Settlement Nation Episode 17: Trial Tactics & Trusting the Jury

In this episode of Settlement Nation we sit down with Brett Turnbull, the Founding partner of The Turnbull Law Firm, with offices in Alabama and Georgia.

Trial Tactics

Brett has been recognized for his many multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements, representing clients in trucking, products liability, automobile defects, pediatric burns, traumatic brain injury and nursing home malpractice. We discuss Brett’s courtroom tactics, notable verdicts and also his  trial lawyer training academy, Trial Structure, where he shares strategies for effective persuasion and trial success.


Courtney Barber: Welcome back to another episode of Settlement Nation. If you are new to our podcasts, then I’m so happy you have found us. And if you are a returning, then thank you for the ongoing support. Today we have a great interview for you with my cohost, Chris Bua, as well as Brett Turnbull, the founding partner of the Turnbull Law Firm with offices in Alabama and Georgia. Brett is a leading trial lawyer recognized for his jury verdicts and settlements on behalf of his clients. He’s had many multi-million dollar verdicts in trucking, products liability, automobile defects, pediatric burns, traumatic brain injury and nursing home malpractice. And you can actually see Brett in action On Courtroom View Network whose showcase one of Brett’s trials and their top 10 must watch lists showcasing his 2017 $25 million verdict over fatal break failure that led to a manslaughter charge. So welcome Brett.

Brett Turnbull: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Courtney Barber: We’re super happy to have you Brett. Love the southern accent and we’re going to dive straight in. I looked through your bio, but I didn’t see a lot of information about this. This would be really great for our listeners to get a bit of a background about how you got started in law.

Brett Turnbull: Yeah, I got started in law, obviously became a plaintiff’s lawyer right away after law school and the first five or six years, I had the benefit of practicing with a really experienced lawyer who had a nationwide practice in automotive product liability. And it was really useful to have him obviously direct me through all these cases early on. It was just he and I, which was a great experience because I had a lot of time with him. And then we obviously were working on some of the biggest cases because as we know in automotive products, we have to have huge injuries and they’re complex and that’s really how I got rolling initially. And having never looked back.

Chris Bua: So Brett, when I was digging into your background, it looks like you have a specific style on how you work your cases. You describe it as Rambo litigation. Can you talk about what that means?

Brett Turnbull: Well, unfortunately I didn’t come up with that. That was actually put into the website by my peers, but I would say that the explanation for that is really just to at the end of the day as litigators, the trial is kind of what it’s all about. In other words, what a jury returns is what a case is really worth. And obviously we want to try to put the case in the light most favorable to our client and all those things. But at the same time, if you’re unable or unwilling to go to trial and finish the trial and the defense needs to know that. Obviously that’s how you get the best value for your cases.

Brett Turnbull: And so I think what they might’ve meant by that was simply that I treat every case that I’m willing to file as though I would want to try it. We could try it. And if it came to that, we’d follow through. And if they get in the way and offer enough money, then that’s great too. But ultimately you can’t be always looking for a way the case settles. You really need to be looking for a way to win it at trial.

Chris Bua: That makes sense. So it looks like you’re a leading member of Trial Structure, which looks like it’s an educational group for attorneys. We have a lot of younger attorneys that listen to the podcast. Can you talk a little bit about what they would see as improvements in themselves as a trial lawyer during and after working with Trial Structure?

Brett Turnbull: Yeah. Trial Structure is actually, I call it a trial school. Those are my words, but essentially, we have programs, we do consulting for lawyers. People bring us into cases to help them with certain types of cases, trials, and things of that nature. What I would say that you would get out of trial structure and what you see is in my opinion, the most cutting edge approach to working up and trying cases. And the biggest thing I would say about it also is it makes it unique is that the programs are actually… You get on your feet. You actually get up and do things. One of my criticisms about a lot of programs is that you just it’s a Socratic method and you’re just in the crowd, hiding between all the different lawyers there listening to topics. I think there are certain [inaudible 00:04:17] Then it’s fine for certain things, but it’s really important to me and the way that I’ve come through and I would highly recommend getting into these programs where you can actually get on your feet and have active practice.

Courtney Barber: I think that’s fantastic. We actually, a lot of people in our podcast have come through Trial By Human. And I think it’s a very similar thing to Trial Structure, where you have to actually be interactive and get on your feet. And you see the transition from an attorney who may even be quite seasoned, but they come on the first day and how much better they are at the end. So I totally believe in what you’re doing there. Switching gears a little bit, Brett, when you co-counsel a complex case, what are some tips you have for having each team work together as best as possible?

Brett Turnbull: Well, the biggest thing I would say is that, and I think that it’s something that I learned early on from some of my mentors and over time, I’ve continued to add and add and add to it, and that is, I call it a case open memo. But depending on where the case is in its life, there should be a plan that has been discussed amongst the team. Sometimes we divvy up the assignments if you will. But sometimes it’s also just important for everyone to know what are all the things that we need done, but most importantly, where are we trying to get to? And I know that seems like common sense. It’s like, well, if you take a case and you file a lawsuit, a trial, whatever the case may be. But I believe in starting with the end in mind, stick the arrow in the bullseye, tie a string around and walk backwards.

Brett Turnbull: So to do that, you have to know where you’re headed. You have to set goals for the case. And I do mean in our world a monetary amount, and then you have to basically tie the string and walk backwards and ask yourself if that’s where I want to end, what path do I have to take to be successful?

Courtney Barber: That’s super fascinating. Is that a saying that you came up with, tie a string around it and walk backwards?

Brett Turnbull: I’m sure I stole it from somewhere for sure, but it’s interesting to watch lawyers or people in their lives once you take that mentality and you really apply every day and if you look forward to the past, there’s a lot of different choices. There are a lot of different options. It’s really easy to get off the path to your goal. So I just think it’s incredibly important to have a goal with cases.

Courtney Barber: Right? Speaking of cases, when I looked at your results, you’ve had a lot of multimillion verdicts. Why do you think you are able to, or have the confidence to ask for these big numbers and then achieve these big verdicts, Brett?

Brett Turnbull: It’s a great question. First of all, I have to lend a lot of it to my experience in the past. I think that Jack Nicholas said, “You’re never nervous ever a put that you’ve practiced for. Preparation will take away the nerves, if you will.” And I truly believe that to be the case. Unfortunately, in our days and times, especially right now, there just aren’t enough trial dates. There’s not enough jury trials that actually happen. And understandably as a result, lawyers don’t get the experience that they would like to have. I think that most lawyers would prefer to have more trial experience and it’s not their fault. So a lot of people ask me, they kind of that’s a realistic and understandable problem, but it’s our job to also use data which we can talk about a little bit later, but that’s focus groups, mock jury trials, and then also find programs that you can get on your feet and practice. Those things are vital.

Brett Turnbull: One of the things that I learned from focus groups and jury studies over the years is that it’s a misnomer that if a plaintiff asked for too much money, they’re going to upset the jury. And so once I had that data and I had that confidence that that was going to be the case, then from there it was really easy.

Chris Bua: So, Brett, could you talk about maybe one of your bigger cases where you learned something on that case and applied it to other cases that you worked after that? Just give our listeners a little bit of insight?

Brett Turnbull: Absolutely. I would say that one thing that I’ve done over the years in trial that I think is a tactical decision and I learned it in a case where a drunk driver hurt my client. Basically it’s better to hold a piece of evidence during the trial and have it come out at the time that you think is most effective. A lot of times as lawyers, we have a tendency, it’s the human condition, we stand up, we’re nervous. We want to just overwhelm the jury right away with all these facts and things that we think are going to be effective. And I think that the long answer to the short question is, it’s all about trusting the jury, which again takes some level of experience and it takes a little comfort. But the bottom line is they’re going to get it.

Brett Turnbull: You’re going to feed it to them in ways that they can basically take the spoon from you and feed themselves. You’re never going to be able to [inaudible 00:09:17] the spoon in their mouth and then understandably its human nature to react negatively to that. So the key is that in, let’s say a DUI trial had the case where the drunk driver hit my client. Obviously, that was a good fact for me, but because they thought the injuries weren’t what we were claiming, they tried the case anyway. But I decided not to mention it during voir dire or an opening statement that the defendant had been drinking before the crash. And I talked about it just like a regular car wreck case up to that point. And when I went and sat down, watching the defense lawyer stand up terrified, trying to make a decision whether he was going to be the one to tell the jury about his client being drunk or not.

Brett Turnbull: And he chose not to, which I thought was a mistake, but either way, I called the defendant as the first witness and went through it with the defendant. And obviously at that point, the jury hearing it for the first time and from the admission from the person who had been doing it was much more effective. So in certain cases, I think holding a piece of evidence that you can utilize. Like I have cases right now where we have the actual injuries on video, as an example, that’s becoming more and more common. The question is, why don’t you tell the story in opening statement and then let them see it for themselves with the first witness. So that’s just one tactical point, but I think it’s important.

Courtney Barber: That’s super fascinating. And is there a specific case Brett, that is like a standout case, maybe in your past that you want to share a little bit with listeners? Maybe it was a really large verdict or one that has just stuck with you over time?

Brett Turnbull: Well, unfortunately I have to admit that anybody who tries enough cases certainly has losses too. And sometimes the losses are the ones you look back and remember the most unfortunately, but I would say that every trial is different, every case is different. And that doesn’t sound very comforting, but it’s interesting. Most of the cases where we’ve gotten big verdicts, there’s been something that happened either leading up to or during the trial that actually proved what we call the trail. And the trail is the trusted relationship, knowingly broken for the wrong reason. Now the betrayal could be a lot of different things. It doesn’t necessarily… we all know that a drunk driver case or, where a product manufacturer knows the defect exists and then continues on any way, the old profits over safety stuff, all of that. Those are sort of the straightforward betrayals. But you have to find the betrayal in every case and ultimately expose to the trail and trial. That is the trigger point for a real verdict.

Courtney Barber: This is actually my favorite question to ask our attorneys that come on, do you have some unique, or a routine part of your trial preparation that you always do leading up to when you have to go to court?

Brett Turnbull: I do. And actually that’s part of what our Trial Structure Program teaches is what we call it a structure. But the bottom line is basically you take the facts and the evidence in the case, and you’re able to load it into the structure, which has been predetermined. And you can learn the structure from Trial Structure. I use it in every case and at basic, it systematically organizes the information for opening and closing argument, opening statement and closing argument to be the most effective. And I use it in every case, I structure every case. After I structure it I go jury study or focus group it because what good are we without data otherwise we’re guessing? And then we tweak it based off of what we find and what we learn in those jury studies and focus groups. So the answer is absolutely. The structure is, I mean, it’s literally something that we’ve reduced to outlines in writing. We study it, we continue to grow within it, but it is used in every case.

Chris Bua: So, I’ve got a follow up to that. How often are you surprised at some of the data that comes back from the focus groups?

Brett Turnbull: Every time, but it’s every single time and it never… Even if it’s a case that I’ve had 50 times over, there are nuances, there are trigger points that are good for you, there are trigger points that are bad for you. How are things going to… What we study a lot is the unconscious processing. The unconscious is the right brain, left brain is intellect. And before I understood all the science behind a lot of the trial techniques and the psychology and actually the, I should say, physiology of it all in the brain and the art of persuasion, I used to say, I would go do focus groups and jury studies and see if the jury liked my case.

Brett Turnbull: That was my sort of street version of what I now understand to be “is my case, all the sort of the factors, something that unconsciously the jury will be called to action through a betrayal?  But the problem is, even as far as we go, lawyers tend to spend what must have been hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a case to trial that they chose to take on behalf of their client, and they will spend Lord knows how much time of their life putting it all together.

Chris Bua: We’ve got two more questions for you. The first, I don’t think we’ve asked before, which is what’s changed the most about your practice in the last five years? And then what do you see as changing over the next five years?

Brett Turnbull: Well, I would say that I’m 41, I’ve been practicing 15 years and that’s not, I guess the most important part. What’s the most important part of what makes this a great question is that it’s an easy answer because in the last five years, as opposed to the five years before it, it’s amazing kind of once you get into the slot, as I call it where things are sort of you’re surrounded with the right folks, you’ve got the right cases, you continue to work hard, how much it’s like the first five years, things kind of move along. And then all of a sudden it just shoots out of the gate.

Brett Turnbull: I would say that in the last five years, the thing for me that I would put my finger on to say, this is the thing that I would recommend to everyone, it changed my life was I had tried a lot of cases in the first 10 years in my local markets. I’d been around a lot of the great lawyers in my local markets, but it was when I really tried to expand my horizons, meet new people from all over the U.S. and speak for a group of people that kind of, as I call it, go to the top of the barrel in terms of studies and data.

Brett Turnbull: Basically, there’s a whole world out there that I think at year 10 versus year 15, I hadn’t properly utilized. I think that finding the people that can really teach you correctly and continuing to surround yourself with those folks, I mean like a good mentor type of thing is something that I probably wasn’t intentional enough about in my first 10 years that I would highly recommend.

Chris Bua: What do you see coming out of what we’ve done through COVID? How do you see the trial prep, the trial process changing even when we’re not wearing masks and we’re not social distancing. What do you see coming out of this? And then maybe anything else that you see that’s going to change over the next five years?

Brett Turnbull: Well, I think that it’s a great question. I actually have formed the opinion that based on where we are currently and how backed up our court systems are going to be from this unprecedented situation in terms of not being able to have a trial for, in most places, for working on a year now. But I think realistically, it’s going to be close to a year and a half. We’re going to have criminal trials that are going to take understandably, maybe take precedent over our civil trials. I actually think that when it comes out of the back end of this, what will be fascinating, and what I think is going to happen is they’re going to have more jury trials in shorter period of time. We’re going to get more efficient with the process overall, more jury weeks, I guess, if you want to call it that. I haven’t been a lot of different places in the U.S. Some places have more than others, but everywhere is going to have to make an intentional effort on behalf of the court system to try to have more trials in a shorter period of time.

Brett Turnbull: And what I really hope happens is that it will begin to expedite things. Continuances will not be granted, and what’s going to happen is they’re going to be more defendants who don’t have a glacier rolling down a river slow type of situation to either evaluate cases or triumph. And I actually believe that if we get more efficient, they’re going to be more trials. And we may actually start trying more cases in the civil arena going forward. That’s my hope.

Chris Bua: I agree with everything you said. I think that’s a good forecast. You already answered my last question, so I think we can end it. So thank you so much, Brett, for coming on Settlement Nation. We really appreciate it.

Brett Turnbull: Hey guys, I really appreciate you all having me. Thank you.

Chris Bua: If anyone wants to reach out to you and maybe co-counsel a case, or just pick your brain on something, what’s the best way for them to reach out to you?

Brett Turnbull: Email’s just fine. In fact, you can put all my contact info information, email. The only thing I ask is if there’s an address on there, please add our Atlanta office address as well.

Chris Bua: Absolutely. Well, thank you to all of our listeners for listening. Please like and subscribe if you haven’t already to the podcast. And again, thanks so much Brett, for coming out.

Courtney Barber: Thank you, Brett.

Brett Turnbull: Thanks you guys. Take care.