ALL THINGS JURY: Focus groups and mock trials -- Understanding the difference

By Mark C. Blankenship | Jun 15, 2007

CHARLESTON -- In preparing for a trial, an attorney studies every aspect of a case –- the laws, the principals, the precedents -– and forms strategies based on what he or she learns during this research phase of case preparation.

Many times, a case is won or lost based on how a jury processed the information given during the court presentation. Because attorneys are generally not mind readers, how can an attorney know what and how his or her jury is thinking?

The obvious answer seems, at first, a bit too simple. Ask them. Gather the jury into a room and interview each one about backgrounds and how that affects what he or she sees and hears during the presentation. Unfortunately, it's fairly frowned upon when an attorney tries to talk to the jury outside of the jury box. But what if there was a way to interview a group of people that is similar to your jury?

Jury research is a prime opportunity to interview your jury. Or rather, a panel of potential jurors that mirrorss what your jury could look like. Gathering people from all walks of life and educational and financial backgrounds and then exploring how they react to information is one of the best ways to read the minds of your jury. What ways could you glean information from this panel of potential jurors?

The first and most broadest category of jury research is the is Non-adversarial Focus Groups. This type of focus group is a good jumping off beginning point in to forming strategiesy. Lead by an impartial and unbiased moderator, a group of people meet to discuss a case that may be months away from trial. Through a discussion of general case elements and principals, key thoughts and themes can be identified. Generally, the Non-adversarial Focus Group does not concentrate on reaching fixed conclusions but, rather, determining what information a person or group of people would need to reach a decision.

The second next in the range of jury research options is a Mock Jury Focus Group. In this type of focus group, the moderator is replaced by attorneys that will present both plaintiff and defendant sides of a case to a panel of potential jurors. Each side has equal time to present his or her case. After being given jury instructions, the panel is divided into groups that mirror a real jury panel and each group deliberates to a verdict while being observed.

A Mock Jury Focus Group presents an attorney with great opportunities to learn more about his or her case than anything he or she could read in a library or gain from anecdotal conversations. It is not only an opportunity to explore how case themes and arguments are received and understood but also to start getting clues as to what, or who, leads opinions and how people will influence each other's opinions and decisions.

In a more extensive Mock Jury Focus Group, case themes and strategies can be tested on one group, modified and revised, then tested on a second group. Through Eeach session, more insight will be gained on what works and, more importantly, what doesn't.

The third option is a full-scale Mock Trial. To the panel of participants, this looks and feels more like a trial. Two lawyersAttorneys argue each side of a case, sometimes before a "judge," real or mock. Witnesses take the stand and are cross-examined or tTruncated video depositions of witnesses, highlighting both strengths and weaknesses, are screened by the panel. Exhibits, graphics, and documents make a prominent appearance. A Mock Trial is a great opportunity to fine-tune one's case.

Because they are immersed in something so close to reality, participants in a Mock Trial become more involved and emotionally invested in the proceedings. Not only are case themes and ideas presented and tested, the attorney's own style of communicating to a group of people can be examined.

Jury research can become complicated and involved and, sometimes, the resulting information can be overwhelming. Consulting with a firm that specializes in jury research can ease the burden of preparing for focus groups and interpreting the results. Focus groups and mock trials are infinitely customizableadaptable to fit each individual cases. The type of jury research called for is also dependent on pre-trial timing. While more general research like Non-adversarial Focus Groups is called for early in the pre-trial process, a Mock Trial is more applicable, and useful, as the actual trial approaches. An experienced firm will tailor focus groups and mock trials. With a jury research firm's help, an attorney can become more in tune understanding regarding with how a jury will receive his or her case.

Blankenship is a senior vice president with RMS Strategies, a communications and opinion research agency headquartered in Charleston. RMS Strategies has executed numerous public relations plans and litigation research projects for clients across the nation. They can be contacted at (304) 343-7655 or

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