Tag Archives: jury

How Will You Cope When Your Trial Technology Lets You Down?

frustratedPerhaps I should say how will you cope “if” rather than “when” your trial technology takes a giant lets you down, but I’m a pessimistic fatalist, or a fatalistic pessimist. Or something.

But the internet is all abuzz about Michael Bay’s meltdown on Monday during a Samsung press conference at the CES 2014 Conference. If you’ve missed the viral video, it’s not really that earth shattering. But, let’s agree that it’s lucky for Bay that he doesn’t have to count on his public speaking skills to earn a paycheck. If you or I were presenting evidence and our computer or Trial Director program went screwy, apologizing and walking off wouldn’t be a realistic option.

But this stuff does happen. And, like a jazz musician, you’ve got to improvise. Even if you are meticulous in your preparation and think you’re prepared for anything, chances are something could happen that will catch you off guard. I’m of the view that, rather than fooling yourself into thinking you’re so well prepared that nothing will surprise you, it’s a better idea to expect that something will go wrong–or at least something unexpected will happen–and prepare yourself up to deal with it. That’s more fun, anyway.

Concededly, one way to reduce the chances your technology will fail you is to rely on it less. Many trial lawyers still use overhead projectors because they’re almost fool-proof. Or they say they use them because they are almost fool-proof, but the real reason is they can’t be bothered to learn Powerpoint or Trial Director. Whatever their reasons, I have no quarrel with going old school, low-tech, if it conveys the message and wins the case. A good trial lawyer with nothing but an easel will do far better than a so-so lawyer with the most advanced technology available.

The problem with resisting technology in trial presentation, though, is that the internet, gaming and effects-driven movies have made people–some of them your potential jurors–almost numb to anything that lacks a wow factor. There’s also the brute fact that some of these technologies really are brilliant and, frankly, should be embraced to the extent they can help lawyers, good and so-so alike, present otherwise dry or complex information in a way that engages jurors.

Regardless whether you embrace technology or remain a caveman lawyer, you need to embrace the unexpected. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that, given the fascinating life he’s led, there’s a decent chance Michael Bay could have conjured an extemporaneous presentation that was even more compelling than what was written on the broken teleprompter. But he needed to be prepared for the possibility that the teleprompter (or something else) would let him down.

I like the idea of trying to take a bad situation and turn it to your advantage. If a jury or other audience sees you confronted with a technical malfunction or other problem, it can be more than just an opportunity to let the jury, the judge and your client down. To fail miserably. It’s equally an opportunity to gain credibility and respect because you did not let the mishap derail your presentation. You get bonus points if you find a way to weave genuine humor–not corny or forced–into the situation.

Will You Give These Jurors What They Want?

jury1A couple of weeks ago, I sent fellow blogger and trial consultant Rich Matthews an email asking if he would comment on a post I was thinking about writing. It would be called “Avoid These Five Ways Of Alienating The Jury.” I was expecting him to provide a laundry list of “don’t dos” if you want to stay on a jury’s good side, such as wearing a bow tie,† showing up late, interrupting witnesses, etc.

Instead, Rich offered a much shorter list of ways–just two–to give the jury what they want and expect. On reflection, Rich’s list of “dos” made much more sense than my proposed list of “don’ts”. Here’s what Rich said:

“I think jurors want two and only two things from counsel, and get alienated easily when these are violated: help with understanding the material, and not wasting their time. That’s it. As obvious as that might sound, all courtroom lawyers should do a really honest reflection on their own trials and notice how many times they run afoul of either or both of these unconscious demands jurors have. That third witness you put on to say basically the same thing? Wasting jurors’ time, and they will resent you for it. That technical witness who was not understandable to them? Flunked both. A closing argument that didn’t explain [relevant rules, damages, verdict form, whatever] well enough? Didn’t help them with the material. I suggest that as counsel is planning the trial sequence, run everything through that filter; will it help jurors understand the material, and does it waste their time as THEY will judge it? Unless it’s ‘yes’ to the first AND ‘no’ to the second, leave it out. (Bonus hint: the first place to look is your witness list. Most of the time, lawyers would be better served to use fewer witnesses than they do. Wasting time in this manner just frustrates jurors if they don’t perceive each additional witness is adding new information or understanding.)”

Rich’s suggestion that what the jury wants most is help understanding the material echoes a point Professor McElhaney makes in the opening chapter of Litigation, entitled “The Guide.” He writes:

“You are the guide who knows the territory, the one who can be trusted to steer the jury straight throughout the entire trial.

Does it work? Imagine for a moment: Suddenly you find yourself in the middle of an unknown swamp. You don’t know where you are or how you got there. All you know is that somehow you  have to find your way out. You have no compass. There are no roads or trails, no signs or maps, no shadows or guiding stars. As you look around, you see two people, each saying there is only one way out. The problem is, each one is pointing in a different direction.

Which one do you follow–the one who has the suitcase with the collapsible legs, who wants to sell you one of the watches on his wrist; or the one who is pointing out landmarks and is helping you understand the terrain?” (Litigation (ABA 1995), at 4.)

Rich’s point about not offering duplicative testimony which the jurors judge as a waste of their time brings to mind this comment by another notable trial advocacy guru, Professor Thomas Mauet. In his Fundamentals of Trial Techniques, Professor Mauet points out that:

“Whom you call as witnesses to prove your case is frequently not an issue. You simply must call the witnesses you know of to establish a prima facie case, and there is no room for choices. Most of the time, however, you will have choices. . . In deciding to call certain available witnesses, remember the following considerations:

1.  Do not overprove your case. Many lawyers call far too many witnesses, thereby boring the jury or, even worse, creating the impression that the lawyer doesn’t have confidence in her own witnesses. In general, calling a primary witness and one or two corroboration witnesses on any key point is enough. It’s usually best to make your case in chief simple, fast, and then quit while ahead.” (Fundamentals of Trial Techniques (3rd Ed. 1992), at 388-89.)

I think Rich’s approach to giving the jurors what they want–rather than trying to walk on eggshells not to alienate them–is by far the better approach. Thanks, Rich!

†Truth be told, I have no problem with bow ties, and I expect most jurors don’t, either. A bad, porno movie mustache, on the other hand, will not be tolerated (except by jurors with their own bad, porno movie mustaches).

What Jurors Bring Into The Deliberation Room

jury_room_525-300x204On Wednesday, a 12-member New York jury returned a verdict against Michael Steinberg, a senior portfolio manager with hedge fund SAC Capital Advisors LP, finding him guilty of trading using inside information that allegedly passed through four people before it reached him. An article in today’s Wall Street Journal about the deliberations of the jury forewoman, Demethress Gordon, provides a glimpse into how jurors bring their own experiences to the deliberation process, sometimes filling gaps left open by the trial attorneys.

Ms. Gordon entered the deliberations convinced Steinberg was innocent. The evidence against Steinberg included tips passed to him from his subordinate, an SAC analyst named Jon Horvath, about Dell and Nvidia. Steinberg allegedly placed trades within minutes after receiving the information from Horvath, who was a cooperating witness in the government’s prosecution. Ms. Gordon was initially not convinced by the evidence that Steinberg knew the tips were the fruits of confidential, “inside” information. She rationalized, as the story points out, “he [Steinberg] was the boss and relied on his staff to supply him with information they knew to be proper.”

Following the first day of deliberations, however, Ms. Gordon attended a screenwriting class “that happened to focus on the subtext of characters’ actions.” This made her receptive to an analogy offered, during the second day of deliberations, by another juror “who told her to imagine walking through the door. ‘He told me to go through the door,’ she said. ‘I understood what he meant, without him having to say, ‘Walk to the door. Turn the knob. Step through it.'” It “suddenly clicked. People can understand more than they are told . . . Mr. Steinberg must have known the information he received was based on nonpublic information . . . even if it wasn’t explicitly made clear.” After Ms. Gordon changed her mind and explained her reasoning to the sole remaining hold-out, who agreed, the jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict.

This perfectly illustrates how jurors will sometimes draw from their own outside experiences or intuitions to fill a problematic chasm in the elements of a case (or a defense). While I don’t know more about the evidence either side presented, this suggests to me (1) that the prosecutor did not have or put forth sufficient evidence that Steinberg would have understood, explicitly or implicitly, that the analyst’s tip was inside information (though it is telling that 10 of 12 jurors were apparently ready to convict at the end of the first day of deliberations), and/or (2) Steinberg’s defense attorney did not sufficiently anticipate and exploit this gap in the evidence. Either way, it’s interesting to be a fly on the wall.

One Sure Way To Boost Audience Retention

31585505_yawn2_xlargeWe could debate for hours whether compelling public speakers are born with that gift or they achieve it through diligent practice. I suspect that, like many skills, it’s probably a bit of both. Few would disagree that everyone benefits from practice. Practice with honest feedback can be particularly helpful. This is why I’m a big fan of Toastmasters.

I think it’s probably also true that many speakers can sometimes make major improvements just by making a small tweak in the style, content, or both, of their presentation. Here I’m thinking about some advice I came across in Brian Johnson and Marsha Hunter’s recent book, The Articulate Attorney (2nd Ed. 2013). They discuss the difficulties we encounter in maintaining audience attention. This problem is crucial if your goal in speaking is anything other than pure entertainment because it is unlikely your audience–a jury, for example–will process and retain anything you say if they’re not paying attention. Johnson and Hunter write:

“Listeners pay close attention to the beginnings of presentations. Minds often wander in the middle, and retention drops. When the listener gets a signal that the end is near–‘In conclusion . . .’–attention increases once again. Primacy is the first thing listeners hear; recency is the last.” (Id. at 85.)

I have elsewhere heard a variation on this observation, with the attendant advice that one should structure a presentation so that the really important information comes at the beginning and the end. I suppose that’s better than nothing. But the logical implication is that the information that comes between the beginning and the end is less important, or not important at all. I don’t know about you, but I try to leave information that is less important or unimportant out altogether. And we can’t very well just have a beginning and an end with no middle, can we?

Johnson and Hunter offer a superior alternative. They urge speakers to “chunk,” or divide larger bits of information into smaller chunks, which is easier for the human brain to receive, process and retain. Additionally, rather than a speech which consists of one strong beginning, a middle and one strong ending, they urge speakers to create several rather discrete chunks, each with its own beginning, middle and ending. They write:

“Since beginnings and endings are good, create more of them. Rather than conceive your presentation as having one beginning and one ending, clearly delineate each topic area. Begin new topics with a headline (begin/primacy) and explicitly mark the conclusion of the topic with a wrap-up (end/recency). When your major ideas are demarcated in this fashion, your presentation will have many beginnings and endings. Each time a new topic is headlined and closed out, the daydreaming (or emailing) listener’s attention is refreshed.” (Id. at 87.)

So go on, be a “chunker.”

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.

%d bloggers like this: