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“You have to walk a mile in another person’s shoes if you are going to understand their story,” said Pleasanton, Calif., attorney Finlay Boag. To learn about a new client named Leon, the victim of a recent motorcycle wreck, he and J. Jude Basile, both personal injury lawyers, drove all the way from the San Francisco suburb out to the stretch of Interstate 80 near Travis Air Force Base where Leon was injured. With Boag in the driver’s seat, Basile stuck his head and torso through the sunroof to capture the rush of adrenaline Leon felt on his ill-fated ride. At one point, they stopped the car, and Basile sprawled out along the roadside to imagine his client’s anguish as the ambulance drew near. “We are immersing ourselves in the events of [Leon's] life,” said Basile, a 52-year-old solo practitioner from San Luis Obispo, Calif. These two are not the only ones pushing the limits on how attorneys get to know their clients. Inspired by a septuagenarian trial attorney from Wyoming, Boag and Basile are part of a budding movement of trial lawyers who practice psychodrama, a technique that blends theater, group therapy and spiritual exploration. As applied in the legal profession, it’s meant to get someone thinking less as a lawyer and more as a regular human being-like one who might sit on a jury panel. A group of these attorneys gathers each month, usually at Steven Derby’s solo practice in nearby Walnut Creek, Calif. There they shed their lawyerly skins and bring their cases to life. Similar groups hold meetings in Los Angeles and San Diego. Like stage actors, these attorneys sometimes re-enact the scene of a client’s slip and fall. Other times, plaintiffs’ lawyers pretend to be insurance defense attorneys in hopes of opening a window into the mind of an adversary.
THE PLAINTIFFS’ HOTLIST A different sort of trial for plaintiffs The path gets rocky and steep Investors press their demands Getting inside a client’s head Novel strategy pays off big The Plaintiffs’ Hot List

“It seems very odd,” Derby admits, describing the way group members go through mental exercises to “warm up” before meetings begin. “Mostly, it’s about getting together to give fresh perspective on a problem one of us is having.” Psychodrama was pioneered in the early 20th century by psychiatrist Jacob Moreno. Its chief proponent among lawyers is Gerry Spence, who capped off a long legal career by converting his ranch in Wyoming into a training ground for practicing attorneys. Best known for his defense of Randy Weaver, who traded gunshots in a 1992 standoff with U.S. marshals at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, Spence went on to develop a loyal following as an author and motivational speaker. His latest book, set for release next month, is called Bloodthirsty Bitches and Pious Pimps of Power. Each summer his Trial Lawyers College, located about two hours east of Grand Teton National Park, welcomes about 50 attorneys and teaches psychodrama as part of the offerings. Spence and his staff also run regional seminars at resort locations around the country, and he has encouraged lawyers to form groups like the one in Walnut Creek, even though they are not affiliated with Spence’s college. Although corporate and government attorneys are strictly excluded, the network of California attorneys who practice psychodrama has swelled in recent years. While it’s difficult to gauge exactly how many people have attended the regional seminars or group meetings, California has 62 Trial Lawyers College alumni, second only to Texas, according to a staffer at the college. And that number is due to grow. Next summer, the Consumer Attorneys of California will offer a daylong psychodrama seminar during its annual convention. Boag, the motorcycle crash victim’s lawyer, first learned about psychodrama when Spence gave a speech at the graduation banquet for John F. Kennedy University School of Law’s Class of ’94. It would be six more years before he began to study the technique. At a psychodrama seminar in Southern California’s Temecula Valley, Boag was asked to perform his opening statement for an impending civil trial involving a middle-aged couple accused of torching their home to collect insurance proceeds. But he wasn’t able to convince his audience, all lawyers, that his clients, Merle and Larry, didn’t do it. “I felt like a total fraud,” he said. But when he was challenged to convince the same group why he would never set his own home ablaze, he said, he brought the crowd to tears. Before his daughter, Charlotte, was born, he had spent a full day coating her bedroom in pink paint. Now 8 years old, Charlotte keeps the pink paint on her walls as a reminder of how Boag eagerly awaited her arrival as a baby. “That’s why I would never burn my house down,” Boag said. “Because my daughter’s room is pink.” With that insight, he zeroed in on Merle and Larry’s dog, Ginger, and Merle’s cherished violin, both lost in the blaze, to show that his clients would never have torched their home, either. Boag said he won them a favorable settlement, which he described as “more than enough to rebuild their house.” Despite its purported successes, not everyone is sold on psychodrama for lawyers. “What works for Gerry Spence doesn’t always work for everyone else,” said Rick Simons, a former head of the Alameda-Contra Costa Trial Lawyers Association in California. Rattling off the names of several legendary trial lawyers-the late Marvin Lewis, Melvin Belli and Moe Levine-Simons said that each brought forth unique experiences in life. You can gain insight from each of them, Simons said, but mimic one too closely, and “there’s a danger in coming across as a phony.” Given the growing number of civil cases that get diverted to arbitration and mediation, it’s unclear how much growth potential exists for the psychodrama movement. Simons suggests it may be limited. Emotional impact But supporters say psychodrama offers a type of training that isn’t available in traditional law schools. To win in front of a jury, they say, it’s not enough to make a strong legal argument. You also have to drive home the emotional impact of a case, something few lawyers are proficient at doing. “I think good lawyers are like artists in a lot of ways,” said veteran Oakland, Calif., attorney J. Gary Gwilliam, who doesn’t attend the local group but called psychodrama “an important and interesting technique” based on what he’s heard from numerous colleagues. Lawyers who study psychodrama welcome the controversy surrounding their practice. They say the results, in the form of lucrative verdicts, speak for themselves and that lawyers who ignore the impact on judges and juries do so at their own peril. “Yesterday a lawyer told me, “You’re too involved with your clients. You’re too emotionally attached to the people in your case,’ ” said Richard Baskin, an Oakland attorney who attended the Trial Lawyers College in 2004. “ That’s what makes me a good lawyer. That actually is my strength.”

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