Interesting Careers

An Interesting Career in Psychological Science: Trial Strategy Consultant

By Julie Blackman

Julie Blackman, PhD  
Julie Blackman

PhD (1978) - Social Psychology
Teachers College, Columbia University

Vice President & Managing Director
DOAR Litigation Consulting

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I think my career path was set when my identical twin brothers were born. I was nearly four at the time. And, suddenly, I was on the outside, looking in at two very interesting people with whom, no matter how hard I tried, I would never be an insider. Even so, I love my brothers and I came to have an appreciation for them and for the differentness that was mine. 

At Cornell, I pursued an independent major in “Contemporary American Personality,” a combination of psychology, sociology, government and English. As my 1974 graduation approached, I found myself torn between graduate school in social psychology and law school. In 1978, I received a PhD in social psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University, where we all hewed to Kurt Lewin’s inspirational maxim, “there is nothing so practical as a good theory.” 

Both of my parents taught – my mother in elementary schools, and my father at Teachers College. In 1978, I was hired by Barnard College’s Department of Psychology into a one-year position that turned into a tenure track slot.  I taught at Barnard until 1987. During that time, I undertook research projects pertaining to battered women and survivors of sexual violence. In 1979, I got The Record, a newspaper in northern New Jersey, to run a survey entitled “You and Violence” on the front page of its Lifestyle section. Over six hundred people – victims and non-victims – responded to this survey. My research team and I interviewed over 100 of them and I wrote a book about this research, Intimate Violence: A Study of Injustice, that was published in 1989 by Columbia University Press. 

Running that survey brought my work to the attention of lawyers, and I began to receive calls from attorneys representing battered women charged in the deaths of their abusers. I began to testify as an expert witness at their trials. I testified about why a woman would stay with a man who battered her and why she would come to believe that she had to act in self-defense.

Two life-altering things happened to me in 1980 and 1981. First, Michael Dowd, a criminal defense attorney who had retained me to testify as an expert witness knew that psychologists were getting involved with other aspects of the trial. In particular, psychologists were beginning to help attorneys with jury selection.  Michael asked me to help him select a jury, and I did. His client was acquitted and I was delighted to have been drawn into this new work.  Pre-trial research and intuition informed jury selection work (more of the latter than the former back then) and I was ready as an outsider to the jury and to the legal profession to try to understand what prospective jurors would likely think about the case on trial.

The second thing that happened began in the fall of 1981 while I was testifying at a trial in Hackensack, N.J. I lifted a glass of water to take a sip, my neck spasmed and I tossed the water. This was my first symptom of cervical dystonia, a disease that would transform my appearance forever. I was 28 then, and within a few months, I was very sick.  Dystonia is a neurological disorder that can cause muscles to twist abnormally and to stay twisted. My neck twisted and tilted to the left. It still does.

I spent about six weeks in the hospital and was deeply moved when my colleagues from Barnard and Columbia made themselves available to teach my classes. I returned to teaching in the spring of 1982. The severity of my condition gave me a new sense of myself. I now understood that injustice was not just for others, but also for me. I came to have a more personal and a more accurate sense of undeserved suffering, and this informed my work.

Michael Dowd continued to call on me for assistance with jury selection and recommended me to his friends. Barnard, however, decided that due to my illness, I had not done the scholarly work required for tenure and that they would give me an extra teaching year but not tenure. I had been married when dystonia hit, but got divorced soon afterwards.

I met my husband, Mitchell Dinnerstein, in 1984. He was an attorney and he had sought me out as an expert witness in the case of a teenage girl, Sharon, who had killed her abusive stepfather in defense of her mother and three sisters.  Mitch made a “Clayton motion” to dismiss the indictment against Sharon in the interests of justice and have the case removed from Criminal Court to Family Court. I testified at the hearing on this motion, which the judge granted.  Mitch’s client was never tried for the death of her stepfather and she has gone on to live a life of value. 

Mitch seemed not to notice the twist of my neck. Shortly after my work on his case, we married and soon after that, I gave birth to our son, Jed, and then three years later, our daughter, Molly. Having children was for me the surest sign that I was getting to reclaim the life I had imagined for myself.

After I left Barnard, I promised myself that I would not take another job that I might have to give up even though I didn’t want to. I taught for a few years as an adjunct at Sarah Lawrence College and at Eugene Lang College of the New School, but I sought no full time teaching jobs. I was testifying often as an expert witness and was more and more actively engaged in jury selection consulting. My children were born in the late 1980’s and I was glad to have time at home with them between classes and cases.

The first high-profile case I worked on was U.S. v. Leona Helmsley in the summer of 1989. I worked with her defense team.  After that, my trial strategy consulting work bloomed and soon I came to know lawyers who were part of a formidable old boys’ network made up mostly of former Assistant US Attorneys in the Southern District of New York.  Through this network, I met Lars Kulleseid, then a patent attorney at the venerable intellectual property law firm, Fish & Neave. Fish & Neave had represented the Wright brothers when there were patent disputes over their flying machines. 

I learned that patent cases were tried to juries of ordinary citizens and was fascinated by this. Patent litigation requires very high quality teaching. The jurors/students can only deliberate meaningfully if they understand both the technology at issue and the laws that pertain to patent infringement and validity. We began to do research studies to explore the extent to which mock jurors were able to learn from the attorneys’ presentations and accompanying graphics. These studies were partly about pedagogy and partly about persuasion, and they informed trial strategy directly.

Soon, I was doing so much work on patent cases that I took to commenting that I was the rare psychologist who would say that the most useful class I took in college was calculus (and I have many times regretted not having taken chemistry). In 1994, Fish & Neave offered me the chance to move into their firm, consult on their cases and work on other cases too, as long as I cleared conflicts with them. For the next 11 years, until shortly after Fish & Neave merged with Ropes & Gray, my office was there.

I have worked on many patent cases over the course of my career, and many complex white collar crime cases. Although I started out as an expert witness on battered women and still do a few such cases, most of my work now and for the last twenty years, has involved complex litigation. After I left Fish & Neave, I established my own firm, Julie Blackman & Associates, and at its height, I had three people working full-time with me, and another four or five working as free-lancers. Ellen Brickman has worked closely with me for much of my career and hers.  We met when she was a student at Barnard. She took my class in Psychology and Women, participated in the research project that resulted in the book on Intimate Violence, got a PhD in social psychology from Teachers College, and worked for more than a decade teaching and doing sophisticated social psychological research with large data sets before beginning to work with me full-time. She is a great colleague and friend.

Our business thrived in the early 2000’s. Emails had come into fashion and more court cases were being developed around them. The extent to which trials have been transformed by electronic surveillance media is astounding. Emails, texts, smart phone-based location data and video and audio recordings now provide the currency of trials. In criminal cases, the defense argues for the lack of criminal intent against more hard evidence than existed historically. We began to do increasing amounts of pre-trial research – telephone surveys, focus groups and mock trials – in an effort to strengthen defense presentations.

Because of my career choice, I have had the chance to work with some of the best lawyers in the country.  I consult to lawyers whose work reflects and shapes our culture. It’s been truly exciting.

In 2011, Ellen and I joined DOAR Litigation Consulting, a firm that provided the perfect blend and complement to the sorts of pre-trial research and trial strategy consulting that we had been doing. DOAR does all the high technology things that attorneys have come to expect – electronic discovery work, predictive coding, graphics and presentation technology. Attorneys rely heavily on high tech firms like ours to help them manage the millions of pages of documents that regularly attend complex cases. The graphic artists and presentation technologists make it possible for attorneys to teach aspects of their cases that defy easy comprehension. I am now part of a full service litigation support firm in the best, new traditions of modern trial practice.

The best way to begin to work in the field of trial strategy consulting these days is to join the American Society of Trial Consultants and reach out to people who advertise jobs. If psychology, sociology, government and English interest you, if you can’t decide between psych grad school and law school, if you are awed by the American jury system, if you are a graphic artist who can make difficult concepts clear, trial strategy consulting could be the right career path for you.

I will be 60 on my next birthday. I have loved my work. I love it still. I respect the power of the law and the integrity of juries.  My clients and my co-workers are as close to me as friends and they enrich my life. I hope I also enrich theirs.  I believe I have made a contribution to the quality of litigation by applying social psychological principles and research methods to the work of lawyers. It has been satisfying to grow up with this field and to feel a part of something bigger than myself. I guess, in the end, although there are ways in which I feel marginal in the world of lawyers, there are also ways in which I feel not only included but also special, as if I have something of particular value to contribute. Many, but not all, of our clients prevail – that is not the promise of the work and if it were, the province of the jury would be invaded. But I believe and hope that every trial my colleagues at DOAR and I touch is strengthened by the wisdom derived from pre-trial research, by data- and insight-based jury selection and by ongoing attention to the trial as it unfolds in the courtroom.

For other Interesting Careers columns, see Interesting Careers in Psychological Science.