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A Woman of Conviction

Trial consultant and author Noelle Nelson will not be denied. But she wants you to know: Her 'Winning' attitude is all about persuasion, not manipulation.

April 14, 1998|BARBARA THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Noelle Nelson is getting what she wants. At the moment, it's a pleasant lunch of ahi tuna salade nicoise at Schatzi's, Arnold Schwarzenegger's place in Santa Monica.

She has just come from a consultation with an attorney and is on her way to her office at the West Valley Psychological Clinic in Encino.

She is, in a manner familiar to readers of her "Winning! Using Lawyers' Courtroom Techniques to Get Your Way in Everyday Situations" (Prentice Hall, 1997), dressed to win. She is "neat, clean and professional in appearance."

At 50, Nelson is poised to leap more into the public eye, admitting she would like to be "the next Dr. Laura," albeit a kinder, gentler version.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, she simply says, is "directive." While she tells people flat-out what to do, Nelson is more interested in guiding callers. "I've always believed there is more than one road to Rome.

"I don't correct anybody," she says.

"Dr. Noelle," as she is widely known, writes that it takes only four minutes for a jury to size up a lawyer. She knows arguments have to be carefully thought out and expressed. She knows that persuading is more effective than attacking.

And now she wants the public to know. In "Winning," she tells how to persuade, to engage body, voice and emotion when dealing with husbands, contractors, bosses, professors, even best friends. She is not, she clarifies, promoting manipulation.

"Manipulation is when you never mention what you want. . . . It's a hidden agenda."

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A trial consultant since 1985, Nelson is well-known among struggling actors for her videotape series "Cold Readings Made Easy: A Survival Kit for the Working Actor." For years, she had been known as "the acting coach as shrink or the shrink who was an actor."

But she came into the public eye in 1995, during O.J. Simpson's criminal trial, a time, she says, when just about anyone with any legal connection was interviewed by the national media.

Now she counsels trial lawyers and witnesses on how to psychologically prepare for cases. Her favorite part, she says, is helping witnesses prepare to testify. "The plaintiff or defendant wants desperately to communicate their side and doesn't have a clue how to."

Lawyers need expertise like hers now more than ever, she says. Television in the courtroom has placed an "unbearable burden on lawyers." While in person, most people will forgive shuffling, stuttering or hesitations, the camera is unforgiving. Behavior can be "picked apart and criticized" over and over by anyone who is watching.

In addition, television dramas, such as "L.A. Law" and "Law and Order," have raised the courtroom standards for everyone. "That's what juries expect," she says. "I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing."

In "Winning," Nelson criticizes Simpson prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden for showing their exasperation and frustration in court.

While the prosecutors shrugged shoulders, jingled keys and threw hands in the air, defense counsel Johnnie Cochran remained cool and confident, she says.

The massive exposure forced what she calls an old psychologist's adage, something Cochran himself might utter: "Under stress, you regress."

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Television soon came calling to talk about her book "Dangerous Relationships: How to Stop Domestic Violence Before It Stops You" (Insight Books, 1997). In those interviews, she spoke from experience, having been abused in an early, brief relationship. At first, Nelson didn't want to reveal her own abuse, but soon realized she had to own up to it. "It wasn't fair of me to hide behind the anonymity."

Through her practice and research, she realized that abuse happens in more than marriages--it happens in gay relationships, between platonic roommates and in teen romances.

The book is just one example of Nelson's ability to find success in anything. Her career is one of those that builds on itself.

Fresh out of UCLA, Nelson went to France, her mother's homeland, to get a doctorate in political sociology at the Sorbonne in Paris. She soon stumbled upon a job as a stage manager at the Lido Cabaret. She returned to Los Angeles with the intention of being an acting coach, but realized she didn't know enough about emotions to truly help clients. So she earned a PhD in clinical psychology at the U.S. International University in San Diego, opened a clinic, broadened her practice and made the videotapes.

"And then somebody sent me a lawyer," she says. The lawyer was brilliant, but incapable of getting his point across to juries.

She grew up in Beverly Hills, the older of two daughters of Suzy and Frank Cross, a homemaker and a life insurance salesman. She talks lovingly of the stories of her parents' courtship and of growing up in the then-sleepy community.

"I was very lucky to have parents who said anything I wanted to do was great with them," she says.

Nelson orders a cup of decaf and then politely poses for a photographer. Sure, lunch took more than four minutes, but she still made her impression. It is of a woman focused, energetic, clearly ambitious, but soft and approachable. Her jury is left persuaded.

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