In this episode…
In this episode of our podcast Discussions at the Round Table, host Michelle Loux connects with Dr. Jolie Brams to discuss the importance of simplifying ideas as a forensic expert. Dr. Brams also speaks on how her experience as a clinical psychologist informed her perspective of plaintiff’s and defendant’s rights in both civil and criminal cases.
Note: Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Host: Michelle Loux, Assistant Project Manager, Round Table Group
Guest: Dr. Jolie Brams, Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, Brams & Associates, Inc.
Introduction: Welcome to Discussions at the Round Table, the podcast that goes behind the scenes with influential experts. Our guests will describe their practice and expertise. Then, we will go deep on various topics related to effectively using expert witnesses.
Michelle Loux: Welcome to Discussions at Round Table where we connect with our experts and discuss their experience as expert witnesses. I am your host, Michelle Loux, and my lovely guest today is Dr. Jolie Brams. She is a clinical and forensic psychologist and is qualified to testify in many state, federal, and military courts. Dr. Brams, I asked you to consider the question, what do you wish you knew the first time you were an expert witness?
Dr. Jolie Brams: I believe that we come across as experts wanting to be experts, and we must be experts. The most important issue, I think, is simplification when you get too many issues. I work in the psychology world, doing criminal work and a great deal of civil work. What juries need to know and attorneys need to know is that many times cases are much less complex than they think they are. We look at complexity, but my job as your forensic expert is to not only reduce that complexity for you as the attorney but to reduce that complexity for a jury. Or a trier of fact either through a report or through testimony. I believe triers of fact need to understand whether it is several people, a judge, a mediator, or whoever; is to take those issues and put them into terms that people are not intimidated by. Issues that people can relate to in their own life. For example, I, just before speaking with you, am working on a case where a gentleman was accused of sexually assaulting a woman. They were friends. They met at a bar. There is a victim’s statement and his statement, but the issues are more complex because life is not a snapshot. What happened in that point in time, is not the whole story. It is the people before it. It is their perceptions of that relationship. What psychological damage, or lack thereof they may have had before that incident? What their motivations may be? So, my job is to take this volume of information and put it in psycho-legal terms. I have to answer questions that the Court wants to hear. Most psychologists can write a psychological report, but what they have a harder time doing is addressing the psycho-legal issues. The issues that the law is allowed to answer. That is the difference between a forensic psychologist such as myself and just a psychologist you might find wherever.
Michelle Loux: Interesting. You handle criminal and civil lawsuits and I know that you had a big case too, mentioned in your biography, where you were able to get a life sentence versus the death penalty, I believe that was one of the original cases that you worked on, correct?
Dr. Jolie Brams: Yes, I was trained as a pediatric psychologist. I have been doing this for 40 years. I would like to say I look better than my age would say, but I have been doing this for a long time and I have a strong background in development. Now, why is that important? It is important because whether you look at a plaintiff, a complainant, or whether you look at somebody in a criminal action, there is a relationship. People are not just a still photograph of who they were. People are static. People are changing and people have life histories. To understand where a person is at a place in time, whether it is a civil case or a criminal case, they are the same issues that cannot be formulaic. A lot of psychological work is formulaic, and it does not help anyone. It is what was that person’s eye contact, their age or whatever. That does not tell you the core issues about a person’s prognosis in a civil case or the etiology of what happened to start a civil case. We have to look at the totality of this situation.
One of the questions you asked me is, how did you get to this point in time? I started getting a true sense of justice working with kids, I wanted to be a child psychologist and I was. I had a large clinical practice for twenty-five to thirty years. What I learned was the importance of rights, plaintiff’s rights, defendant’s rights, both in civil cases and criminal cases. Then, as you stated, in my biography in the early 1990s, there was a death penalty case with a young man. He was 18 and he executed his best friend, his best friend’s mother, and his best friend’s grandmother. I knew nothing about death penalty mediation. I was just learning about civil procedure, but we won that case if you consider life in prison to be winning. From that time, I understood what an expert must offer and what the expert has to give of themselves. You have to have boundaries, but you also have to be involved intellectually and emotionally in that case. You have to understand that you are doing it, not just for that client, whether it is a defense attorney in a civil case or a plaintiff’s attorney or court-appointed you have to do it for justice, because everybody deserves to be heard. I will always be honest with whoever hires me. I will tell you my opinion and my opinion will not just be based upon what I think but upon my experience, what I know about human nature, what I know about the law, and give the attorney who works with me something concrete to think about. Ways that he and I, or she, and I can think about this case, strategize and make the end of this matter successful in every way possible.
Michelle Loux: When you first get introduced to the matter, many experts will have a preliminary interview with attorneys. Do you?
Dr. Jolie Brams: I always do.
Michelle Loux: How does that usually go? Do you give away everything in that first interview with the attorney? What is the best example of how to get that relationship moving forward?
Dr. Jolie Brams: First of all, anybody who believes that you are giving it all away in a first interview does not have to do a case. You cannot give everything away. You can be a colleague and even if you are not hired, you can give people advice such as I believe you need this type of expert and not me. Or have you read this book or considered this diagnosis whatever? I will always do that because we are all colleagues. Not everything here is just to get a case, but it would be foolish to state that I can tell somebody how to win a case without knowing what the matter is. Now I will give people advice. I can give you one example. I have an attorney who contacted me recently in the last week and he does not know where to go with the civil case. It is a case of a young child who allegedly was abused in a preschool setting. The issue for him is that he does not understand the developmental issues and how much can a four-year-old be damaged. Where do we get records for that child? Do we know what that family is? We look at the discovery. How can he consider this case as a whole? Am I giving away things? No, I am speaking to a colleague. If you hire me, these are the things we are going to need. He asked me why do I need the child’s pediatric records? I am not worried if the child had a cold, What I want to see is if the parents were attentive? Were they malingering? Did they exaggerate? Did this child have behavioral problems prior to this incident happening? How was the medical care?
Sometimes people see things simplistically but that first phone call is key. In that phone call, I get a sense of what that attorney’s motivations are, what they would be like to work with, and whether we can work together. Now, Michelle, I would like to think I can work with most people, but it is important to understand that their questions make sense. There are attorneys that call with questions that cannot mix in a legal sense. They want an answer which is not adherent to what psychologists can do for them. So yes, those initial conversations save a great deal of pain and a great deal of time. It is important that I can come back to you and say this person needs XY or Z and not me. Here are some of the Issues
Michelle Loux: Do you bill for that initial interview or is it one of those things where it is a 10-minute conversation to see if that relationship moves forward for a contract?
Dr. Jolie Brams: I do a lot of high-level work and I must understand the parameters of every case. I do not bill for that initial contact. I consider that to be a professional investment in many ways. It is a professional investment because even if that case does not work out for that person because of my friendliness, attitude, and my interest in what they are doing. It might be two years later, but I will get a callback. Or I will get a call back from one of their colleagues. It is guaranteed they will never forget that this was a brief phone call.
I also do it for self-protection. I want to know what is going on with this case. I want to know who the funding sources are. I want to know the cooperation of the attorney. I want to make certain things are clear. I have an attorney in a small town, and he does not believe in email, so he tries to send everything by snail mail, which does not work. He does not know how to get his voicemail to work on his phone. So, I am very genteel, very gentle, and professional, but I will say here is how you get your voicemail to work because if you want to work with me, we must communicate about this case. Sounds very simple. He is a lovely man, but he is a 78-year-old attorney. He wants to do a good job, but we have to learn how to work together. It sounds like a silly example, but that is how you start to form a relationship.
Michelle Loux: I was going to evolve [that question] into the contract. Have you learned over time to add special terms to protect your work boundary or cross the line as far as how much time you can give to the case in a way that things are known upfront?
Dr. Jolie Brams: As you know, Michelle, I don’t just have contracts with Round Table. You do a wonderful job of protecting your experts and you will do a wonderful job of helping your clients. There is no doubt about that. I have been incredibly impressed because I have worked with other consulting agencies and you guys are wonderful. But for myself, many people know I work on a handshake. I will send them a clear budget. For example, if it is a civil case, they will tell me, “Well, the case that I had probably 30,000 pages of records.” I will give an estimate for reading the records, for consulting with the attorney, and then I go on from there. I say “Look, I am going to look at the records. I am going to talk to you.” Then we will go to step number 2 and [I determine if] I evaluate the clients? Do I travel there? What do I do ahead of time? I tell them my hourly rate. Most attorneys do not call you every five minutes. I am not going to charge for a 5-minute phone call. That is not how I operate. The way that I have been successful for 40 years.
I do not advertise, I did maybe 25 years ago. We have more attorneys calling us than you could believe based on what I call authentic marketing. Authentic marketing is what you must do. Ads do not count. Giving people freebies does not count. What counts is what we talked about. Having conversations with people, doing stellar work, and being involved. It is not so much do you charge? It is, and this is very important, it is not, do you charge? It is what you charge for, and what I charge for is excellence. That is what I charge for. Every expert has to charge for excellence. It is not a five-minute phone call. It is the report that blows the case out of the water. That is what does it. If an attorney wants to talk to me for an hour, yes, I will bill for that, but if they are calling me to say I need to send you this, where is your office manager? I am not billing for those things. I do not think that is how the world should work and I do not think that is how you resolve cases. I think you do it from a mutually beneficial reciprocal relationship.
Michelle Loux: Well, those are wise words to end with. Thank you, Doctor Brams, for joining me today.
Dr. Jolie Brams: It was a pleasure.
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After a quarter century helping litigators find the right expert witnesses, Round Table Group’s network contains some of the world’s greatest experts. On the Discussions at the Round Table podcast, we talk to some of them about what’s new in their field of study and their experience as expert witnesses.
Dr. Jolie Brams is a Clinical and Forensic Psychologist, and has assisted attorneys on matters with complicated psycho-legal issues. She views the role of a forensic psychologist as more than just an evaluator, but also as an educator to the attorney and tried of fact, and someone to provide creative and novel approaches to facilitate the resolution of a case.