Courtroom Drama: How the Pros Depose

Something peculiar was going on in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge James Grady, and it took the judge a while to put his finger on it. The trial he was presiding over simply wasn’t as boring as it should have been.

The reading of depositions–allows Judge Grady–is normally “a pretty dreary affair.” Standard practice is for the lawyers trying a case to bring in a secretary or a paralegal to read depositions in court. “Rarely is there any inflection or any personality displayed,” Grady told us.

And the matter at hand, a complex but bone-dry class action suit brought by stockholders against the officers of a company they’d invested in, consisted of almost nothing but depositions. Sometimes jurists earn their pay by just staying awake, and this should have been one of those times.

Enter J. Neil Boyle.

J. Neil. Boyle is the president of Charter, Ltd., which he and his wife, Nancy Smith-Boyle, founded about two years ago. They are both professional actors, and of the many services they offer a trial attorney, the most remarkable is this: in place of a surly witness or mumbling paralegal, they offer a nimble orator who knows how to hold the floor.

“We call them professional readers,” said Boyle. “We’ve had judges say ‘I don’t want actors in here. They’ll throw this thing out of whack.'”

But actors they are. And in Chicago, where the opportunities to starve for your craft are limitless, the Boyles have no problem rounding them up.

“In real life,” Boyle explained, “if a person lives more than 100 miles from court, unless he’s a material witness he can’t be subpoenaed to appear.” What a lawyer does, then, is go to the witness and, in the presence of opposing counsel–who can interrupt and object just as he would in a courtroom–grill him. The transcript of the testimony–the deposition–can then be brought into court and read out loud.

As a letter of solicitation that Boyle is just now getting in the mail puts it, “Our professional readers . . . provide the courtroom with more than the mere words recorded in a deposition; they bring you the tone, the inflection, and even the state of mind you noticed when the deposition was taken.”

Boyle was pleased to tell us about the case before Judge Grady. “A stock swindle,” he said: a small oil company had been dissolved and the stockholders paid off at the same price per share it had cost them to buy the stock a few years earlier, even though in the meantime the company had found oil in the North Sea. The attorneys at McDermott, Will & Emery deposed 23 hostile witnesses and hired Charter, Ltd., talent to play them in court.

“We charge on an hourly basis,” Boyle explained. “The actors are paid a lesser rate to read over the material, and prepare, and mark up the copy. And they’re paid appreciably more for court time–which includes sitting in court waiting to be called.”

Twenty-one of Boyle’s actors eventually got to play their parts before the jury. Boyle personally took a role, starring as the CEO of the oil company.

“This guy seems really hesitant about answering your questions,” Boyle had remarked to the McDermott, Will & Emery attorney who took the deposition.

“Yeah, he was. He was a jerk,” said the attorney. So Boyle played him that way, with such style that finally counsel for the defense spoke up and the bench “asked me to cut down on my dramatic pauses a little bit.”

After three weeks of re-created testimony, the two sides settled out of court. Charter, Ltd., charged a modest $3,800 for its contribution. “I think the most any one actor made was $250,” Boyle told us.

Boyle then said, “Everything we’ve been talking about isn’t where the money is. The money is in the working with the attorney one-on-one on the preparation of his case and his witnesses.”

He told us about a copyright-infringement suit he’d been involved with. The plaintiff, who’d created a line of greeting cards, accused her distributor of ripping off her idea. She was “a basket case,” Boyle explained, and his original job was to coach her to act presentably on the stand. But his duties grew. He helped the plaintiff’s attorney shape the opening statement, and he actually wrote the first draft of the closing argument. Boyle wound up going to court every day of the trial and huddling with the plaintiff’s attorney afterward, giving him “the layman’s view” of what was working and what wasn’t.

The plaintiff was awarded $4.3 million. Boyle billed the winning law firm $9,000 for about five weeks’ work. He’s beginning to suspect, he told us, that his rates are ridiculously low.

We asked Stephen Sandels of McDermott, Will & Emery what he made of Boyle’s operation.

“Let me give you an example,” said Sandels. “One of the deponents was a partner in a Wall Street banking firm who was about 50 years old. We would tell the reader what kind of a person he was and what his attitude and demeanor was at the deposition and a little bit about his background–and the readers did a very good job, really portraying that person. And I think it was pretty accurate. When the witness would get mad because he felt the question was unfair or repetitive, these guys would get a little mad.”

Judge Grady told us: “It occurred to me the jury was really paying more attention. That’s not true–juries pay close attention. But they were more interested!

“The plaintiff asked these witnesses to come in, and they wouldn’t do it. I didn’t believe I had the authority to make them come in from out of state. So the attorneys had to resort to depositions being read in court. They used their heads and used an expedient that served them well. I certainly would not deny that.

“The down side of it is that this kind of procedure is really very subject to abuse. You can have testimony delivered with great oratorical flourish and lend it more legitimacy than it’s entitled to. A couple of these fellows overstepped the bounds, I thought.

“The jury, I don’t think that they knew that they were actors. I don’t know who they thought they were.”

Grady told us he can imagine a smart lawyer saddled with a crucial witness who has the charisma of a tree stump. So he takes a deposition, and tells Neil Boyle to ship over a Paul Newman type to read it.

“Maybe I should tell the jury,” Grady mused, “so they’ll know they shouldn’t identify the actor with the person who is actually testifying.”

Poorly Dunne

A gap often exists between the story that an investigative reporter presents to the public and the story as it lives in his viscera.

A week ago, on WBEZ’s Inside Politics, the conversation turned from Steve Cokely to the WMAQ TV-BGA expose of George Dunne’s sexual relationship with some women who held Cook County jobs.

“I guess my question is, to Peter,” said political consultant David Axelrod, “would you say here what you haven’t said on Channel Five–which is that George Dunne traded jobs for sexual favors?”

“We never, ever said that,” Channel Five’s Peter Karl replied forcefully. “We said that jobs were granted after George Dunne had sex with these women, and that was the case.” He said his station’s allegations have been described in terms of a quid pro quo–sex for jobs–but that’s not accurate. “We’ve always maintained the line that jobs were granted after sex,” Karl said.

Karl said the public’s tepid reaction to the George Dunne revelations “stunned” him. Indeed, even Axelrod and the other guests (aldermen Danny Davis and Kathy Osterman) were having trouble working up much outrage, and Karl became exasperated.

“I still think that what occurred is just inexcusable,” he said. “It’s like Ron Magers said. When you have a system where you have to screw for a job, people will screw for a job. And that’s what’s happening.”

We called Karl wondering if he really meant exactly what he’d said. Of course he didn’t. “I’m not implying it’s the only way to get a job,” he said. “Probably the word ‘opportunity’ belongs in there. Certainly, these three women felt they could do all right by having sex. They had hopes of it and they felt pretty good about doing it, and in fact he did hire them.

“In terms of a quid pro quo, I don’t think we as journalists have to prove a crime every time we write a story. There was some major misconduct.”

Unfortunately for Karl and Channel Five, the element of calculation in this matter rests with the women. The damning allegation, that George Dunne set the terms, is the one Karl carefully insists he does not make. So long as he does not, public sympathy is likely to remain with a popular 75-year-old man who found work, perhaps out of gratitude, for young women who paid his old body homage, perhaps not out of kindness.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lewis R. Toby.