The first thing you need to know about running a Focus Group is that you will ALWAYS learn something. It might be something that makes you feel good, like discovering that your evidence and exhibits are compelling. Or it could be something that scares you, like finding out that potential jurors don’t trust your star witness or can’t relate to your narrative of events.
Focus Groups are powerful research tools because of one simple fact: the group is more like your jury than you are. You’re a lawyer, not an ordinary person. No matter how down-to-earth you may be, you will inevitably think about a case as a professional, not like a regular person.
More importantly, you can’t predict everything no matter how good you are. Some of the best attorneys in the world have walked into a courtroom, brimming with confidence, hands full of expensive exhibits, only to find that their case was a loser because they didn’t consider how the jury might see things differently.
Some law firms take a lazy approach to Focus Groups, presenting evidence to family, friends, and colleagues. This is a great way to give yourself moral support and to feel good prior to losing a case. But it won’t reveal the information you need to know, because your “jury pool” all think and feel the same way you do.
What makes for effective Focus Groups? First, an open attitude. You have to be willing to hear negative comments about your case and how you plan to present it. And you have to really listen to what people are saying, not just pick and choose what you want to hear.
Next, you need to avoid fixating so much on “demographics.” Yes, you want a representative mix of age, race, employment, income, education, and so on. But what you really want is a healthy balance of attitudes and values. You need to hear from people who agree with your case and others who may be hostile toward it. This is the only way to find out what you don’t know and discover both the strengths and weaknesses of your case.
Lastly, you must understand what a Focus Group is and is not. It is not a crystal ball to predict an outcome. There are too many variables, including the personality of the judge, the temperament and skill of opposing counsel, and the crap shoot of the jury pool.
It is, however, a glimpse into how a jury may view your case and all the various issues, witnesses, and facts involved. It is also a good way to take a hard look at how a jury might react to you and your presentation. Every case narrative will sound like a symphony in your head, but could sound to a jury like fingernails on a blackboard.
Focus Groups are not always fun. But they can give you winning ideas and help you answer the important questions: What do the jurors care about? How do they feel about your case? What else do they need to know? What evidence strikes them as irrelevant? What am I forgetting? What is my best storyline?