Home Newswire LawJobs CLE Center LawCatalog Our Sites Advertise


Small Firm Resources
Last name
First name

Image: Photodisc Blue

Printer_friendly version Comment on this item Reprints & Permissions

12 Angry Surfers
Karen Dean
Small Firm Business
December 22, 2005

After months of preparation, the lawyers at Sanders, Simpson & Fletcher had their case almost ready for trial. The Springfield, Mo., plaintiff's firm of 11 lawyers had worked hard to fine-tune the civil case. Their client had the potential of being awarded significant damages. But the allegation -- sexual misconduct against a church pastor -- was tricky. Would the facts of the case resonate well with jurors?

The best way to find out would be with a mock jury trial. But rather than spending several days away from the office working with a live mock jury, last spring, the firm decided to take the case online, to a virtual jury. And in just a few days, says attorney Sophie Woodworth, it had responses from more than 50 "jurors."

"We wanted to see if we were on the right track with our intended argument," she says. "The feedback supported our positions. The process was quick, and the best part was it required a minimum of effort on our part."


Woodworth has joined a growing group of lawyers who are seeking quicker, cheaper ways to get feedback about their cases. With technology already providing much in the way of trial support, it seems only natural that virtual communication has begun filling the mock jury gap.

"Online juries provide two distinct advantages," says Chris Bagby, founder and president of eJury, based in Arlington, Texas. "It helps you prepare for trial by giving feedback to help you try a better case. Secondly, the Internet provides a convenient opportunity to gather empirical data about a case by putting it in front of people who may never have stepped inside a courtroom."

Many traditional jury consulting firms now offer online mock jury services. Two of the better-known Web-based companies are eJury and Virtual Jury. Both let lawyers submit cases online for evaluation by jurors located in the trial venue.

Bagby, a practicing lawyer, founded eJury in 1999. He says that he got the idea one day while watching the television show Dateline, which featured trial coverage with an online poll for viewers to vote for the guilt or innocence of the defendant. As Bagby witnessed the poll numbers on the screen climb into the thousands, he realized the same service could be offered to lawyers seeking the input of a mock jury, but without the expense of a live event.

In the past, a live mock trial or focus group has generally been considered only in cases where significant monetary awards are anticipated. Gathering potential jurors, locating a convenient facility, attorney travel expenses, witness fees and other associated expenditures can send mock-trial costs skyrocketing.

"That makes focus groups and mock juries not feasible for the average case," Bagby says. "But online, attorneys get the equivalent of several jury opinions in less time, and for a lot less money." Live mock juries may consist of no more than 12 people, while online juries can include 50 or more participants.


To submit a case for consideration, attorneys provide the online service with a factual summary of the case, including the claims and expected defense of both parties. Photos or other visual exhibits can be provided to be scanned into the system for viewing. The lawyer also provides jury instructions, or charges, to be given at trial and includes any additional questions designed to solicit feedback from the jurors about the case.

The service searches its database for the names of potential jurors who match the demographics of the trial venue. This is done by sifting through the information on income, education, family background, political affiliations and other pertinent data potential jurors provide when they register with the provider.

Those who match the requested demographics are e-mailed a chance to participate in the case. And unlike many courthouse jurors, most cyberjurors welcome the chance to serve. In fact, many have referred friends and relatives. That kind of viral marketing has enabled the online sites to build a database of well over 100,000 potential jurors, with a wide variety of income and professions.

"Jurors are interviewed and pre-screened, just as with live focus groups," says Robert Gordon, founder and president of Virtual Jury, based in Addison, Texas. "But the trial process is much more relaxed, so you often get a unique perspective and much more information than you would in a traditional setting."

Turnaround time is fairly quick -- generally three to five days. Lawyers receive statistical data on the jurors and their findings, along with summaries and individual juror comments.

At eJury, jurors consider the merits of the case individually. At Virtual Jury, participants utilize a chat room experience for group deliberations. Moderators oversee the process, encouraging comments from less forthcoming jurors. Gordon says some attorneys even pose anonymous questions to jurors, or just tune in to watch as comments are made.

Online juries can also be used to determine how a case might slant in a particular jurisdiction, helpful information to have when determining filing venue. "You can get an early read, or a snapshot, of the area's values, or how a case might be viewed in different jurisdictions," says Gordon. "That's something you can't typically do with live focus groups, because of the expense of convening more than one group."


But what about the lack of personal contact? Voice intonations, facial expressions and body language contribute significantly to the deliberation process. "Online feedback can certainly be helpful in an informational sense," says Nancy Marder, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. "But I don't think these are a complete substitute for, or predicative of, what an actual jury might do." Even the courthouse experience itself has an impact on jurors, Marder says. "Just the physical presence in the courthouse -- your sense of responsibility as a juror. That can't be replicated online."

That point gets no argument from the service providers. Bagby and Gordon agree that live mock juries are still an important part of the process. They say that some cases are actually better suited for live presentation. Straightforward tort, criminal defense, or even domestic relations cases work well for online juries. On the other hand, complicated facts are harder to present in the virtual world. "Cases like commercial litigation or intellectual property don't translate well," says Gordon. "Trying those cases online, it's better to pick one aspect of the case to be considered; for example, is a company entitled to lost profits or should punitive damages be awarded? Narrowing it down to one issue simplifies the process."

Some lawyers find online juries useful earlier in the litigation process. Jeffrey Henry, a lawyer with the Law Offices of Tim Dollar in Kansas City, Mo., has used virtual juries in preparing several medical malpractice cases. "To me, it's useful as a strategy mechanism," he says. "Jurors sometimes come up with obscure points you won't necessarily think of, that lead to other information or even a different direction to go."


At eJury, charges are based on the number of pages of data and questions submitted. Bagby says the average case, with seven pages of facts and ten questions, costs approximately $1,500, but costs can range from $600 to $4,000.

At Virtual Jury, an average case costs $8,500, Gordon says. The service includes statistical data and comments, as well as a transcript of the deliberation process. The site also offers streaming video, although many jurors still lack the technology to reliably view video.

Properly utilized, online jury services can move cases in a positive direction, perhaps even settlement. "Hearing what the average layperson thinks about a case can be valuable knowledge and may pave the way toward resolution," Marder says. "But if a case does go to trial, virtual juries may provide important feedback in a very cost-effective manner."

When Woodworth's firm finally went to trial in May 2004, the input from the online jurors gave her and the lead partners a boost of confidence. Their work was rewarded with a $6 million verdict for their client. Which, she added, was right in line with the award given by the online mock jury.

Karen Dean is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Ga.

More Info on SFB: Advertise    
About ALM About Privacy Policy Terms & Conditions