Shrinking courtrooms

LITIGATION PSYCHOLOGY

Once upon a time, in a more innocent age, the legal teams at a typical trial consisted of--get this--lawyers. Today, attorneys are just the beginning. In many cases litigation psychologists contribute to nearly every aspect of a trial, from jury selection to the crafting of a finely wrought summation.

Litigation psychology is hot, says trial consultant Amy Singer, Ph.D., because "lawyers are horrendous psychologists," Research bears this out. In one experiment, investigators asked trial attorneys, law students, and college sophomores to choose jurors well suited to a hypothetical defense case. Despite years of courtroom experience, the lawyers selected jurors who were more conviction-prone than average. Even college sophomores picked sympathetic jurors better than the lawyers.

The reason? "Attorneys base their choices on stereotypes and old wives' tales," says Singer. Rather than selecting jurors on the basis of sex, religion, or ethnicity, litigation psychologists match the attitudes of individual jurors to the facts of the case. Then they may help lawyers tailor their courtroom tactics to maximize their appeal to the chosen jurors.

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Trial consultants also provide shadow juries, which follow the case and render their own judgment. These panels can alert attorneys when to settle out of court.

But is this what the founders of our justice system had in mind? Singer argues that the fate of someone who has been falsely accused of a crime, or who has suffered due to someone else's negligence, shouldn't depend on who shows up for jury duty that day. "It's unethical not to use a psychologist," she claims.

While a good trial consultant may slightly increase the odds of winning a case, many experts insist that the most significant factors in jury verdicts are still the strength of one's case and how well it's presented.

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