Category Archives: Trial

Don’t Forget: Jurors Are Quite Literally Everywhere

fredFew of us aspire to be a briefcase carrier when we start law school, but that’s what many of us find ourselves doing when we first pass the bar. At least if we’re lucky. I know everyone might not share this view, but it can be pretty nice to get paid to finish the education you started in law school by carrying the briefcase for a lawyer who’s been trying cases for a while. Not everyone is a good role model just because they’ve got experience but, as I’ve said before, you can learn at least one thing from every lawyer you meet.

One of the first things I learned during my bag carrying apprenticeship was not to forget when you were in trial, or about to start a trial, that jurors, or potential jurors, are literally everywhere around the courthouse.

I learned this the hard way, of course, when I made the mistake of talking loudly about the our motions in limine with the partner as we were walking out of the courtroom. “Shhhh,” he said. I didn’t know at first what he was talking about; it seemed like we were all alone in the hallway, or alone enough, so that I could speak freely. “The walls have ears,” he said. I still didn’t understand until, a few steps later, I noticed the familiar face of one of our prospective jurors, leaning against the wall, reading a dog-eared paperback.

When we got outside, and we were very clearly alone, he said, “Remember when you’re in trial that jurors are literally everywhere. And they hear and see everything.”

I was reminded of this point last week when working with Juryology blogger Rich Matthews on drafting a post about working with jury consultants. Rich pointed out that jurors pay attention to how parties and their lawyers act outside the courtroom. Are you or your client rude or impatient in getting through the security screening process coming into the courthouse? What about in the courthouse cafeteria during lunch? It is all information and they take it into the deliberation room.

I knew about one prominent LA trial lawyer who had done well, and owned a couple of exotic cars, but would only drive his Jeep Grand Cherokee when he was in trial. He felt it was important for jurors who saw him arrive at the courthouse (or leave at the end of the day) to see him driving a sensible, American-made car.

When someone at my firm is in trial, associates are encouraged to come down to watch at least a portion of the proceedings. But they are admonished in advance to (1) dress well, (2) behave with extreme decorum in the courtroom, and (3) do nothing to create the impression they are affiliated with the firm or the client, lest the impression they create is a poor one.


Five Ways To Effectively Use A Jury Consultant

ddffeeMany litigators, even those who do trial work, have only a hazy idea about how much value a good jury consultant can bring to trial preparation and presentation. I’m here, with my friend, colleague and Juryology blogger Rich Matthews, to change that. In this post I’m going to identify five ways a good jury consultant can improve your chance of winning at trial.

First, though, I want to acknowledge a challenging hurdle in getting a jury consultant involved in any case. Often, our clients hold the view that lawyers have the education, training and experience needed to do quality jury research, in addition to our day job of mastering and presenting the legal issues, so hiring a jury consultant is needlessly duplicative. Rich dispels this view right away. He says:

“Clients make the mistake of thinking lawyers should be experts in jury research, and it’s often true that the lawyer who would like to hire a trial consultant doesn’t know what to say to the client about that. I would say that it’s like hiring any other expert for the case– lawyers are skilled at the law, jury consultants are skilled at social research. They are two different disciplines entirely.”

How can you effectively use a jury consultant on your case? Here are five ways:

1. In The Courtroom During Voir Dire.

I’ve either heard it said, or said it myself, either way it’s true: selecting a jury is the least understood process of a trial. This is because most schools don’t teach it and the only way to learn is by doing it and not only are trials precious commodities these days, but judges frequently take over the function of voir dire. As a consequence, many of us are ill-prepared to do voir dire well.

Jury consultants can help in formulating the right types of questions to sound out potential reasons why your client could benefit from challenging particular jurors. “Lawyers,” Rich says, “tend to have the wrong priorities in voir dire. They prioritize arguing their case over the most important thing in voir dire which is to get jurors talking and responding to each other.”

Even if the process is spread over multiple days, such as selecting a jury for a long cause trial, everything moves pretty fast in voir dire. A good jury consultant can help slow the process, or at least help your trial team sort through the mass of data being generated in this tight time-frame, so that intelligent decisions can be made about the need for specific juror challenges.  As Rich points out, jury consultants are skilled at “tracking all the hundreds of bits of data flying in the courtroom all the time and coalescing that into judgment.”

2. In Developing A Jury Profile Before Trial.

Before anyone enters the courtroom, a jury consultant can help the trial team develop a plan for what kinds of jurors (1) they are likely to encounter in a given venue, and (2) of these, which may come into the case with particular biases that will impede their ability to receive and process evidence fairly (by “fairly” here I naturally mean in a way that is favorable to my client). As Rich says:

“While attorneys are keeping up with developments in the law and managing your cases, the best trial consultants are monitoring all kinds of public opinion data and trends. So trial consultants start out in a much better position to develop a profile for the jury for counsel to follow during jury selection.”

Thus, even if your client is resistant to the cost of having a jury consultant present in the courtroom during voir dire or other crucial parts of the trial, there may still be value in the lesser investment of involving a consultant before trial starts.

3. Working With Focus Groups.

You know those parts of the case which you’re most worried about? When the trier of fact is a panel of jurors, those parts of the case are often not legal issues, but “juror issues.” Rich notes that “easily the best way to assess your case’s juror issues, as distinct from the legal issues,” is to work with a jury consultant and one or more focus groups. “Lawyers,” Rich says, “think like lawyers and focus very closely on the precise laws, whereas jurors are more ‘gestalt’ kind of thinkers and are more interested in a broad kind of justice and morality. This difference in focus will lead lawyers to overestimate the impact of a statute/rule/jury instruction on laypeople. The only way to get on the same plane as laypeople is with a focus group.” Anyone who has done focus group research knows it’s going to yield the most valuable information–useful conclusions–if the research is directed and interpreted by someone with the proper training.

4. Case Evaluation.

Most of us, myself included, tend not to think about involving a jury consultant until after the decision to take a case to trial has been made. Rich feels this is a mistake, since we tend to develop a kind of tunnel vision about the quality of our case or defense, and pass that on to influence our clients. Instead, “it’s imperative  to consider the ‘social zeitgeist,’ or what is happening in the collective social consciousness — as well as understand the predictable places where laypeople will deviate from how lawyers think —  when valuing a case or deciding whether to take it to trial.” Good jury consultants should be able to channel into this and inform your case evaluation.

A bonus to involving the consultant earlier than later is that he or she can help you shape your discovery to fit a theme that is likely to resonate with jurors, as opposed to the more common approach of trying to pigeonhole evidence gathered at random into a theme that is developed for the first time on the eve of trial.

5. Witness Preparation.

A consultant can help prepare a witness for testimony in deposition or a trial in a way that most lawyers cannot. I’m afraid I have to agree with Rich when he says:

“Lawyers have proven woefully inadequate at witness preparation. Most lawyers think that reviewing the facts and saying ‘Just remember to tell the truth’ constitutes good witness preparation. It doesn’t. Imagine a witness who actually has skills at testifying– not just what to say, but how to say it; how not to bait the bear; how to tell his or her story to jurors. It’s so much more than just ‘Here, re-read your deposition transcript and make sure you follow it precisely or else we’re going to be in trouble.’”

Ok, I’m not that bad at witness preparation, since it’s something I’ve long recognized to be crucially important. But yes, Rich, we get the message!

One last word on hiring a jury consultant, devote the time and effort to finding a good one. As Rich says, there are “lots of mediocre consultants flooding the marketplace.”


What Your Presence Tells The Jury Before You Say A Word

pokliI’ve previously written about how young lawyers enjoy an undeserved reputation for honesty. It’s a gift. Don’t squander it.

Similarly, when jurors encounter a trial lawyer for the first time, the lawyer’s mere presence in the courtroom says many things before the lawyer opens her mouth. This observation comes from the trusted Professor McElhaney. In a chapter from Litigation (ABA 1995) entitled “The Most Important Witness,” he suggests that a trial lawyer’s presence in the courtroom implicitly says to the jury:

  • “I have studied the facts and understand what this dispute is all about. You can trust me to steer you straight.
  • I have carefully screened the witnesses. I will only call those who will tell you the truth.
  • I know the law that governs this case. Justice is on our side.
  • If I introduce evidence, it is because it is important.
  • If I leave something out, it is because it is not important.
  • And If I attack a witness, it is because he is not telling the truth.” (Id. at 9.)

Of course, just as with a young lawyer’s unearned reputation for honesty, each of the above assumptions can be quickly proven wrong. Witness choice is a perfect example. While you sometimes have no choice but to present a dodgy witness, this should not be undertaken lightly. As Professor McElhaney points out:

“[T]he very act of putting the witness on the stand implies that you are vouching for his credibility. . . . Whom do the jurors blame for a bad witness? Listen closely to the comments clerks and bailiffs hear every day. ‘I wonder where she got that guy?’ ‘Where did he dig him up?’ ‘Can’t he find someone better than that?'” (Id. at 11.)

Another opportunity to prove the jury wrong in their initial positive impression arises from how you organize your evidence presentation, including direct examination of your witnesses. How you conduct the examination, what you leave in and what you leave out can affirm or undermine the assumption that “If I introduce evidence, it is because it is important.” As McElhaney says it:

“A confused, rambling examination suggests a disorganized understanding of the facts. Not only does it fail to tell the story effectively, a poor direct examination is the living picture of a guide who cannot be trusted to lead a jury through the thicket of facts in the case.

Dwelling at length on small points is a little different. At first it suggests that the seemingly insignificant detail will become important later on.

Why? Just putting it in the case says it is worth the jury’s while.

So the first time the fact that took so long to explain turns out to be meaningless, the jury feels cheated. When it happens again, they wonder whether the lawyer is trying to kick sand in their faces or is just inept.” (Id.)

The jurors are your friends, your students and your wards. Don’t kick sand in their faces.


Edward Bennett Williams: Don’t Lose Your “Instinct For The Jugular”

8300330C_1I found a fantastic interview of trial legend Edward Bennett Williams from the Winter, 1986 issue of Litigation which I intend to read and re-read like the Bible.

Among the myriad of topics he discusses was the kind of “team” he works with at trial, which led to a discussion of trying “big document” cases. Many lawyers, even seasoned trial lawyers, tend to make the assumption that the bigger the issues to be decided by the jury, the more witnesses and paper–documents–are needed to prove a party’s case or defense. If an outsider was to simply look at the kind of discovery conducted in any big case, he or she would easily assume that, if the documents were worth seeking in costly discovery, they must have been germane and, ultimately, indispensable to winning.

Williams takes issue with this kind of thinking. He suggests that, in all but the most complex cases, lawyers tend to “multiply documents” unnecessarily. In the end, being unnecessarily document intensive does not further their clients’ interests or bring them closer to victory. Responding to interviewer Priscilla Anne Schwab, Williams says:

“Mr. Williams: I was brought up in a school of practice in which one person tried a case and tried it in toto. Even with some help, in the courtroom there was only one voice. And I like that.

Ms. Schwab: What about a complex case, say, an antitrust action with thousands of pages of documents, hundreds of witnesses. How can you handle that in a courtroom singlehandedly? With total control?

Mr. Williams: My impression of that so-called ‘big document’ case is that 95 percent of the documents are worthless. Just piles of paper to impress the jury. One of the great tragedies of litigation today is these paper wars. The whole profession gains nothing but disrepute when one of these big firms puts 21 lawyers on a case, and they start multiplying documents, paper times paper.

Now obviously in a few cases, the issues are so complex that there are, maybe, thousands of documents. But my experience has been that law firms multiply paper unnecessarily. They make litigation more prolific than necessary. They don’t have an instinct for the jugular. They don’t isolate the major issues of the case and simplify them into comprehensibility. And they engage in massive overkill in discovery.

Ms. Schwab: But there always seems to be a need for more discovery. You say yourself you must uncover every fact, however remotely relevant.

Mr. Williams: True, but discovery today is not used primarily to uncover facts. It’s used to delay, to obfuscate, and, too often, to replace real investigation.” Litigation, Vol. 12, No. 2, Winter 1986, p.30.

As an armchair expert on the topic of laziness, I wonder if the tendency to use excessive discovery rather than going “for the jugular,” as Williams puts it, stems from the fact that isolating “the major issues of the case and simplify[ing] them into comprehensibility” takes really hard work and focused thought. I suspect this is part of it. I suspect the other part is related to the fact that there is big money in putting armies of lawyers on cases and multiplying paper. Cynical me!

Whatever the cause, the end result brings clients no closer to victory. So, even if you feel the need to burn everything to the ground in discovery, remember when it comes time to try the case to isolate the major issues and “simplify them into comprehensibility.”


Should You Quiz Jurors Whether They Watch Law and Order?

polikujThe Wall Street Journal recently mentioned a UC Irvine doctoral student who “worries,” in a forthcoming academic paper, that realistic police procedural dramas (i.e., cop shows) significantly impact potential jurors.

Specifically, he’s “concerned the show’s influence may be leaving jurors with a distorted view of how investigations are conducted and the judicial system works. The world of Law & Order,† he says, is one in which prosecutors and police give off a soft glow of righteousness, while public defenders and defense lawyers toil under a harsh light.”

The WSJ quoted from a draft of the paper:

“The police and prosecutors in this view are portrayed as the “good guys” keeping the people safe from a dangerous world of criminals, and their tactics, regardless of how draconian and unconstitutional they may be, are necessary to get the job done effectively and expeditiously. On the other hand defense lawyers, the occasional by-the-book ADA, and even the Constitution are portrayed as impediments to justice. They obfuscate and distract from the correct outcome – a guilty verdict. The show suggests that if a suspect isn’t guilty, he or she isn’t brought to trial. The cops end up with the right person.”

This struck me as quite a mouthful, particularly when I read that the author “concedes that he doesn’t have empirical evidence to support his suspicion.” Aren’t academic papers supposed to rely on empirical evidence? (Unless they appear in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy?) I’m sure the paper, when it appears in an upcoming issue of the Law and Psychology Review (where it is indeed destined), will someday be cited as authority why medical malpractice plaintiffs should routinely challenge potential jurors who grew up watching Marcus Welby.

Snarky jokes aside, and recognizing that neither the doctoral student nor I are truly “experts” on this, I solicited input from jury consultant and Juryology blogger Rich Matthews. It turns out Rich had seen the paper and didn’t think too much of it, either. He described the author’s concern as both “much ado about nothing new” and the exact opposite of how it really works. He said, “It has always been the case that people have a psychological need to believe that police and prosecutors conduct their work competently and honestly. Thus TV didn’t create that mindset but rather plays to it in the form of police and law enforcement shows since the dawn of television.”

Makes sense. But even if the TV -show-shaping-our-views hypothesis is sketchy, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be useful to know what kind of TV prospective jurors watch or don’t watch. I’m not suggesting this always makes good voir dire, but, as Rich points out, jury experts are interested in “what pre-sets citizens have when they come into court, and how they play into one’s specific case.” If the TV shows we watch reflect our need to believe our “doctors are caring and unfailingly accurate,” couldn’t that indeed be useful in a malpractice or medical device case? If we watch a police procedural because we have a “need to believe” our police officers, would knowing your jurors are rabid Law & Order fans be interesting in a case where the outcome may hinge on an officer’s testimony and believability?

Or not. Feeling in my bones that cold dread of Kierkegaardian ambivalence, I consulted Professor McElhaney’s views on voir dire. In a chapter called “Picking a Jury” in his Trial Notebook (Third ed. 1994), he doesn’t address whether a prospective juror’s TV proclivities are necessarily useful, but he does reaffirm that, among the uses of voir dire, you want to “figure out whom you are talking to.” (Id. at p. 123.) After all, he says:

“You would never dream of giving a Law Day speech without knowing whether the audience was a political reform organization, a group of retired workers, or a class of high school students. One of the most important things you can do in jury selection is to study the jury. Find out what the jurors like and don’t like.” (Id.)

The upshot, I guess, is that, if you’re interested at all in what jurors watch, it’s not because you’re worried their views have been shaped by those shows, but because what they watch may reflect how deeply they hold certain beliefs in the first place. I continue to have my doubts.

†Brief aside: Wasn’t Law & Order just more classic back when there was just one show and Chris Noth and Paul Sorvino were in the cast?


Should You Do A Post-Trial “Postmortem”?

ii_a_127Living through trial. The only thing most of us think about is winning. (Unless, like me, you get that 11 pm craving for carne asada burritos con guacamole, then you think about that, too.) After the verdict, win or lose, the last thing everybody wants is to go back through it and take stock of what happened, what went well or went poor and how we can do better next time.

But there is real wisdom, once the dust truly settles, in going back over everything to ponder, “What did we learn from this?” For institutional clients of every size, trials are a huge investment of time, money and resources. It makes a lot of sense for them, ideally in conjunction with their counsel, to do a trial postmortem. This not only helps prevent future “situations” requiring litigation but, if cases do arise in the future, it enhances the chances of success. Astute lawyers recognize the value and opportunities of this process and collaborate with their clients to do a comprehensive postmortem, possibly for free! Even if the client shows no interest, much can still be gained if only the members of the trial team come together for a postmortem session.

A generous article on this topic, “Trial ‘After Action Reviews,'” appeared in the August, 2013 issue of For the Defense. The authors, Milwaukee lawyers Ric Gass and Michael B. Brennan, point out that “Army generals as far back as Caesar in his ‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’ have learned strategic and tactical lessons through after action reports.” (Id. at 29) The article is sweeping in its scope. Among the valuable points made by the authors was the following:

“Crucial to the success of an after action review is, to use the military jargon, ‘leaving your rank at the door.’ If you are the lead counsel, you need to be willing to listen and to learn from the observations of others on your team. You were probably too busy while doing that crucial cross-examination to take in everything else in the courtroom, such as reactions of jurors, or of the judge or opposing counsel. But your co-counsel, your paralegal, or your jury consultant did watch for those reactions, and you need to hear what they saw.” (Id.)

The authors suggest some topics for review during the postmortem, including:

  • Jury Research: “Did the jury research accurately predict the attitudes and reactions of the jurors and the ultimate result on liability and damages?” (Id.)
  • Opening: “What worked well for us? What worked well for opposing counsel?” (Id.)
  • Direct Examinations: “Did a certain witness’s testimony connect with the jury, and if so, why?” (Id.)
  • Cross-Examinations: “Was the tone of the questions too harsh or too lenient? . . . How many of the admissions made on cross-examination made it into the closing argument?” (Id. at 30.)
  • Expert Witnesses: “Would we use this expert again, and more importantly, why?” (Id.)
  • Closings: “What worked well for each party, and why?” (Id.)

Finally, the authors point out that:

“Being a trial lawyer is a lifelong learning experience. . . . If you have had any kind of trial, but especially a major trial, you need to appreciate it for all the experience it brings and to wring every last piece of learning that you can from the experience. . . . [Y]ou need to figure out how to carry that understanding and the techniques that went right to your next trial.” (Id.)

I know first-hand how much clients appreciate it if, after the trial, you offer to travel to their offices and help your in-house counterpart prepare and present a postmortem, with the specific goal of avoiding similar situations in the future. They really, really appreciate it when you don’t charge them for the experience. If your trial counsel won’t do this for you, ask them why not. Then remember to call me.


Effective Use of Motions In Limine and Trial Briefs

jjhhfdI’ve written before about the wisdom, in the context of a jury trial, of obtaining pretrial orders by the judge excluding or significantly limiting certain items of evidence you anticipate will be offered by your opponent. The typical vehicle for obtaining this relief in American courts is by filing a motion in limine. This term is derived from Latin, and means “at the threshold.”

Why do courts entertain such motions? If one party attempts to introduce objectionable evidence, whether by an examination question or offering an exhibit, in front of the jury, it may be impossible to “unring the bell,” or make the event 100% harmless, for two reasons.

First, if the question or exhibit is damaging enough that the jury gets the gist of its import before the judge  sustains your objection, the practical effect is little different than if the evidence had come in without objection. (Worse, in some ways, if you recognize that the objection itself may “wake up” jurors and alert them that what they’re about to hear–or not hear–is important.)

The second, more subtle reason, which I’ve previously described, is the assumption on the part of jurors whenever they hear you object, particularly if it is sustained, that you are trying to hide something from them–probably the truth. As I’ve said, this can garner juror resentment.

Motions in limine are great fun to write if you are an associate. I say this only partly in jest because they actually can be both interesting and game-changing, if done well. Plus they help young lawyers learn to use and argue the rules of evidence in a way you never learn them in law school or when studying for the bar.

Now, if we take this kind of pretrial strategic thinking to a higher level, there are even more subtle considerations to consider and decisions to decide. One involves comparing a motion in limine with a different kind of document called a trial brief. A trial brief is often a concise memorandum of points and authorities that delineate an important narrow issue and identify and apply authorities to persuade (under the guise of education) the court to adopt your favored position. It is also common for parties to file a single trial brief, which provides the court with a roadmap of all of the issues, the expected evidence, and how they should be decided. I’m referring in this post to the kind of brief that addresses only a discrete issue or cluster of issues.

In general, motions in limine focus on evidentiary issues and trial briefs on issues of law, such as how the jury should ultimately be instructed. But the difference isn’t always clear. For example, if you expect a massive argument over a specific jury instruction, it might be appropriate to separately file a trial brief to persuade the judge that only your instruction is appropriate. But this debate can also give rise to evidentiary issues. If certain areas of inquiry would be irrelevant or inappropriate if the judge ultimately sides with the position in your trial brief, it may be wise to also file a motion in limine to urge the court to limit potential unwanted or damaging evidence.

Finally, the timing of trial briefs is another consideration. They can be filed before trial, along with any motions in limine, or you can prepare and hold–do not file–a “pocket” brief  until the issue is “ripe” for adjudication. When, in the context of an argument, the judge asks, “Counsel, do you have any authority on that?” “As a matter of fact,” you say, “we do!”

Three additional points about motions in limine. First, lawyers have greatly overused them; some judges consider such motions to be an irritant. Be wary of this and save them for issues that really merit advance consideration by the judge. Then brief these issues well–don’t just assume because you raise an issue and cite an evidence code section that you’ll prevail. It’s vastly better to select a very few key evidence issues and brief each thoroughly, than to file a motion on every anticipated shard of evidence. If the issue doesn’t merit serious briefing, it probably doesn’t merit a motion.

Second, it is an absolute waste of everybody’s time to file “obvious” motions, which simply repeat well-established evidence rules. For example, most trial judges and lawyers know about the prohibition of evidence of insurance coverage. Why waste paper and time making a motion on such an obvious point.

Third, most jurisdictions require parties to “meet and confer” before filing motions in limine to see if the issue can be resolved among the lawyers. Even if you are in a jurisdiction that does not have such a rule, there is no reason not to meet and confer and try to resolve the issue before you spend your client’s money needlessly.

Both motions in limine and trial briefs can significantly impact the outcome of a trial. By resolving evidentiary issues that the jury never needs to know about, or educating the judge about how she should rule on important legal issues, these documents can effectively shape how a case is tried. Don’t be afraid to use these tools, but use them wisely and strategically.


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