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The Advantage Blog

  • Alexis Knutson


Clients often ask us, as jury consulting experts, to explain the distinction between mock trials and focus groups. The delineation is subtle but important, but as the clock slowly ticks closer to the lunch hour, I find myself unable to think of anything but food – hence the comparison of mock trials to chocolate cake and focus groups to Italian risotto. Bear with me on this one; it will come together.

Mock trials, particularly during the deliberation portion, are like a chocolate cake: you place it in the oven then wait patiently for it to bake. If you’ve ever been involved in a mock trial, you are familiar with the pull of wanting to jump in during deliberations, to correct misinformation, to clarify, to interject. People often feel a deep desire to ask jurors questions in real-time about their opinions and attitudes or about what experiences led them to form their unique opinion. However, in mock trial research it is important to refrain from opening the proverbial oven of jury deliberations. In actual jury deliberations, jurors are left to their own devices, relying only on the information presented at trial, their understanding of the facts, and the jury instructions provided. Thus, in mimicking this experience, the aim of trial consultants is to interact with the mock jurors as little as possible during deliberations. We find that in allowing jurors to discuss the facts as a group, even if they stray from the topic or occasionally misrepresent the facts, the group as a whole typically self-corrects the misinformation, and jurors remind each other to stay on topic. As with the chocolate cake, the delay can be challenging, but the realistic interactions gleaned from this approach make it worth the wait.

Focus groups on the other hand, are like a fine Italian risotto, requiring constant maintenance and stirring throughout. In fact, the more interaction, the better. Consultants introduce case facts to participants one at a time, followed by a question and answer period. As the opinions of the group begin to develop, consultants ask more pointed questions to get the opinions of each individual participant, discussing how and why they developed this opinion or came to a certain conclusion. When all useful information has been gleaned, the consultant directs the group to discuss their opinions of another case fact. As with the Italian risotto, the process is very hands-on, requiring frequent interaction between the consultant and the participants.

In sum, in mock trials the case facts are presented by two opposing parties at once, followed by a hands-off deliberation period in which jurors discuss what they heard and saw during the presentations. In focus groups, case facts are presented one at a time, followed each time by an interactive question and answer period led by a facilitator. So whether you’re craving salty or sweet, each research method can be useful in evaluating case themes, exploring what jurors find important, and helping attorneys make decisions as the case moves forward.


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