Tag Archives: Wall Street Journal

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?


Legal Education: Less Is Not Necessarily More

9897_1The Wall Street Journal ran an article yesterday discussing the ongoing debate whether the traditional course of study for a law degree, which is a prerequisite in most states for admission to practice, should be reduced from three years to just two. Even President Obama, who is both the product of a traditional three-year Juris Doctor program and a former legal educator, weighed in somewhat in favor of a change. The biggest factor spurring this debate seems to be the skyrocketing costs of law school.

I approach this question with the following background. I graduated from a high second-tier law school in 1993. I paid my own way through law school, amassing about $80,000 in loans. I had accepted an offer at an insurance defense firm where I had been clerking for 2 years; my starting salary was $52,000. It took me about 11 (painful) years to pay off my student loans. I give this background to make clear that I don’t come at this issue from the perspective of the academic elite, nor did I finish school without a job.

My experience working for various small firms, mid-sized litigation firms, and now at an AmLaw 150 firm tells me that reducing the amount of training, whether it is Socratic classroom lectures or on-the-job clinical training, will not serve anyone’s interests. Beyond reducing the cost/debt of law school, it will not benefit newly-minted lawyers, who would spring from the costly but generally encouraging womb of  law school with even less to offer than at present. It will not benefit most law firms that (unlike my own) do not or cannot afford to invest in providing their lawyers with systematic, ongoing training on how to write, argue, advocate at trial or negotiate. Most importantly, it will not benefit clients who find themselves saddled with a new lawyer that was not sufficiently trained before being ejected from the nest.

The rising cost of law school, and resulting debt for students who may or may not be able to secure a job that exploits their training and compensates them accordingly is a real problem. It’s a terrible problem. But I do not believe that the solution lies in grinding future lawyers harder during their first two years, then turning them loose to commit malpractice at the expense of unsuspecting clients any sooner.

I have written here and here that law schools should increase the amount of real-world experience students receive before they graduate. If this can be done in a way that reduces the expense of the third year of school, then it would be a win-win. Even after I secured my first paying job as a law clerk, I still did some pro bono work in a law clerk capacity, both because it made me feel good and I gained experience I could include on my resume. Providing there is adequate supervision, many third year students could earn credits performing similar activities, which should both reduce their education tab and boost access to justice for the underserved.

BigLaw firms like my own have increasingly become involved in pro bono initiatives in which they “partner” with client legal staffs to tackle larger pro bono opportunities. This is clearly a win-win for the law firm, which gets to show off its lawyers’ skills, and for the beneficiaries of the pro bono projects, who enjoy enthusiastic, top drawer legal talent. Perhaps such “partnering” could be expanded to include third year law students, creating a win-win-win, as students get to interface with law firm leaders while showing off their enthusiasm and talent. Just a thought.

I applaud educators and others in the profession for trying to improve the situation for folks who want to practice law, a goal which should be pursued with boundless verve. On the other hand, snipping off that third year with no better substitute would be a regrettable choice.


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