In spite of all the lawyer jokes, lawyers are no different from anyone else. Many of us try to avoid jury duty. Few of us ever get the opportunity to sit on a jury because of our lawyer status. It’s a shame.
I have been called to jury duty lots of times. The last time was for the Michael Jackson criminal trial in which he was accused of child molestation. From the outset, I knew that I would never be picked as a juror because not only was I a lawyer, but the presiding judge was my family’s former attorney. Nonetheless, after sitting through hours of voir dire (I had the feeling that my questionnaire had been placed at the bottom of the pile and I would only be picked if every potential juror in the entire County of Santa Barbara was excused), I learned a lot from watching the process.
Once, I was fortunate enough to be picked as a juror. It was shortly after I graduated from law school and before I was barred. The short version of the case was that an obviously wealthy man and his girlfriend from Beverly Hills went to a dude ranch in Santa Ynez, California. The man, the plaintiff, fell from one of the horses. It was his position that the dude ranch knew, or should have known, that he was a novice (in fact, he had never been on a horse) and that the dude ranch gave him a horse only an experienced horseman could handle.
The trial began immediately after voir dire with opening arguments. I have to say that I was struck by the difference of the two attorneys. Plaintiff’s attorney, also from Beverly Hills, wore an Italian silk suit, on one wrist was an 18-carat gold Rolex watch, the other wrist was an 18-carat gold bracelet. His client was dressed almost the same.
Conversely, defense counsel wore a suit with a western style yoke. The cuffs were a bit frayed, and his cowboy boots, although highly polished were scuffed underneath that polish. My reaction was that we as jurors were being played.
The first witness was the plaintiff. Plaintiff’s attorney was as polished in his questioning as his attire. His questions were directly related to the elements of his case. I had to keep reminding myself that I was obligated to hear the other side before I came to a verdict.
Then, it was the defense counsel’s turn. He was a bit of a bumbler. Even though I found myself pulling for him, I got annoyed by the amount of time he spent questioning the plaintiff about his new cowboy boots. Finally, court was adjourned for the day.
Something remarkable happened the next day. Plaintiff did not show. To the chagrin of the plaintiff’s attorney, the plaintiff instructed him to dismiss the case.
Before the judge dismissed the jury, the judge informed us that he wanted to know what we thought of the case so far. He told us all to relax and discuss what we thought as though we were deliberating.
On a personal level, everyone disliked the plaintiff. They disliked the plaintiff’s attorney even more. The fact that he hit upon the elements of the case in his direct had no meaning to the jurors. What did have meaning to the jurors were those damn boots.
All the jurors surmised that the real reason the plaintiff fell off the horse was that the new boots were slick on the bottom and he was not able hold on. In other words, without knowing any legal theories, the jurors considered that the plaintiff was at least partially at fault, or comparative negligence.
It was a great lesson for this future lawyer to see firsthand how non-lawyers think through a set of facts in a legal proceeding. If you, as an attorney, have the opportunity to sit on a jury, I would highly recommend it.