Talk of the Town - Trial consultant combines law, psychotherapy for his work April 18 2001

Throughout his 30-year career, Dr. Andrew Sheldon has charted his own path. When his law school classmates took jobs with corporate law firms, Sheldon took a low-paying job in legal aid. After practicing and teaching law for several years, Sheldon started over again with a new career in psychotherapy. About 15 years ago, he combined the two, launching Sheldon Associates trial consulting firm.

The Atlanta firm combines legal expertise and psychology to help lawyers with jury selection. Sheldon also helps people cope with the stress of the courtroom, and teaches stress-reduction techniques to high-powered lawyers.

Early in his career, Sheldon established the Georgia Mountain Legal Aid Society and worked for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. While on faculty at the Emory University School of Law, Sheldon started taking classes in psychology. He went on to earn a master's and doctorate in clinical psychology at Georgia State. He practiced psychotherapy for six years before starting the consulting firm.

Why didn't you go to work at a traditional law firm?

I graduated from law school at the University of Florida-Gainesville, but I had not really taken to law school. It was more fun to play the pinball machines. When I got out, a kind lawyer in Gainesville, Ga., hired me, and I got excited about legal aid, which was then called poverty law. I found there were a lot of issues the law could tackle, and you could feel good about the work you were doing.

What kind of legal aid work did you do?

For a couple of years, we helped get divorces for people, and we worked in tenants' rights. We brought suits against DeKalb and Gwinnett [counties] for jail conditions. It grew out of the '70s when social activism was important.

What kind of cases have you worked on as a consultant?

I've worked on a lot of reconciliation cases. One of the first cases we did, we worked for the state of Mississippi and helped pick the jury in the trial against Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of Medgar Evers. I also worked on the murder trial of Sam Bowers, a former Imperial Wizard of the KKK, for the state of Mississippi.

How did you become interested in psychology?

I was asked to teach at Emory Law School in the clinical program. I felt like I'd tried every stop I knew on this trip called law. I started taking courses in psychology at Emory.

How did you come to combine the two disciplines?

I practiced psychotherapy in a variety of settings, in clinics and in private practice. During that time, one side of my brain had the education in law, and the other side was in the softer side, psychology, and they started banging together. I tried to figure out what they looked like together. I really loved helping people solve problems. About that time a book came out, The Aquarian Conspiracy by Marilyn Ferguson, about all kinds of professions that were growing up because people were dissatisfied with the traditional forms. I wrote her and tossed some ideas around.

How did you start your consulting firm?

I decided to offer stress reduction to lawyers. There were a lot of mergers going on and it caused a lot of stress and upset in law firms. Then I got a call from a therapist who had a client that got sued. I developed a witness preparation model helping them understand what the legal system was about. They generally felt a lack of power. Then a lawyer called and asked me to help select a jury.

What other work do you do?

Research, focus groups, mock trials and community attitude surveys. My dad told me, 'You better find something you like to do, because you're going to be doing it a lot.'

Do you like legal movies?

My favorite legal movie is a comedy, My Cousin Vinny." There's a lot of room with law to make fun of it. I've read a lot of [John] Grisham's books. Each case is like its own small novel with its own story and its own characters.

How much does this kind of legal work pay?

Beginning trial consultants would probably make $40,000 to $60,000 a year. Senior trial consultants could make $90,000 to $200,000 a year.??

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