Although the majority of cases in the trusts and estates area are bench trials, there are circumstances where the litigants can request a jury, such as will or trust contests. In addition to my experience as a litigator, I have had two unique opportunities to learn more about juries. At the beginning of my career, I was a law clerk for a trial judge in Jefferson County, Colorado. I saw approximately 45-50 jury trials and was able to speak with the jurors after they rendered a verdict. Also, last week, I attended the National Institute for Trial Advocacy (“NITA”) in Chicago and did a mock jury trial after which the jurors gave us direct feedback.
First, and most importantly, jurors are smart. Generally speaking, jurors listen to the evidence and pick up more details that you might expect. In a complex civil case, it is easy to think that the jurors will not be able to follow the arguments or that the evidence is too technical or boring. Regardless of a juror’s life or educational experience, they generally do a very good job making sense of the evidence. At NITA, they assembled a jury entirely made up of high school students (which is the average educational level of a jury in Chicago). Our mock trial involved a complex commercial transaction and the witnesses explained several technical terms to the jury. It was fascinating to hear the jurors talk about the transaction and how they arrived at a verdict. They were able to explain their reasoning and caught on to many of the nuances in the case.
Something else I discovered through talking to jurors in Jefferson County is that jurors notice everyone in the court room. They make judgments about the lawyers right away. They notice the behavior of the parties at counsel table. Although these judgments did not necessarily seem to change the verdict they reached in most cases, it is important to keep in mind that they are watching from the moment you step into the court room.
Third, stereotyping jurors can be useful, but also risky. There may be a juror that fits the profile for a case, but it is always useful (if possible) to dig deeper and ask questions in voir dire that relate to the issues in the case. If your gut is telling you to strike a juror, then listen to it.
Finally, be aware of distracting facts and questions that the jury may want answered even though they might be slightly irrelevant to the case and difficult to get into evidence. When I was clerking, I spoke with the jury after a week-long murder trial. The trial involved the murder of a man while he was at home in his bed. His dog was mentioned during the testimony at trial. The first question from the jurors after the trial was, “What ultimately happened to the dog?!” It was a bit frustrating, and therefore distracting, that they never heard what happened to the dog.