Focus groups and mock trials can be a great benefit in preparing for trial. While similar in some ways, mock trials and focus groups are two very different exercises. The first step in using these preparation tools is to choose the one that proves the most advantageous to your case.

What is a focus group?

A focus group is a group of people recruited to participate in a guided discussion and provide feedback.

When used by the legal industry, participants are typically given short statements or read an opening or closing statement, then asked for feedback without receiving instructions on the law or background on the case. The proceedings are less formal than a mock trial.

When should I use a focus group?

Focus groups are often used early and throughout trial preparation to gather information during discovery and assist in evaluating the merits of the case. Participants are asked questions about what they think or feel about specific topics. Exploring the values and thought processes of a focus group when evaluating evidence in a case may indicate how a jury will react to the evidence during trial.

With a focus group, you may discover the strengths and weaknesses of your, as well as your opponent’s, case.  In a focus group, it is most effective if your questions center around the case facts from the vantage point of both sides.

Information gathered and answers received from focus group participants are helpful in testing the case strategies you plan to use in trial. With thoughtful, prepared questions, you may gather word tracks and verbiage that resonate with people in the group, and thus with potential jury members. This allows you to modify your language during actual trial presentation, using verbiage that is shown to have higher impact.

What is a mock trial?

A mock trial is a “practice” trial set in a simulated courtroom utilizing attorneys or staff members in the role of attorneys and the judge. In a mock trial, participants frequently are given opening and closing statements, hear from one or more “witnesses” or “experts”, and may even get to see evidence as it would be presented in court. Then they are asked to deliberate, as a real jury would, and reach a verdict.  Deliberations can be observed through a two-way mirror. Once the verdict is reached, participants are asked questions about trial presentations, effectiveness of exhibits, believability of witnesses, and what was important during deliberations. In some instances, the participants are split into two groups for closing statements and deliberations to get feedback on what closing is most powerful to potential jury members.

When should I use a mock trial?

A mock trial is a more formal experience that allows your team to practice in a realistic setting. Less practiced trial attorneys may wish to use the mock trial to hone trial skills and receive valuable feedback about their presentation skills.

A mock jury may not predict the outcome of your actual trial, but you will see strengths you want to emphasize and weaknesses you need to address during the actual trial.

Additionally, mock trials can be used to prepare a witness for questions they will be asked in trial. The mock trial recreates the stress and atmosphere of a courtroom trial, giving your witness realistic conditions under which to practice testifying. Often mock trials are videotaped, providing the opportunity to later view, critique, and improve upon your own, as well as your witness’s, presentation to the jury.

Mock trials help you get into the heads of potential jurors, watch them deliberate and learn which points had the biggest impact on their decisions. As the facts and information is fresh to them, mock jurors often have a different view of your case and may come to a different conclusion than you expect. It is better to find this out during a mock trial than in trial.

Can I use a focus group and a mock trial together?

Yes. Using a combination of both focus groups and mock trials for one case provides the biggest potential advantage. A focus group gives you information early in the case that allows you to make decisions about the case strategy before you get overly invested in one way of thinking. Then, as your case gets closer to trial, a mock trial setting will give you an opportunity to make final strategy decisions and improve your trial presentation before stepping in front of the actual jury.

How do I prepare?

Conducting focus groups and/or mock trials is not for the faint of heart. They take a lot of time, preparation, and energy. First determine if you will conduct the process on your own or use an experienced expert in the field. If you are determined to run it on your own, remember that people you recruit as participants are important but so is the time you spend preparing. Consider the activity, whether focus group or mock trial, as the real trial and prepare accordingly.

If you feel utilizing an expert to assist you will provide you the best results with less stress, start by locating a reputable company. Ask for referrals from other colleagues or you can find these services by calling trial services or focus group agencies. Some court reporting agencies that also specialize in trial services offer mock jury and focus group services.

When you call to set up a focus group or mock trial, be prepared to answer the following questions:

  • Would you like to schedule a mock trial or focus group?
  • How many people will you need in the group?
  • Do you want to conduct it in your office or their office?
  • Are there specific ages, genders or ethnic groups you would like represented in the group?

Once you have answered these questions, the trial service firm will begin recruiting participants and will schedule a date for your event.

Preparing for a Focus Group

You should arrive with your list of questions for participants. Planning ahead will allow you to gather more useful information during the time spent with the group. This is your chance to ask participants how they think and feel about specific issues in your case. Once hearing the answers, you may make crucial decisions, such as, whether to request a change of venue or if the settlement offered needs to be reconsidered. The process may also assist you in your jury selection process and in determining what theme(s) to emphasize in trial.

Preparing for a Mock Trial

Preparing for a mock trial can be time intensive, but the careful consideration and planning will be an advantage for you during your trial. You should arrive to the mock trial with an outline of presentations for both plaintiff and defendant. You will present your side of the case. You will need to bring someone from your firm or a colleague who will present your opponent’s case.

Consider using focus groups and mock trials in your next litigation. Once you have tried these tools, you will discover numerous ways to use focus groups and mock trials to gain an advantage during your next trial.