Analyze this

From his seat on Oprah, Dallas' Dr. Phil McGraw reigns as the king of quick fixes for troubled relationships. But what about his own?

McGraw says that decision was in no way influenced by a ruling of the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists, which slapped him on the wrist on January 27, 1989, for engaging in unprofessional conduct. The board found that McGraw had maintained an "inappropriate dual relationship" with a young woman because they had "an ongoing therapeutic relationship followed too closely by a business relationship in the form of part-time temporary employment."

McGraw says he won't discuss details of the case because of "doctor-patient confidentiality," but considers it little more than "a misdemeanor," an employment error that he has put behind him. The woman, who now lives in Dallas and wishes to remain anonymous, says she has not been able to do the same.

In 1984, she was a college student returning home after her sophomore year depressed, lonely, and suicidal. "I was emotionally abused as a child," she says, "and suffered from low self-esteem." When McGraw began treating her, she says, he became fully involved in her life, demanding to know with whom she spoke, when she went to bed at night, what she did that day. "If I was depressed or anxious, his first question was 'Why didn't you call me?' Every time I felt bad, he insisted only he could fix me." When she wanted to spend the following summer working for a professor at the Houston university she was attending, he persuaded her to work in his biofeedback lab in Wichita Falls. "He kept me totally dependent on him," she says.

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Dr. Phil McGraw, far left, co-founded Courtroom Sciences Inc. in Dallas after quitting his silk-stocking psychology practice in Wichita Falls.
Mark Graham
Dr. Phil McGraw, far left, co-founded Courtroom Sciences Inc. in Dallas after quitting his silk-stocking psychology practice in Wichita Falls.

Twelve months after she filed a formal complaint against him, McGraw and the psychology board reached a settlement in the case: He would be publicly reprimanded, and his practice would be supervised for a year. Before the year was out, McGraw had put his office up for sale and would shortly move to Dallas and begin CSI.

Gary Dobbs recalls "a couple of lean years" after CSI opened in Las Colinas. Many trial lawyers considered jury-selection an art, not a science, and trusted their own intuitive feel for a case more than an expert's. "I used to be skeptical, but Phil made a believer out of me," says Dallas lawyer Chip Babcock. "He has an innate ability to isolate people who would not see the facts the way you do. It's the most uncanny thing I've ever seen. He once told me he was never wrong."

McGraw's client list includes every major airline in the world, three major television networks, and dozens of Fortune 500 companies. Whether it's mass tort litigation, patent infringement, or antitrust violations, the lessons he teaches these global giants are many of the same he taught in the training room. "Lawsuits are relationships," he says. "A lawyer stands before a jury and forms a relationship with them. He teaches them how to treat him." (Life Law No. 8.)

McGraw helps lawyers figure out what jurors need to reach a favorable decision. For $29,500 a day, CSI will "mock try" a case, taking lawyers through dry runs in its simulated courtroom before paid jurors who are later debriefed on how they felt about the attorney, his witnesses, his case. McGraw then comes in and psychoanalyzes the results, instructing the lawyer on what worked and what didn't. If something is not working, he offers strategies on how to fix it and win.

Things didn't seem to be working for Oprah on the eve of her trial in Amarillo in January 1998. She had been sued by some Texas cattlemen for fraud, defamation, negligence, and $100 million after she broadcast a show on the perils of disease in the American beef supply. Her accusers had cast her as unethical, irresponsible, and driven by higher ratings.

Oprah's attorney Babcock retained McGraw and his firm to be part of the trial team, and "from the first moment she talked to Phil, there was an immediate connection between them," Babcock says.

One evening she came to McGraw's room at Camp Oprah, the name given to the bed-and-breakfast where they stayed during the five-week trial. She couldn't sleep. Tears were in her eyes, he says. She just couldn't cope with the frustration and anger of being unfairly accused.

"My advice to her," McGraw says, "was that 'right or wrong, Oprah, this is happening. They are well-financed, dead serious, and deeply committed'...I was a wake-up call that said deal with the fairness later, but right now, you are in a firefight, and you'd better get in the game and get focused...At that point she became a very different litigant."

After the jury exonerated Oprah, she did a "Verdict Show" from Amarillo. Before a national audience, she introduced McGraw as "one of the smartest men in the world." His wise counsel, she said, built her self-esteem and "gave myself back to me."

"Oprah later said that over the last 12 years, she had had every psychiatrist and expert in the world on her show," McGraw recalls. "And none of them made as much sense as I did. She said she didn't want to be selfish with that. She wanted to share that with the rest of the world."

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