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“Trial consultant quackery”: Here we go again…

Friday, November 28, 2014
posted by Douglas Keene

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quackery

We just wrote about popular blogs picking up old survey data and discussing it as though it were new and relevant. Now, Pacific Standard magazine has published a rehashing of the content of a book published in 2002 as though it was fresh and new. Our friend and colleague, Ken Broda-Bahm over at Persuasive Litigator has done a blog post that looks carefully and critically at the claims made and we encourage you to read his post as a counterpoint to the Pacific Standard article by Jane C. Hu. Ken closes his post where we wish to begin ours:

“And in the meantime, those who have questions about the foundation for trial consulting and jury selection assistance should ask an experienced practitioner, and should focus on the actual practices and not on the myths.”

If it wasn’t so annoying in its gross distortions about the practice of litigation consulting, the dated Kressel and Kressel book, Stack and Sway, would be amusing. If trial consultants actually had the power to “stack and sway” juries, we would be very, very wealthy and there would be a lot more of us than there truly are in the country today. And the system would be irreparably harmed. We are not experts in verdict slight-of-hand. We are students of–and aspiring experts in–identifying and uncovering bias. We research and seek to understand what life experiences and values bear upon the decisions juries reach, in an effort to keep those preconceptions from influencing verdicts against our clients. Yes, we would like to see our knowledge assist our clients. But the purpose of “scientific jury selection” is not to “win” but to swear in a jury that will actually listen to the presentation of evidence and make decisions based on what they hear, rather than deciding based on their pre-existing biases and predilections.

Instead of stacking and swaying, we would describe what we do as applied social science. We read voraciously in the social science research literature and apply what we find there, when relevant to our work. Rather than, as Hu suggests, “incentivizing the use of lazy stereotypes”, we work to identify stereotypes and then to excise them from voir dire, jury selection, and case presentation. As Broda-Bahm notes, a skilled and veteran trial consultant has actual knowledge about many (but not all) of the characteristics that identify biased jurors. With no knowledge or insight, all that is left is the “lazy stereotypes”. Hu poses the accusation against trial consultants, and then goes on to note the obvious contradiction–information reduces stereotyping in every area of life, including jury behavior and jury selection.

If you read this blog routinely, you know we focus intently on bias in many shapes and forms. What we know, as many of you also know, is that bias is powerful, pervasive, and persistent. We want to know where bias lurks and how it may twist and turn depending on case facts. It can take a lot of work to identify biases affecting decisions in a given case and it certainly is not a process we would describe as “lazy”.

Ironically, Hu’s example of how trial consultants use lazy stereotypes cites a case wherein a prosecuting attorney used a stereotype to strike a juror. Note to Hu: prosecuting attorneys are not typically trial consultants (nor do they typically use trial consultants).

Recently, I joined the trial team for a three-week intellectual property trial following the completion of a mock trial where we had measured the attitudes, values and beliefs of our mock jurors and looked closely at how those pre-existing characteristics were related, if at all, to eventual verdict in our mock trial. As every trial lawyer and litigant would wish, we tried to figure out as much as possible about who was in the jury box. Hu, in her recent Pacific Standard article, characterizes this as “creepy”. It really is more sensible than “creepy”. I would be intrigued to hear Ms. Hu list the information that, were she a party to a lawsuit or facing criminal prosecution, she would like to keep away from her trial counsel due to excessive creepiness.

When you work on litigation where there is a lot of money on the line, it is very likely that both sides have done pretrial research. The playing field is typically fairly balanced. Just as the trial team is looking into every legal theory that might aid in their client representation, litigation consultants are engaged to help strategize how to overcome bias in juror decision-making.

It is very likely that both sides are doing internet research to identify values, attitudes and beliefs that inform individual decision-making processes of potential jurors.

If there is no time for research on individual jurors prior to voir dire, it is likely that both sides are doing that research once a jury is seated in order to inform tweaks to case narrative.

If no jury research is done, voir dire is rushed or not permitted, and nothing else is known about the venire members–decisions will be made based on stereotypes.  And sadly, the attorneys who are making those calls will do it knowing that it is a lousy way to make strike decisions. Using demographic stereotypes (age, education, socio-economic status, race, employment, marital status, parental status, etc.) is a very crude tool, far too much like doing surgery with a very dull blade.

If you choose not to conduct pretrial research and eventual juror research in cases with budgets that can justify it, you are either naïve, over-confident, unaware, or perhaps you are just a dinosaur. Back in 2002, when Kressel and Kressel wrote their book, internet research was unable to find much. In 2014, the age of social media and online documentation of life, there is much to learn and there are ethical ways to guide that exploratory internet research.

We feel very comfortable with our work and with our attorney-clients. We are fortunate to have clients who are committed to advocacy and fairness. We are not, as Hu suggests, ethically challenged. We are not creepy. We do not stalk potential jurors and we do not attempt to friend them on Facebook. We look at what people put out there in public for all the world to see online. We are informed, educated, principled professionals who work hard to identify bias and level the playing field. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. But we always try our best to identify where a person is at risk of losing track of the evidence and revert back to their historical biases and stereotypes.

We encourage you to read Ms. Hu’s article, keeping in mind what Ken Broda-Bahm has written and what we have shared here. Ultimately, what Ms. Hu writes of is not jury consulting, it is instead, someone’s confused fantasy about what our goals are, what our methods are, and what guides our practices. Our readership is smart and discerning. You’ll figure it out. And eventually, Ms. Hu might, too.

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