The Claude W. Pettit College of Law’s J-Term is a brief period before the spring semester for focused explorations of the legal system. The brevity of the courses (just one or two weeks) does not allow for the wholesale tackling of courtroom procedures or fine-grain case analysis, but rather an introduction to interesting aspects of the law or specialized specific instruction.
The J-Term features the most freewheeling and inventive courses at Ohio Northern University this side of the transition experience (TREX) courses for freshmen in the College of Arts & Sciences and the extradisciplinary seminars (EXDS) in the colleges of Engineering, Business Administration and Pharmacy.
This year, the J-Term included a course that teaches a skill that is rarely, if ever, taught in law schools anywhere, but is still critical to success in the courtroom — jury selection.
“The jury plays a big part on whether you win or lose. It can absolutely make or break your case,” says Parag Shah, JD ’06, co-designer and co-instructor of the Jury Selection course.
Shah and his wife, Elizabeth “Liz” George, JD ’06, have built a flourishing law practice in Atlanta, Ga., by winning trials. A key reason for their success in the courtroom is their ability to assess and select jurors that will be sympathetic to their cause and responsive to the tactics they employ in trying their case.
Formal training in jury selection is practically unheard of —in his preliminary course research, Shah couldn’t find a single law school that offered a course dedicated to it — so he and George learned jury selection the way all lawyers typically do: by watching others.
“There isn’t a lot of importance put on jury selection, and, as a result, most people just don’t know how to do it. They use stock questions, or they simply go with what the oldest attorney next to them did,” says Shah.
An epiphany came to Shah in a rural Georgia courtroom last year. One of the more mundane parts of practicing law is being at the mercy of the calendar call, where attorneys come before the judge to schedule the important dates of a trial. For the attorney, there is no guarantee that his or her trial will be called that day. It isn’t uncommon for a case to be reset, which means the attorney must come back at another date and wait all over again.
“So I’m sitting there, and I’m watching these lawyers do jury selection while I’m waiting for my case to be called. Well, my case gets reset over and over, so I end up watching jury selection after jury selection for all these other cases,” he says. “It occurs to me that there isn’t any rhyme or reason to what these lawyers are doing. It got me thinking that they either they didn’t have any practice doing this, or they’ve only ever practiced doing it the wrong way.”
What stood out most to Shah was that the jurors he saw looked bored and unengaged. In his experience, building a rapport with jurors is crucial to selecting a good jury. A lawyer must first be comfortable with him or herself in order to get the jurors comfortable in an environment where a stranger is asking them questions in front of more strangers. Comfort comes with confidence. Confidence comes from training and practice.
“When you have people on a jury, you want them talking as much as possible. You need to figure out what they are thinking so you understand and know their biases and their prejudices,” says George.
If picking a good jury is dependent on talking to people, one might wonder why so many lawyers seem to have trouble with it. It comes down to the difference between speaking like a lawyer and talking like a person. The legal profession has a language all of its own that law students learn while in law school. It can be challenging to practice law without using the preferred vocabulary, but it helps to abandon legal jargon when addressing jurors.
Another reason jury selection training is rarely offered is because of its difficulty in replicating an authentic experience. Having fellow law students pose as jurors doesn’t work because they are often guarded in their responses to the types of personal questions that lawyers need to ask jurors. Using undergraduate students doesn’t work either because they present too homogeneous of a sample that doesn’t reflect what jurors will encounter in the real world.
To give students an authentic experience, Shah and George hired an employment agency in Lima, Ohio, to provide six people to pose as jurors.
“We didn’t give the agency any instructions. We just said, ‘Give us six random people.’ And that’s exactly what a real jury pool is,” said George. “For instructional purposes, it’s not realistic to do it any other way.”
With the jurors in place, the 14 students divided into teams of two so that each could practice both components of jury selection: questioning and documenting. One member of the team asked questions, while the other wrote down their answers and took notes about the jurors that might be useful later in the trial. Shah and George prepared 14 cases for the students to use, many of them former cases of theirs, so every student got a fresh case.
“What I’m trying to get across to them is that they need to know what kind of juror they don’t want on their jury,” says Shah. “They need to understand what biases someone might have that run counter to their case, and they need to ask questions that will reveal those biases if they exist.”
Both Shah and George were impressed with how the students performed. Not only did the students quickly adapt to the exercise and ask good questions, some also took new approaches that Shah and George hadn’t considered when they’d actually selected a real jury.
“I learned something this week. There were some students who surprised me with their approach, but they worked,” says George.
“There absolutely were moments when I thought, ‘I wish I would’ve asked that question when we had the case,’ says Shah.
The Jury Selection J-Term course is another step in a promising alumni relationship with the young couple. While both are quick to express their gratitude at the opportunity to develop and teach the course, it is the College of Law that is thankful.
Shah and George are the kind of alumni that all colleges and law schools cherish. They are not only giving of their time, talent and treasure, but their early career success speaks to the quality of the preparation they received and beckons current students to push on.
“Parag and Liz's generosity with their time and talent is particularly exemplary. They are relatively recent graduates building a new law firm, yet they have made time to spend a week with our students teaching critical practice skills and serving as valuable role models,” says Dean Richard Bales. “We are grateful to Parag and Liz — and to hundreds of other loyal alumni like them — who give so generously to support our students.”