Flags, Focus, and the Importance of Shifting Jurors’ Attention to Favorable Messaging

By Jill D. Schmid, Ph.D.

When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016 during the National Anthem to protest police brutality against African-Americans, the controversy was almost immediate.  The why he was doing it didn’t matter much then, and it doesn’t seem to matter much now. Instead, the protest became about the flag, the military, or even Donald Trump. One survey in October of 2017 showed that while 57% of the respondents checked that “protesting against police violence” was “one” reason for the protests, respondents also checked other reasons: Donald Trump (26%), not sure (18%), something else (20%) and the flag (14%).

This morning, as I was watching yet another story about the “Flag protest,” I wondered if support and/or understanding of the protest would be different if the label was different. While changing the label might help (labeling it what the protest is really about, e.g., “Police Brutality Protest”), what seems to have happened with this protest is that the focus became the flag and anthem as opposed to police brutality and other injustices and inequalities in the African-American community. In other words, the manner over-shadowed the message – the focus was on the protest itself and not the reason for the protest. Continue reading

Litigating Sexual Harassment Claims in the Era of “Me Too”

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

The “me too” movement has become one of the most defining issues in American culture over the last year. We have seen a variety of celebrities and public figures lose their jobs, and the media coverage has been extensive. The movement itself seeks to raise awareness, increase dialogue, and change the way many people think about issues related to sexual harassment and abuse.

In the world of litigation, a common area where sexual harassment claims arise is in employment litigation, but I have seen little to no research into how the “me too” movement has influenced the way jurors think about and react to sexual harassment claims in employment lawsuits. Consequently, we decided to conduct a national survey to examine this issue. Some of the data came as no surprise, while other data points highlighted some concerns about the movement’s implications for the workplace. Respondents were evenly balanced along political lines, almost evenly divided between “conservatives” and “liberals,” with a large number of “moderates” as well. Continue reading

Filling the Experience Gap with Creative Associate Training Programs

By Jill D. Schmid, Ph.D.

In an article called “The Case of the Vanishing Trial Lawyer,” published in the Boston Globe,a veteran litigator, Edward McCarthy, makes a compelling case for the need for associates to gain more trial experience, while acknowledging that their ability to do so is slim since the number of cases going to trial has dwindled so significantly. “Today,” he writes, “Most trial lawyers can’t learn by doing,” and he goes on to discuss how most cases settle or are handled in arbitration. He writes that “The result is that part of the legal profession’s apprentice system is disappearing.”  McCarthy references that the judges of the Massachusetts Superior Court recognized the problem and asked law firms to “let less experience lawyers do something – argue a motion, examine a witness – at trial. ‘Without the chance to speak in a courtroom…future generations of litigators will be less equipped to represent their clients effectively.’” Continue reading

Does the Size of a Corporate Defendant Matter?


By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

It probably comes as no surprise that corporate defendants face a disadvantage at trial compared to individual defendants. A long line of research has established this general corporate bias; however, there has been little attention given to how jurors view large versus small corporations, so we collected data on the subject in a 2017 nationwide survey of jury-eligible respondents.

The data generally revealed that larger corporations face greater bias than smaller corporations on both liability and damages. As support, let’s look at some interesting data points from our survey on how respondents’ beliefs might impact their views of liability in cases involving large corporations: Continue reading

Battling Confirmation Bias and First Impressions in Litigation

By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

Confirmation bias refers to when people accept or reject evidence based upon what they want to believe as opposed to basing it on the actual merits of the evidence. In some ways, it is a psychological survival mechanism tied to our beliefs about how the world works. Challenges to these beliefs can cause a great deal of chaos and stress, so our brains are, essentially, pre-programmed to seek out evidence that reinforces those beliefs, while minimizing, explaining away, or outright rejecting evidence that challenges them. In fact, this explains the siloed media we have today where people tend to pick which news channels to watch based upon their political affiliation.

For lawyers, confirmation bias can be a significant problem at trial, especially when the first impressions favor the other party. As Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes, “The sequence in which we observe characteristics of a person is often determined by chance. Sequence matters, however, because the halo effect increases the weight of first impressions, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is mostly wasted.” In other words, first impressions at trial often shape how jurors perceive the subsequent evidence and testimony at trial. A poor first impression of the defendant will likely lead jurors to place greater focus and emphasis on evidence and testimony that reinforces the negative view of the defendant and vice versa. Continue reading

Using Jury Instructions More Effectively in Closing Argument


By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

One of the studies that I like to cite more than just about any is the old 3M study that showed that people remember only about 10% of what they are told three days after it is told to them. Apply this to a trial setting and the implication is that jurors will forget up to 90% of what they heard over the course of a trial by the time they reach the deliberation room. To put it a different way, by the time jurors reach the deliberation room, they are overwhelmed, do not remember the majority of what they just heard, and face the difficult task of having to sort through hundreds to thousands of exhibits, their largely disorganized notes, and a stack of jury instructions that can be difficult to decipher. Continue reading

The Power of Embracing Bad Facts

By Jill D. Schmid, Ph.D.

On a recent episode of “All In,” Chris Hayes was discussing one possible approach the Trump team could take in regards to the Stormy Daniels mess. Similar to the approach John Edwards took in his lawsuit involving some of the same issues, the strategy is essentially go for broke by embracing and re-framing the “bad” behavior – “Sure I did it, but it wasn’t illegal.”

For Edwards, he stated it this way: “There’s no question that I’ve done wrong, and I take full responsibility for having done wrong. I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and harm that I’ve caused to others. But I did not break the law, and I never ever thought I was breaking the law.” Continue reading

The Value of Repetitive Question Structures in Direct and Cross Examination


By Thomas M. O’Toole, Ph.D.

I have previously written about how important repetition is to persuasion. I discussed how repetition increases retention, familiarity, and believability. In this post, I want to talk about one practical way of building repetition into your case presentation at trial. Continue reading

“Jury Nullification” is a Greater Threat than You Think


By Jill D. Schmid, Ph.D.

Sound Jury Consulting recently conducted a nationwide online survey in which we asked the following: If you were sitting as juror in a trial where your personal beliefs about the case were in conflict with the laws the judge told you to follow, how difficult do you believe it would be to set your personal beliefs aside and not let them influence your decision? 62% said it would be very or somewhat difficult. While the results highlight the importance of a sound jury de-selection strategy, they also speak to what many might call jury nullification.
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Does your witness script match your witness’s communication style?


By Jill D. Schmid, Ph.D.

I’m sure you’ve written dozens perhaps hundreds. For each, you’ve painstakingly chosen every word, and gone over it with a fine-tooth comb. It’s a work of art. Therefore, come time to perform this masterpiece you’re shocked when it doesn’t go off as planned. What happened? Your witness happened.

Witness scripts or outlines are a staple of any litigator’s trial playbook, as they should be for a variety of reasons. However, there are several critical mistakes or shortcuts that are often made that invite disaster on the witness stand, the biggest of which is that the attorney did not consider the witness’s particularities. Simply talking with your witness is not sufficient to uncover those particularities; instead, the best way to assess them is through a mock direct examination. Here are three critical aspects of communication that you can glean from the mock examination and then address through the construction and editing of your witness examination script. Continue reading