Voir Dire is the beginning of the jury trial, where potential jurors are questioned and then selected to sit on a case.
Voir dire is not only about uncovering bias and learning about your jurors; it is also your jurors’ first opportunity to learn about your case. In previous jury tips, I have often stressed how critical the jurors’ first impressions of your case are, how quickly jurors build a framework of your case, and how influential this framework is in shaping how they view the evidence and their verdict decisions (see www.yournextjury.com/jurytip.htm for these tips).
In those tips I have emphasized that 80-90% of jurors are closed to persuasion and locked into their verdicts by the end of opening statements. Keep in mind, however, that your opening statement is not your first opportunity to begin persuading jurors. A properly done voir dire can guide jurors to frame the case in your terms, make them more receptive to your themes, and highlight aspects of the case that will give your strengths added importance in their minds throughout trial. All of this can be done without arguing a position, discussing case information directly, or even using direct pre-conditioning techniques, using a subtle persuasive technique called exposition.
The principle of exposition, as it applies to voir dire, is to let jurors know what the case is about through the topics and phrasing of the voir dire questions themselves. In a theatrical or literary context, exposition is a narrative device used at the beginning of a play, story, or film to give the audience necessary background information and introduce them to the characters, the conflict, and the plot. Keep in mind that you are telling a story during voir dire, and consider how clearly that story is coming through.
In a case about a car accident, a voir dire session revolving around questions about occupations, hobbies, former jury experience, feelings about lawsuits and damages, and opinions about vague principles and values presents jurors with a confusing, disjointed story that leaves them confused about what your case is about. Failing to use exposition wastes a golden opportunity to guide your jurors in building their framework about what the case is about and, more importantly, to persuade them about what is important.
Spend time thinking about not only the topics that you want the jury to focus on, but also about the order of your voir dire questions. The order of the topics you bring up should mirror your introduction of topics, evidence, and themes in your opening statement. For example, a strong expository voir dire in a breach of contract case might begin with questions about experiences with business deals and contracts, delve into experiences and feelings about broken contracts, highlight evidence by asking the jurors if they have ever been involved in dispute with a vendor who refused to remedy faulty products or services, and move into questions about lost revenues, business valuations, and damages. By the end of voir dire, your jurors should know what the case is about, what the defendant or plaintiff did wrong, how the plaintiff was harmed (or was not), and how damages should be defined.
With each question you ask, think about more than the answers your jurors give you; think also about the message that each question sends to the jury. Each question implicitly tells your jurors that the topic of the question is an important topic in the trial, and may tell them even more than that. Questions may give jurors information about the actions of the litigants, and may even give jurors the impression that you are concerned or nervous about certain topics. Lingering too long on a topic, no matter how important (plaintiff attorneys, this often includes feelings about frivolous lawsuits and tort reform), sends the message to many jurors that you are overly concerned and nervous about the topic and is a red flag to many that this reveals a weakness in your case.
When listening to your questions, jurors will assume that the situations your questions present are identical to those involved in the case, so make sure to highlight your strongest evidence, your client’s strongest conduct, and the opposing litigant’s worst actions in your questions. Defense attorneys, ask your jurors how they feel about an employee who takes 38 unrelated sick days off from work in a year, or how they feel about a plaintiff in an employment lawsuit who applies for only 3 jobs in a year without success and remains unemployed for 18 months. Plaintiff attorneys, ask your jurors if their employer has ever passed them up for promotion in favor of a less-qualified employee of a different race or gender, if their doctor has ever failed to respond to an emergency phone call, or if their contractor has ever gone over budget on their home improvement project without providing adequate justification. These questions not only uncover potential biasing experiences and opinions, they also give the jurors a strong, persuasive sense of what your case is about.
Exposition during voir dire takes a great deal of care and thought, especially when your primary goal is to learn about your jurors and uncover biases. If properly done, jurors will be far more receptive to your matching opening statement and your trial themes, and will be far more likely to view the case in your terms throughout trial.