On April 3, 2018, I was called to jury service as a trial juror in Supreme Court, New York County. And, for a lawyer, being on the other side of the courtroom rail is a thought provoking experience. My chances of being chosen to sit on a civil tort suit, of course, were slim–former prosecutor, insurance defense and coverage attorney and an acquaintance with many of the plaintiff and defense practitioners in New York County.
Step one in the jury selection process is Voir Dire, an Anglo-French term which literally means: To see, to speak. But I prefer the Latin derivation of the phrase: Verum dicere, meaning “To say what is true.” What the law wants is “fair and impartial” jurors who will decide the case on the facts disclosed at trial.
What advocates want is something else–jurors “open” to their view of the matter on trial. Jury selection has become a science, a practice featured on Bull, a popular TV drama featuring Michael Weatherly playing Dr. Jason Bull, a character modeled after Phil McGraw who began one of the most successful trial consulting firms in the country. Like all jury consultants, Bull purports to use everything from social media to neurolinguistics to discern what really makes a juror tick, and thus either a good or bad choice for counsel.
As I sat through my first voir dire in a medical malpractice action, I re-discovered, in a visceral way, what I always knew, the challenge for the lawyers is to judge whether the prospective juror is really saying what is true (verum dicere). Potential jurors who don’t want to serve, to be sure, know what answers to give. And all good advocates recognize these for what they are–polite fibs to avoid the trial time commitment. So, the real challenge begins when the fibbers fall away and the potential panel consists of those citizens prepared to give of their time to decide the contest.
I have used jury consultants and their insights are often valuable. The usefulness of their contribution depends in large measure on how well counsel has developed its trial themes and the overall narrative of the story counsel plans to tell at trial. But the reality is jury consultants are pricey and the cost often outweighs the potential benefit in the garden variety controversy.
So, how do you tell whether the juror is telling the truth about potential bias, about attitudes, about whatever issue matters to your trial themes. There are no magic answers. Go with your gut. And if you want a rationale for this tried and true advice, I urge you to read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell who had a simple but profound insight: We get into trouble when we try to talk ourselves out of a gut feeling. According to Gladwell, our brains are fabulous microprocessors that process information on many, many levels–levels well beyond our conscious awareness.
Say, for example, your gut tells you something is “off” about an engineer in the panel of prospective jurors; yet, your mind tells you a person trained to solve problems and think logically is ideal. What to do? Gladwell would urge you to follow your instinct and use a peremptory challenge to strike the engineer.
By now, after this musing, you’re wondering what became of my jury service. I was bounced from a panel in a medical malpractice “pre-qualification” panel because WCM had cases with defense counsel’s firm. And, at 4pm, the jury clerk dismissed everyone because so few cases were trial ready because of Spring Break Week.
But back to Gladwell, and another word of caution. A nurse excused from the same med-mal panel and I started chatting as we headed for the exit upon being excused from our term of service. But she, unlike me, sat through several hours of questioning. Bold, and thinking of Gladwell, I asked my new friend: “Based on what you saw during voir dire–and if you needed a lawyer–who would you hire?” “Easy call,” she said, “Plaintiff’s Attorney.” Puzzled, I asked why, because, to my eye, defendant’s counsel seemed, well, more authentic and in command.
The answer? “Defendant’s counsel slouched and was sloppy in appearance. “
The moral of this tale is this: Stand straight and wear clothes that fit. To give my elevator friend due credit, defendant’s lawyer did look like he was wearing his older brother’s suit. And it was green, a poor color choice for an advocate unless, of course, you are Reaganesque.
And that’s it for this This and That.