Persuading a New Generation of Millennial Jurors

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

Over the past few months, I’ve celebrated my 40thbirthday, my 15thyear in the jury consulting industry, and the 5-year anniversary of Sound Jury Consulting. In short, I’m getting older, and as we grow older, the world around us changes. One of the more interesting changes in the world of juries is the increasing number of millennials serving as jurors. Recently, I looked at the venire information from 18 trials in which I picked a jury in King County, Washington (Seattle) over the past 3 years. The sample size was large — over a 1,000 potential jurors. Nearly all of these cases were set to last two or more weeks. Of the 1,000+ individuals who showed up for jury duty, 31% were millennials (i.e. 1 in every 3 people showing up for jury duty in King County is a millennial).

With the increasing number of millennial jurors, it is worth looking at the research on how these individuals differ from prior generations. Millennials are truly unique. They have grown up in the age of internet and social media, both of which research has shown can change the way our brain works. They engage with social media at substantially higher rates than older people like me. They have grown up with helicopter parents who raised them to believe they were special and great, giving them participation trophies at every turn. In fact, millennials got so many participation trophies growing up that a recent study showed that 40% believe they should be promoted every two years, regardless of performance. One researcher described the millennial generation as a “cultural shift towards narcissism,” noting that the incidence of narcissistic personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their 20s as for the generation that’s now 65 or older. They are so convinced of their own greatness, as Joel Stein notes in Time, that the National Study of Youth and Religion found the guiding morality of 60% of millennials in any situation is that they’ll just be able to “feel” what’s right.

A few years back, researcher and university professor Christy Price set out to research how learning styles for millennials differ from prior generations. From this research, she proposed 5 teaching strategies, which she dubs “the 5 R’s.” Those focus primarily on an academic setting, so I’ve taken her 5 R’s and modified them to fit the unique environment of courtroom persuasion, which I am calling the “VISPA” model (variety, importance, structure, pressure-free, and affinity) for persuading millennial jurors in the courtroom. The goal of this blog is to outline the key differences in learning styles. Future blogs will break each of these down to identify practical strategies attorneys can use to adapt to these differences:

  1. Variation. Here’s what Christy Price says: Millennials prefer a broad spectrum of learning strategies. The concept of learner-style is more pronounced in this generation. They prefer learning materials being delivered in a way that caters to their visual, auditory, and even kinesthetic needs. A key is that they need to experience change in the presentation to maintain interest. Their attention spans are shorter– so they quickly move on to other forms of learning. In fact, one popular study has shown that the human attention span has been reduced over the years to only 8 seconds (compared to a gold fish, which clocks in at 9 seconds). This means that attorneys need to incorporate more variety in their presentations at trial.
  2. Importance. Millennials live in a world of information overload. There is more information available to them than ever before in history and they are left to sort through it all. They have excelled at “discovering” information on the web, butPrice found that millennials do not value a piece of information for its own sake, but for its relevance. This is why she says, with millennials, it is critical to specifically tie the information you are giving them to their task and to their lives. Otherwise, it will be forgotten. Thinking about trial, there is simply too much information to remember over the course of trial so, to help, they need to understand the relevance, both to their lives (i.e. how it connects to their cherished values) and the key issues in the case. This is something too many attorneys take for granted.
  3. Structure. Older generations were raised in more of an authoritarian world where they were taught to accept what they were told without questioning it. Millennials are different. They have been raised in a less authoritative environment, where decisions and actions are constantly questioned and justified. Consequently, they want to know the rationale behind what they are being told. Christy Price tells us, when trainers and instructors provide the rationale behind policies and regulations in a learning environment, these young learners are more likely to respond positively. Consequently, attorneys need to work hard to make the logical structure of the case theory clear to millennial jurors.
  4. Pressure-free. Some research suggests that one of the defining characteristics of millennials is that they are lazy, but this sounds a little too much like the classic “kids these days” lament. The reality is that millennials are used to a world where information to help them understand is always immediately available through the web. Trial is not consistent with this world they are used to. Jurors don’t have the opportunity to take a “time out” and google what the attorney is talking about to better understand the issues. In fact, jurors will sometimes go days before they get the clarity on an issue that they need, if they get it at all. Consequently, attorneys need to engage in more hand-holding as they walk jurors through precisely what the issues are. However, there is a fine line to walk as it is important not to come across as condescending.
  5. Affinity. Finally, Price’s research showed that millennials are more relationship-centered when it comes to learning than prior generations. They want to relate to, understand, and like the person who is teaching them. For this reason, it is important for attorneys to critically evaluate their “courtroom personality.” Every attorney wants to think he or she is likable in the courtroom, but this is not always the case. Interpersonal communication is critical. I have interviewed jurors after trials who have told me that they hated the way an attorney acted. The attorney did not intend to act this way; instead, this attorney engaged in nonverbal communication and had some “ticks” that were annoying and frustrating to the jurors. Often, an attorney’s poor communication/presentation habits are the product of a failure to practice their presentation. I’m often surprised at how many attorneys do not stand up and practice things like the opening statement. Some convince themselves that reading through their outline several times or talking about the opening with peers is the equivalent of practice, but it is not. Speakers thrive when they are comfortable and confident delivering their material on their feet. The only way to accomplish this is through practice.