September 01, 2017

Preparing for Trial in an Unfamiliar Small Town

Getting to know the jury pool is more subtle and rewarding than a simple mock trial and a short talk with local counsel.

Michael P. Lynn

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As trial lawyers, we often find ourselves traveling the country to practice our profession—or in my case, mostly traveling Texas, trying cases in a variety of small and medium-sized towns in addition to the big cities. Arriving in a new, remote, small venue to try an important case against locals is daunting. I arrive from Dallas knowing I will never know—let alone understand—the rivalries, history, and contribution various families in that town have made to advance the town’s prosperity and livability. As visiting lawyers, we are cast by the locals as the big city or “tall building” attorneys. In Texas, one favorite epithet is the “214 lawyer,” referring to the Dallas area code well known to the rest of Texas and meant to convey something foreign, exotic, and stuck-up.

Juries in Texas vary from place to place. East Texas juries are very different from west Texas juries, and the same could be said for juries from the Rio Grande Valley, who are substantially different from those in the panhandle. Some of these towns are only five or six thousand souls, and some have populations in excess of 500,000 or more, but each is intensely proud of their community and we, as outsiders, must navigate each new case in each new venue with care or risk losing our clients’ case. Having local counsel to convoy and protect us and our client does not end the “outsider” epithets. Depending on the local’s role, it may just be seen as pandering to the local bar. One issue that transcends almost every other issue in a small town is how a judgment against the perceived local business will affect local jobs. Determining how to respond to this issue is critical to success.

Of course, I do all the usual things to learn as much as I can. I mock try each case with stand-in “jurors” mirroring the demographics I will see at trial, often moving the mock trial setting to another county to avoid accidently contaminating the jury pool. Learning that the jury may be 75 percent Hispanic or 55 percent African American certainly may help in trying the case, but it is not as helpful as actually getting to know the community where the case is to be tried.

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