The “law of least effort” is an important principle for understanding jury decision-making. In short, if there are several ways of making sense of the evidence and testimony in a case, jurors will gravitate towards the one that is the least demanding for their brains. As Nobel-winning psychology Daniel Kahneman (who has spent his life studying human decision-making) states, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”
In fact, research has consistently shown that we assign greater weight to information and ideas that are more easily accessible to us, regardless of whether that information or those ideas are accurate and reliable. It may be because the information or idea is familiar, easier to understand, makes more intuitive sense, or ties to something that is easier for our brain to access. Continue reading →
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 →
“Themes” and “story” have been the buzzwords of the jury consulting industry for nearly forty years. Judging from the vast majority of calls that I receive, these two items are what most defense attorneys believe are the missing pieces in their efforts to convince the jury to find for the defense. It can be challenging to develop a theme or a story. It sounds so simple, yet it can be unclear about how you go about developing them. Fortunately, there are experts like me who can assist defense attorneys with this process. However, for a variety of reasons, defense attorneys do not always have the ability to retain a jury consultant. With that in mind, this blog identifies five simple, but essential exercises for defense attorneys who are trying to develop powerful themes and stories for their case.
Seem a little silly? While no attorney has ever said something like this to me, from time to time, I have sensed that a client initially thought such exercises might be silly. Any hint of this quickly fades as we get into the exercise in our strategy sessions. Defense attorneys are often surprised by how helpful these simple and “silly” exercises help them in the strategy development process. Continue reading →
In this episode of The Sniper Defense, Podcast Playbook for Defense Attorneys, Thomas O’Toole, Ph.D. discusses a process that defense attorneys can use to develop effective defense strategies and themes.
With that headline, there are quite a few things I could write about. This blog, however, is about the Trump problem for the other seventeen GOP candidates. Watch any interview with a Republican candidate and what do the interviewers spend most of their time asking the candidate about? Trump. A few candidates are fairly good at deflecting and putting the focus back on their candidacy, but others buy in and spend their valuable network time talking about Trump.
Now, I’m not saying that Trump is going to win the nomination since Trump’s biggest problem is also Trump. But, when the other candidates only talk about Trump (whether “forced” by the media or by choice), they become another mouthpiece for him and his story, not their own. Even if they spend that time attacking him, they are still making it about him and, consequently, letting him control the dialogue and debate. Continue reading →
Every successful strategy development session I have conducted with clients culminated in an “a-ha” moment, where we collectively came to some sort of realization about the case…a moment of clarity you might say…that fundamentally changed the way we presented the case at trial. These are the moments strategists live for and they are the difference makers when it comes to strategy development. The vast majority of these moments tend to result in a perspective shift for the case theory and story. In other words, the realizations usually result in telling the story from a different perspective within the confines of the case. These sort of perspective shifts can be devastating for an opponent. Perspective shifts can undermine or eliminate the offense for the other side and narrow the case in a manner that makes it difficult for the other side to prevail.
One of my favorite examples of the perspective shift in lawsuits came from attorney Mike Lewis, who was the main architect of the lawsuits brought by the States against Big Tobacco. Lewis worked for the plaintiffs in those cases. His strategy was a brilliant example of an effective perspective shift. Lewis was frustrated with the poor success rate plaintiffs had against Big Tobacco. While there was strong evidence about what Big Tobacco knew and hid from the public, Big Tobacco had a simple and powerful theme: personal choice. In other words, Big Tobacco had prevailed in so many cases because it would simply argue that the plaintiff made the choice to become a smoker. This created a simple and powerful focal points for jurors by drawing in the element of personal responsibility. This theme resonated with jurors across the country and led to low success rates for plaintiffs. Continue reading →
“A verdict is a product of what jurors choose to focus on.” This mantra has been drilled into my head since my early days of working on my doctorate in Legal Communication and Psychology. The extraordinary simplicity of the statement causes it to teeter on the brink of cliché, but as my favorite author David Foster Wallace once said, “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” Clichés are clichés for a reason: they speak to simple truths. Sometimes, however, these simple truths are so simple that they are easy to ignore, but to steal another line from Wallace, I’d ask you to “bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.”
Jurors’ focus is zero-sum. If jurors are focused on one thing, they are not focused on something else. This is critical once you consider the research that suggest jurors remember as little as 10% of what they heard over the course of trial by the time they reach deliberations. Any given case has hundreds or thousands of pieces of information associated with it. This is true of even the simplest cases. It may not feel that way to the attorneys, but that is because the attorneys have already determined what he or she believes is important about the case (i.e. he or she has already established a focus). Consequently, many facts and a lot of testimony will be forgotten or ultimately have no impact on deliberations. Focus serves as the gatekeeper for what is considered important and unimportant, which plays a critical role in what is remembered and discussed during deliberations. Continue reading →
Libraries have shelves and shelves of books and articles full of clever tricks and tips for developing effective case theories and themes. Some are gimmicks. Some do not come close to accomplishing what they promise. I recall hearing one story about placing a bunch of case-related words in a jar and randomly picking them out. I have seen exercises that reminded me of the old Mad Libs books from my childhood years. One of the dangers in our profession is that the givers of advice can get a little too cute or “gimmicky” in their attempts to set themselves apart from others.
In my experience, the most important exercise for effective theme development is also one of the most simple, elementary, and non-gimmicky exercises out there: systematically listing out the case weaknesses and strengths. In case strategy sessions with my clients, we post those large 3M sheets up on the wall with one or two sheets a piece devoted to the weaknesses and strengths. We start with the depressing part and focus solely on the case weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Once we have listed off every weakness or vulnerability we can think of, we change gears and do the same for the case strengths. Having the list within visual reference is extremely helpful as we move into the theme development portion of the section.
I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to watch several longs trials from start to finish over the course of my career. Most of these have been in the context of conducting shadow juries, where four to six jury-eligible participants watch trial and provide feedback about each day’s proceedings. It is incredibly rare to receive this kind of data, uninhibited by the limitations of mock presentations and post-trial juror interviews. Every jury consultant should have the opportunity to have this experience because it forces the industry to reconcile its theories of jury-decision making with the practical limitations of courtroom proceedings. In other words, it is one thing to sit in a meeting months out from trial and feel good about the great “story” the attorney is going to tell at trial, but it is quite another thing to be able to help that attorney understand how to practically go about telling that story effectively at trial within the framework of courtroom procedures and all of the inherent limitations of the fragmented, nonlinear means of presenting evidence and testimony.
I just recently finished a shadow jury for a four-week trial and had an “aha” about one of the most prevalent, yet under-appreciated limitations that attorneys face at trial in their attempts to get “the story” out: Nothing brings “story-telling” to a grinding halt like having to lay foundation. Foundation slows down “story-telling” by essentially creating large gaps between the key pieces of evidence and testimony. Continue reading →