It’s Not All Bull

The legal community is abuzz about the new CBS drama “Bull”. Played by Michael Weatherly of NCIS fame, Dr. Jason Bull is a “brilliant, brash and charming” trial consultant said to be loosely based on Dr. Phil’s early career as a trial consultant. I worked for Phil McGraw’s consulting firm back in the 90’s, and I can confirm many similarities between the whip-smart, funny Dr. Bull and my mentor.

Of course there are differences, and the show itself is a somewhat fantastical and entertaining story of one highly fictionalized man.  I don’t know of any trial consultants that share Dr. Bull’s feline intuition or his tenuous relationship with honesty and the law.

The American Society of Trial Consultants, (for which I served as President 2011-2012) is rightly concerned about the public’s perception of our field. Dr. Bull steals lead trial counsel’s watch, bugs it, hacks into phone records, and solves the crime by identifying the true culprit once his client is exonerated.  And who wouldn’t love to have all the high-tech gadgetry on display in this show?  But like the glossy CSI franchise, much of it is science fiction.  This is, after all, a primetime Hollywood drama, so it’s not surprising that it takes liberties with reality in exchange for a glossy and glamorous narrative tied up neatly in 43 minutes.

But does “Bull” get anything right?  The general public, and quite a few lawyers for that matter, tend to think of us only as “jury pickers” who “read people”.  But Dr. Bull, like most of the successful trial consultants I know, is deeply involved in the entire strategy of the case.

At the beginning of the show, we see his team testing case themes and arguments through mock simulations to mock jurors.  My state of the art mobile courtroom isn’t as fancy as Dr. Bull’s, (I don’t see any reason to charge my clients for the costs of shipping wood paneling), but it’s not a huge departure from it either.

Dr. Bull’s wall of monitors depicting everything there is to know about each of the prospective jurors is slick television at its best.  In a lengthy, or high profile case we might obtain a fraction of the same information Bull displays on the flashy monitors, (if the judge allowed a supplemental juror questionnaire or extended attorney voir dire), but it’s normally kept in old-fashioned, but user friendly, ordinary binders.

He also conducts extensive witness preparation with the young, frightened client.  Importantly, his preparation of the witness goes far beyond “charm school”, or commenting on attire, (although that certainly is part of what we do.)  Like many of us, Dr. Bull spends hours with the witness, not just talking at him or giving him do’s and don’ts, but actually listening to him—allowing Bull to get to the bottom of what makes his client tick.  Once he has that understanding, he is able to help the client peel back the layers of fear getting in the way of his ability to testify not only truthfully, but authentically.  Trial consultants do that kind of work daily.

Dr. Bull isn’t trying to stack the jury in his client’s favor or “rig” the system.  Rather, he’s trying to ensure that anyone who can’t be fair to his client never makes it to the jury box.  Every trial consultant worth their salt is trying to do the same thing.

Most importantly, Dr. Bull is not cynical.  At one point, Dr. Bull’s client, a young man charged with murder exclaims; “they won’t believe me!”, when faced with the daunting challenge of telling the truth, but revealing something intensely personal about himself.  Dr. Bull looks at him and says: “Don’t give up on people.  They’re all we’ve got.”  That sounds like faith in the jury to me.

Far from being sardonic puppeteers out to game the system, every trial consultant I know shares an abiding love for the jury system and those who take time from their lives to serve, a zealous belief that most juries get it right most of the time, and a nearly religious respect for the laws of this country.

With sixteen million viewers in its first week and the number one timeslot on network television, I hope that Dr. Bull lives up to the field he purports to portray.  Even if he doesn’t, the show still looks like it will provide an enjoyable escape from my everyday reality.

Check out the interview I gave Ross Todd at Law.com, here about my time working with Dr. Phil.

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