Attorneys seem to be using the shadow jury (also called a “feedback jury” or “mirror jury”) less in recent years than they used to. And that’s too bad. Especially when the perceived risks of the technique are being given undue weight, scaring some clients away from one of the most vital sources of insight a trial team can utilize.
When words like “jury tampering” and “mistrial” get tossed around, it’s natural to get skittish about shadow juries. But in our experience these fears are overstated and do not mirror reality. After all, in our 25–year history of conducting shadow juries, we’ve never even had anyone call it out. Meanwhile, we have always learned valuable information we could not have obtained otherwise.
In this blog, we want to wash away the exaggerated risks surrounding shadow juries and remind our readers of what they stand to gain.
What Is a Shadow Jury?
For those who are unclear, a shadow jury involves around four to six recruited participants who watch your trial from the gallery in the courtroom. Shadow jurors are recruited in the same way as they are for mock trials, mirroring as closely as possible the actual panel’s demographic and attitudinal backgrounds.
The shadow jurors meet at lunch and at the end of the day with a jury consultant to share their thoughts and opinions about the case. The jury consultant in turn provides the trial team with feedback from the shadow jury, providing insight as to what the actual jury might be thinking about the case as it unfolds. A comprehensive report and/or in-person meeting is presented to the trial team after lunch (if feasible) and at the end of each day.
What Are the Risks of Shadow Juries?
We acknowledge that there are risks and challenges to conducting a shadow jury, and we’d never ignore them just to make our point. While they can be mitigated (as we discuss in the section that follows), here are some of the concerns:
- Work and family obligations make it difficult to find people who can commit to several consecutive days, and sometimes a week or more, of being a shadow juror.
- Shadow jurors might draw attention to themselves, disrupt the trial, or make their presence known.
- Sometimes a venue is so small that having a shadow jury presents a confidentiality concern. A trial in an “everybody knows everybody” town (think Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show) would probably not be an ideal place to hold a shadow jury, unless certain accommodations were made.
- If one of the shadow jurors goes rogue and talks to a real juror, an attorney, or the judge, a mistrial could be declared.
How Can Trial Consultants Mitigate These Risks?
Having good management of the shadow jurors is key. As long as they are being overseen by a seasoned consultant, there are ways to limit or eliminate the aforementioned risks/challenges. These include:
- Over-recruit shadow jurors to account for attrition. We always anticipate the possibility of attrition and recognize that as a trial lingers, sometimes a shadow juror’s commitment will falter. Over-recruitment guards against this eventuality and helps to ensure we end the trial with enough shadow jurors to provide varying perspectives.
- Get to know the shadow jurors and cut any problematic jurors immediately. If a potential shadow juror seems like he/she could become problematic, he/she is dismissed. This also goes for any shadow juror who proves to be unreliable or uninformative.
- Stress confidentiality and stress it often. A verbal and written signature is obtained from each shadow juror regarding confidentiality. In addition, there is a meeting every morning with the shadow jury before trial to reiterate all of the rules, the importance of these rules, and the consequences of violating them.
- Inform the judge you are running a shadow jury. Judges typically don’t like surprises in their courtrooms, and they will eventually notice the existence of the shadow jury anyway. We have found that judges appreciate being told about the shadow jury rather than having to figure it out for themselves or being told about it by the opposing party.
- Get a motion in limine that the opposing party cannot mention the shadow jury. Some of the actual jurors may be suspicious of the shadow jurors. Therefore, it is best to preempt the possibility of the opposition using the existence of the shadow jury against you/your client during trial. Judges will typically grant motions in limine to prohibit any mention of the shadow jury in front of the actual jury.
Why Should You Perform a Shadow Jury?
Beyond explaining why you shouldn’t be afraid to have a shadow jury, we want to emphasize why you should consider using one. Bottom line: Shadow juries can be a game-changer for your team.
Finding a reliable way to assess jurors’ reactions to a trial as it is happening is challenging. With a shadow jury, not only are you obtaining feedback, but you’re receiving it in real time. Now, the point of a shadow jury isn’t to use that feedback to make major changes to case strategies or themes (ideally that would have been accomplished in the mock trial testing phase), but rather to make refinements that strengthen or clarify your existing ones. And in this function, shadow juries perform extremely well.
The major benefits are as follows:
- Learn immediately how jurors might be reacting to your case. Are they understanding your themes? Engaging with witnesses and perceiving them as likeable and credible? Are jurors comprehending the facts of the case and, if not, what are the points of confusion? If a good portion of shadow jurors is confused or critical about something they hear or see in court, odds are the real jurors are too, and you can respond accordingly.
- Things happen in an actual trial that don’t, or can’t, happen in a mock trial. For example, actual witnesses are present and their testimonies are provided in full, jurors at trial may face a sympathetic plaintiff and his/her family members in person, etc. You can learn how these differences are potentially affecting the trial jurors. Are they worse than you feared? Better than you hoped?
- A shadow jury can be tailored to your team’s specific needs. If you only want feedback on opening statements, that’s fine. Consultants can also decrease the number of shadow jurors over time and stop the shadow jury at any point during the trial. In fact, we often don’t retain shadow jurors throughout the entire length of a trial.
There are certain situations when performing a shadow jury proves especially helpful, including:
- If you’re trying a complex or detail-heavy case and are concerned that jurors may not easily understand, follow along with, or remember your main points/themes.
- If you expect to have a series of similar cases coming down the pike, you’ll have even more feedback to take into those future trials. (Post-trial juror interviews are valuable for these situations, too.)
We assisted a trial team with an intricate case about how a certain toxin affected the brain. After the expert witnesses testified, we met with our shadow jurors again to hear their thoughts and positions. As it turned out, the shadow jurors had understood the exact opposite of what the defense expert testified about.
Jurors were misunderstanding a key component of the case – the mechanism of damage. If the real jury’s understanding matched our shadow jury’s, it would have likely resulted in a verdict for the plaintiff. But because we were made aware of this issue during the witness’ testimony, the defense attorney was able to ask a follow-up question of the witness, giving him a chance to restate and clarify the mechanism of damage one more time for the jury. The case concluded in a defense verdict.
Shadow juries can be enlightening, vindicating, surprising, jarring – but they’re always informative and offer an incomparable critique of the trial in real time. So with a vigilant consultant who appreciates and mitigates the potential challenges of shadow juries, there is no reason a client should miss out on their considerable benefits.
As always, we encourage you to contact us at any time if you’d like to learn more about shadow juries or are interested in jury consulting services!
By: Jessica Baer, M.A. – Consultant