CHARLESTON -- Litigation research is a constantly evolving science. One thing that remains surprisingly constant is the similarity in people's opinions. Interview enough people about the same subject and you will soon find that there are a finite number of opinions and perceptions.
Being a trial attorney relies heavily on being able to relate to people from different backgrounds and walks of life. Knowing the generalities of how you and your client are perceived can pave the way for a positive outcome at a trial. Because it's not exactly feasible, or especially ethical, to simply ask your jurors "What do you think of my client?" before a trial begins, you may be curious how you can tap into this font of knowledge.
One fairly common way to learn what perceptions and opinions you may be facing is a Community Attitude Survey. That sounds more technical. You may have heard it referred to as a "poll." Using a well-crafted Community Attitude Survey, you may find that your client is generally very well thought of in the community or you may discover your client's image is generally not as squeaky clean as you may like. You might even uncover an amazing lack of any knowledge of your client. Generally.
Community Attitude Surveys are powerful keys to generally learning what people think. While this type of survey is very useful when beginning to prepare for a trial, it's also a perfect opportunity to plan strategies before there is a need for a trial. Corporations, firms, industries, companies and people can all benefit from knowing what general preconceived ideas about them are. With this information, steps can be taken to build and strengthen an image. In the court of public opinion. In the courtroom.
Another type of survey, the Jury Selection Survey, may seem at first glance to be very similar to a Community Attitude Survey. There are, of course, some very key differences. A Jury Selection Survey is used to narrow down profiles of the best and worst possible jurors. In this type of survey, a very unbiased scenario about your trial is read to respondents and questions are asked regarding the case.
Where a Community Attitude Survey may find, for example, that 45 percent of people surveyed have a negative view of you or your client, a Jury Selection Survey will help you discover that 68 percent of men over age 50 with a college education will side with your client. Now, you'll have information that will come in handy during the jury selection and voir dire process. Information gathered in a Jury Selection Survey can be used to develop a pre-trial questionnaire that will guide you in choosing which jurors may be best for you and your client. The key is knowing what questions to ask to classify jurors without giving away valuable information to opposing counsel.
Similarly very trial-centric is a Change of Venue Survey. Many attorneys may feel their clients are not going to be able to receive the fair trial they deserve. When you think it is appropriate and possible to ask for a change of venue due to widespread publicity or negative bias, one way to show a judge there is merit to your request is a Change of Venue Survey. During interviews of people in the venue, you can discover the level of awareness and amount of bias that exists. Based on this information, a well-educated and researched opinion can be expressed to encourage a just and fair trial for your client, whether in that venue or moved to a different venue.
Preparing for a trial involves more than studying and memorizing law books. Learning what common perceptions are working for or against you before you even begin to present your case is the first step in having a well-planned trial strategy. Requesting a change of venue may be in your client's best interest but you'll need to have well-grounded research to prove that your client cannot be guaranteed a fair trial. Creating a profile of the best and worst jurors for your case and using the information to legally and ethically screen jurors is an excellent way to shape a jury panel that is best for your client.
Blankenship is a senior vice president with RMS Strategies, a communications and opinion research agency headquartered in Charleston. RMS Strategies has executed extensive public relations plans and litigation research projects for clients throughout the nation during the last 20 years. They can be contacted at 304.343.7655 or www.rmsstrategies.com.