One of the questions people who comment here keep asking me is what I’ve been doing since I stopped writing about eighteen years ago.
To be honest, the first year after I pulled my fourth Matt Jacob manuscript from Random House was mostly spent on the couch, depressed, watching television (depressed enough to watch daytime tv as well). I knew I didn’t want to return to my former work as a therapist, but had no inkling of what direction to take. Not a real happy dance through the park.
Henry Miller once wrote (and I’m paraphrasing) that when you’re down to your last dime, you walk to the mailbox and, bingo, there’s a check. (Were that to be true for most people.)
Well, I got lucky. My friend Ron Simon, (and my blood brother) the lawyer who wrangled me ouf the the Random House contract, was the present in the mailbox. He called and asked if I’d like to help with a trial he was doing for a man who died from liver failure due to workplace toxins at a uranium enrichment plant. Even though I had no idea how I might be useful, I jumped on the offer and a plane and hightailed it to Piketon, Ohio, where the plant and trial were located.
It quickly became clear I had a fair amount to offer. I helped write and rehearse the opening, taught lay witnesses how to speak to jurors, even prepped some of our experts about the pitfalls of using “fancyspeak.” But most importantly, I was allowed to sit in on jury selection, which was my first step toward becoming a competent profiler and jury consultant.
Although we lost the trial, we won the war. Ron was able to work out a deal with the defendants that provided the widow with a substantial amount of money. (I have no idea how he pulled that off). I still keep his widow’s thank-you letter tacked to my office wall.
Apparently I provided enough help for Ron to ask me to join his team as a “litigation consultant.” I’m not sure whether the term even existed before, but it did now and I had enjoyed all the work and time in Piketon.
Thus began a great adventure that had me commuting from Boston to D.C. where Ron had his office. At the same time I put in enormous time studying profiling and jury selection, areas i was most interested in and for which i could my lean on my background as a therapist. I was excited by this new turn in life.
For my first few years as a “litigation consultant,” we worked on a number of local D.C. cases. We won a wrongful death suit against the city–the deceased, an FBI agent shot by a man who wasn’t “wanded,” searched, or asked to walk through the metal detectors that were situated at the government building doorways where the female agent worked. We also forced the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area Transit Authority to repair a large number of poor people’s houses they had severely damaged while constructing three new subway stations in a low income neighborhood. This situation had as much to do with community organizing (another part of my background from when I lived in Chicago) as it did with legal pressure and negotiations.
But the most poignant circumstance during those early years came when one of Ron’s closest friends’ son died in the passenger seat of a recklessly speeding car driven by his girlfriend who survived. Initially the parents were intent on a wrongful death lawsuit, but Ron understood they were really looking for emotional closure rather than money. We asked if they’d be willing to sit down with the other family and try to talk things out. Eventually they agreed, but the presiding judge initially refused to let me handle the mediation since I had no standing with the court. Ron fought (furiously, as he usually does) pointing out my background as a therapist and someone who had mediated a fair number of divorces. Finally the judge relented since, by then, both families wanted me to facilitate.
Which turned out to be a very long, sad, painful eight hours. Hours where the anguish of losing a child, guilt about responsibility, rage, rationality, all had a turn at the podium. I’m grateful to be able to say that when the day was finished, closure had begun to finally take place, and the lawsuit was dropped. It was gratifying to watch family members holding hands on their way back to their cars. To top it off, the judge apologized to me for his original stubbornness and said he wished he knew about me a few months earlier when his niece had died in a similar situation. His family members were still going at it, long past the point mediation could even be suggested.
Somewhere around that time I realized I could put all my prior professional skills to work. I’d had extensive training leading different type groups so I studied and began running focus groups for particular cases. I also recognized that jurors anticipated participating in trials that were like what they saw on television. Clear, everybody testifying in sequential order, the judge acting as a kindly father figure to whom they could turn for answers–most of which does not happen at a real civil trial. But more importantly, jurors expected stories—and the classic story arc they have seen in movies and on television.
Well, I was a pretty good storyteller and began working not only with Ron’s firm, but other lawyers whose ethics I respected. I began to teach how to structure cases in ways that not only told a story, but told it in a manner that allowed for normal trial disruptions and recesses. Hell, I even had lawyers read books on how to write screenplays.
Frankly, it was a gas to fuse my previous careers and use them to further that which I believed in. But even as I enjoyed the work, the good we were sometimes able to do, the relationships with both lawyers and clients, the unusual experiences (I spent six weeks investigating the Oklahoma City bombing one summer), I still missed the arts. Which was why I began to learn to play the saxophone. And now, at this juncture of my life, it’s close to time to move on again.
And this time the change is coming without the couch and the depression that came with it.
In today’s world I have the opportunity to control my books from the ground up and I intend to try. I won’t completely leave my law work behind—I’ll always love running focus groups and helping prep people who are fighting the good fight–but my focus is turning toward writing.
But this time I’ll take my professional past along with me. You can bet your ass that the coined concept, “litigation consultation” appears as a new expression, and that my work with Ron will somehow be woven into my new novels.