spence also began holding weekend seminars at resorts around the country.

Some lawyers swear by it.

“It gets very powerful, very emotional,” said Eric Dubin, an Orange County attorney who credits the technique with helping him win a $30-million wrongful-death verdict last year against actor Robert Blake on behalf of the children of his dead wife, Bonny Lee Bakley.

In his closing argument, Dubin took the unorthodox stance of apologizing to the jury for missteps he made during the trial -- a move that jurors later said they appreciated. The decision to say he was sorry, Dubin said, came right out of his psychodrama training: “Until you learn to show your vulnerability, the jury is not going to understand you.”

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Other lawyers are less enthusiastic.

Edith Matthai, immediate past president of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., said using psychodrama techniques to “make the jury sympathetic” to the client are “appropriate,” but other uses -- speaking to dead people as if they were in the courtroom -- go “over the line.”

On a recent Friday, more than three dozen lawyers, curious about what psychodrama techniques could do for their courtroom performances, spent a day in Basile’s course. It was offered as part of a Consumer Attorneys of California conference near San Diego.

After participants had arranged their chairs in a circle, group therapy-style, Don Clarkson, a therapist and trial consultant, asked the lawyers to stand up.

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Then he ordered the attorneys, most of them in the professional leisure uniform of khaki pants and polo shirts, to walk slowly about the room, looking deep into each other’s faces but not saying a word.

Obediently, they swirled across the carpet, circling like khaki fish in an aquarium.

“This reminds me of the ‘60s and ‘70s in Berkeley,” John Robinson said.

In minutes, his bravado had been transformed to tears.

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A facilitator asked the lawyers to imagine a client who had touched them deeply. Then, she said, “Take on the physical persona of that client.” Finally, she asked the lawyers to tell the client’s story -- in the client’s voice.

Lawyers began to act like car crash victims with missing limbs, or like people with brain injuries or disfigured faces.

Robinson, a former shipyard worker who represented some of his former co-workers who had been exposed to asbestos, did not take part.

“I really can’t do this,” he whispered, his voice cracking. “I represent asbestos cases. A lot of people died.”

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Robinson left the room, unnoticed by the facilitators.

Had they seen him, however, they no doubt would have approved of his emotional connection with his clients -- if not his decision to leave.

Getting so close to your clients that you see the world through their eyes is what the technique is all about.

Basile said he spends so much time with a client that he has “their life and their case imprinted on me like I’m a little baby duck.”

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That might seem obvious. But many lawyers, ensnared in a thicket of court briefs, depositions, demurrers and other legal work, forget that their most important job when getting in front of a jury is to tell a story.

“It’s been true since the day of Homer if not before,” Loyola law professor Stan Goldman said. “Anyone who understands the courtroom understands the jury is just an audience.”

But according to Basile and other practitioners of psychodrama, it’s not as easy as it might seem to tell the client’s story.

First, the lawyer has to imagine what it might be like to live it. And that’s how the sobbing lawyer came to find himself, to his own surprise, in tears in a hotel conference room surrounded by strangers. The lawyer did not want his name used because what happened to him was too personal.

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It began after the attorneys returned from lunch. Basile asked, “How many people feel that when someone comes to you for representation, a meaningful experience has happened?”

Almost everyone, it turned out.

One lawyer described a car crash. Another talked of becoming a parent. A third said, without emotion, that he had recently reconnected with his estranged mother.

The facilitators focused on him. For more than 90 minutes, therapists and lawyers acted out pivotal scenes from his relationship with his mother.

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By the time the lawyer related the story of his mother’s death, several attorneys were in tears.

Then a facilitator asked the lawyer to speak to his dead mother as if she were present.

He did, his voice breaking, his body shaking. Then he embraced the lawyer who had been playing his mother, sobbing uncontrollably. Before long, she was crying too. For several minutes afterward, the lawyers hugged each other and passed Kleenex.

Transferred to the courtroom, Basile said, such a tactic could be potent.

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Describing preparation for a trial, Basile made himself sound a little like a one-man theater company rehearsing for opening night. He said he talks out loud in his clients’ voices -- acting out crucial events from their lives, such as the moments before a debilitating accident. He said he also uses role playing to get into the heads of witnesses, defendants and opposing counsel.

After the trial starts, Basile turns his role-playing talents to the most important audience in the room: the jury.

Each morning during the trial, Basile said, he has imaginary conversations with each juror. Sometimes the conversations are about the case, but sometimes they are just about the jurors’ lives, their jobs, their child care. That, Basile said, is essential to winning over a jury.

But before a lawyer can do any of this, practitioners of psychodrama believe he must first know his own story.

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“We’re all so shut down that we don’t take time to look at our own lives,” Basile said. “Once we do that, and understand ourselves, then we can open ourselves up to the other.”

And that’s important for the profession as a whole, Basile said. Several times throughout the day, he bemoaned the fact that lawyers have a dreadful reputation as unscrupulous money grubbers.

Though acknowledging that he drives a BMW and that diamonds flash on his finger, Basile said he likes to think of himself as “in the justice business.”

Psychodrama, he said, is “not just to see how much money a jury can give you.”

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jessica.garrison@latimes.com


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