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Focus groups are a valuable tool in trial law to learn how citizens in a particular venue perceive a civil lawsuit. Focus groups provide valuable information on the strengths and weaknesses of arguments presented by both the Plaintiff’s and Defendant’s perspectives, perceptions of liability, and range of awards. Traditional focus groups, which provide both qualitative (descriptive) and quantitative (predictive) models, are widely used among trial lawyers. However, advances in research methodologies and data analytic tools have changed the way trial consultants approach focus groups. 

Focus groups can take many forms. A traditional format is a group of 6-12 people who meet face-to-face in a conference room and discuss the facts and evidence of a case. However, social distancing requirements from the COVID-19 pandemic prevent conducting traditional focus groups. Online focus groups offer an alternative that may better serve certain goals, and can be conducted “live” and synchronously in platforms such as the typical video conference apps used today. Online focus groups can also be conducted asynchronously in a dedicated chat room or threaded discussion format. Below we review different types of focus groups to use depending on your goals, and how the delivery of the group interaction (online, face-to-face, asynchronous) can affect data quality. 

Goals of Focus Groups

 

Goal: Exploration

 

In the discovery phase of a case, focus groups can help explore key themes and biases that will come up in trial. Focus groups with an exploratory goal can help identify what themes and language are most impactful. As participants learn the story, they share their attitudes, feelings, and beliefs about the case. 

The exploratory focus group can also help identify what types of evidence is necessary to convince jurors. Participants can identify gaps in the evidence or story and suggest what information is needed to persuade them in your favor. 

Finally, exploratory focus groups can help identify how jurors will react to your witnesses and perceive your client. 

 

Goal: Constructing Your Case Presentation, Arguments, and Evidence

 

If you have a strong idea of the themes, biases, and effective evidence for your case, you can experimentally test your case presentation including language used in your arguments and the best order to present your evidence. 

Focus group participants can critique evidence and discuss what is most influential and what is needed to change their minds. Taking an experimental approach allows you to test your weakest and strongest arguments, as well as test your opposition’s arguments. 

 

Goal: Find the Ideal Juror Profile

 

If your goal is to identify the ideal “type” of juror for your case, a different approach to focus groups is needed. Online questionnaires with a representative sample of community members allows you to gather personality and background information, then determine how this profile predicts potential jurors’ judgments of liability and damages. 

Types of Focus Groups

 

Concept Focus Groups

 

The purpose of concept focus groups is to encourage participants to brainstorm and discuss the evidence. Concept focus groups have an exploratory goal to help identify key themes for trial. This type of focus group is best conducted during the discovery phase of trial preparation. Participants share their attitudes, feelings, and beliefs about the case and therefore serve as a “community thermometer” to determine what issues will surface in trial, what biases may be important, and how to handle these issues. 

 

Structured Focus Groups

 

A structured focus group is used after the exploratory phase, once the key themes, arguments, and evidence have been identified. In a structured focus group, questions and order are determined beforehand, and participants discuss and debate the case evidence in that order. This type of focus group is flexible in terms of group size and duration. The information gained from a structured focus group can address specific questions regarding biases or gaps in case information. 

 

Mock Trials

 

Mock trials use focus groups to simulate the processes of an actual jury. The group size is typically 6-12 and the process is more formal. Typically, lawyers present their case in the order and manner they planned for the actual trial to test their effectiveness. Individual jurors can provide their verdicts on liability and damages privately, and discuss their views in the group. The mock trial format will also provide information on how different people interact and influence each other when discussing the case evidence. When combined with supplemental questionnaires, the mock jury can also identify the ideal juror profile regarding personality and background. 

 

Our Approach: Online Mock Trials

 

Online Mock Trials are a new and cost-effective way to  quickly acquire  thoughts and reactions of a few-to-several hundred jury-eligible residents in your case venue. The local residents that are recruited log into a secure website to review real information on an upcoming trial, complete with opening statements, exhibits, statements of witnesses, closing arguments, and jury deliberation instructions. The jurors are asked to deliberate and render a verdict and, if appropriate, award damages. The outcome provides insights from hundreds of jurors as to the reasons behind their verdicts, specific pieces of information that made them decide the way they did, what facts were most important, and the range of damages they are inclined to award. These powerful insights help evaluate if a settlement is a better option, position your story more effectively, and allow you to save time and money by directing a more focused discovery and trial strategy.

Using powerful analytic tools, you can also ask the mock jurors to evaluate your presentation strategy. Though many mock trials are conducted by a mediator, if you want to practice your trial presentation and determine how you will be perceived by jurors, you can have an objective third party conduct follow-up questions with the mock jury via additional discussion in your absence, via a questionnaire, or via one-on-one private interviews. When assured their responses will be kept confidential and an unbiased third party asks the questions, mock jurors are more likely to share their honest opinions of you as the trial attorney. How are you perceived by the jurors, as arrogant or likable? As competent or disorganized? Tools such as linguistic analysis and facial scanning can highlight jurors’ subtle, emotional, and motivational responses to your presentation and evidence. The same tools can also be used to analyze your written arguments and oral statements to determine whether you sound authentic, powerful, analytic, or emotional.

Online Mock Trials provide many sources of quality data to better understand your case’s strengths and weaknesses as well as the effectiveness of your strategy. The convenience of Online Mock Trials allows you to sample a larger group of jury-ready citizens from your venue in a short amount of time. You can use Online Mock Trials as a final step to apply what you learned in previous stages of focus groups used for exploration, constructing your case, and finding the ideal juror profile.

 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Focus Group Methods for the Legal Industry

 

Focus groups can be conducted face-to-face, online, synchronously, or asynchronously. The method you choose should be driven by your goals (e.g., exploration, testing evidence, practicing the trial). 

 

Method Advantages Disadvantages
Face-to-Face Simulate the discussion and interpersonal processes that might surface in a real jury. Gain insight into the “hot button” issues by observing participants’ reactions to the evidence and each other’s comments. Costly and time-consuming. Participants often are not representative of your venue or “jury ready.”
Online Less costly and less time-consuming and can reach a larger, more diverse audience. May lose some understanding of the interpersonal processes gained from face-to-face groups. Limited to more technology-savvy citizens.
Synchronous Learn about the intergroup processes that may surface in a real jury and affect your case. Scheduling challenges.
Asynchronous More flexible with scheduling and reaching a larger group of participants. May have less depth in responses without face-to-face or synchronous interaction. Participants have to be incentivized to come back to the group discussion.