Pre-Trial Focus Groups

There we were—eight strangers from various backgrounds—gathered in the ornate conference room of a local Sacramento law firm. We were not there as witnesses in a criminal or a civil case or as beneficiaries of someone’s will. We were there to hear lawyers present the details of a lawsuit in order to give them feedback on their planned presentation of facts in a pending lawsuit as well as feedback on how they believed the defendants in the case would present their cases at trial. We were not there to render a verdict (i.e. act as mock jury) but merely to give the plaintiff’s lawyers an average view of how their presentation and those of the other involved parties would play out in court to an average jury.

Our ages ranged from early 40s to a gentleman around 70 years old. We came from varied backgrounds and life experiences. We were asked some basic personal questions—age, professions, marital status—as well as questions to see what we had knowledge of as far as situations directly related to the case. Due to confidentiality issues, I can’t go into details on the specifics of the case we were presented with. Basically, we were a legal focus group.

For many years, focus groups have been used as a way of finding the public’s views on new products or new ideas prior to their public introduction. The latest legal trend is for lawyers and law firms to use them as sounding boards for their case presentations as well to give them an idea what sort of things to look for in potential jurors during voir dire.

A group of random individuals with no connection to any of the lawyers or law firms involved nor any of the litigants to the case are brought(in this case, it was via a Craigslist ad). The participants are questioned by a lawyer or paralegal as a group about their general attitudes on responsibility as well as their life experiences. This is followed by a general summary of the pending case.

Next, an attorney presents the basic details of events from the firm’s client’s position including specific details of the damages suffered. This presentation is followed by presentations of the events from the defendant(s) position(s) by a separate attorney for each defendant. The focus group members are then asked to provide verbal and written notes on their views of each of the presentations—what was good, bad, unclear. This is followed by presentation of segments of taped depositions from the case after which the focus group is asked to evaluate the honesty and believability of key witnesses. Finally, the focus group is asked to assign a percentage of responsibility to each of the parties to the case as well as give our views on the amount of monetary award(if any) the plaintiff should be entitled to for general damages(pain and suffering, emotional distress, etc.).

For about three hours of your time, the law firm pays you fifty dollars and as much coffee/orange juice you can drink as well as whatever amount of bagels you care to eat. All in all, it is an interesting way to spend a part of a day.

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