Many people, including those who should know better, use stereotypes as a basis for making important decisions. Although, by definition, stereotypes can contain “a kernel of truth” (according to Dr. Gordon Allport, who coined the term), they are often incomplete and sometimes, wrong. A recent conversation with one of my clients prompts this post. The client, a well respected and experienced trial lawyer, called me recently to ask me whether I would agree with the premise that millennials are terrible jurors for plaintiffs in personal injury cases because they are self centered, entitled, uncaring, and cold hearted. I responded that, although some young adults certainly possess these negative traits and others, far worse, I could not say, with any scientific certainty, that all millennials possess these traits and thus, that everyone younger than 30 should be eliminated from the jury. Not liking my lack of agreement with his position, the attorney began to cajole me in an attempt to get me to buy into his stereotypical way of viewing young people. He informed me that he recently conducted a mock jury (on his own, without retaining the services of a reputable trial consulting firm) and there were 3 young adults who returned a defense verdict, refusing to award the plaintiff, his client, any compensation. Because of this experience, he was certain all millennials would be similarly predisposed. I was taken aback, but, in an attempt to be polite while explaining how wrong he was, I informed this attorney that: (1) I could not address the composition of his mock jury, in that there was no way for me to know whether the mock jurors were recruited properly, for example, randomly sampled from the population of jury eligible citizens in the trial venue; (2) a sample size of 3 people, from 1 mock jury, is too small for any generalizations to be possible to allow conclusions to be drawn about all millennials; and (3) it is illogical to suggest that 100% of the people within any demographic category (age, gender, race, etc.) are exactly the same. Thus, my answer is not “No, it is not true all millennial jurors are bad jurors for plaintiffs in a personal injury case,” my answer is an emphatic “NO! It is NOT true all millennial jurors are bad jurors for plaintiffs in personal injury cases.” I then tried to educate this attorney about the dangers in using stereotypes, such as “Everyone who is _____ is bad,” and “Everyone who is _____ is good” to judge people. Instead of using stereotypes to judge people, especially when the consequences of making a mistake are high, the attorney should ask appropriate questions when selecting the jury to really get to know each juror, on an individual basis. It is not possible to look at someone and know his/her innermost thoughts, feelings, attitudes, values, beliefs, and life experiences! Therefore, I recommended to my client that, instead of wasting valuable time looking for an easy way to discriminate among people, cast stereotypes aside and spend time more wisely by finding out what millennials, and other prospective jurors, think about the issues that are important in the case.
More than once in her career, Melissa has had to disconfirm stereotypes. Millenials are the latest target and one variable in the equation is that the attorney with predilections against a particular group is often disconnected from that group. In the case of this attorney and millenials, there is a large age gap. And, I had to wonder if it was not the case that the 3 who voted against this attorney just didn’t like him, for whatever reason. Yet, we have had many encounters from certain trial attorneys looking for a quick answer, a short cut. In the world of uncertainty in which trial attorneys live and work, it would be wonderful if there were such shortcuts. But, using a stereotype of any group of people as a shortcut to decide if one group member is good or bad for one side is wrong, and should be obviously wrong. Despite the many years that Melissa, and others, have preached against using stereotypes, the problem persists. We’ve heard some “doozies” beyond the usual like postal workers or teachers. We once got into a debate with a career prosecutor who said he’d never allow a teacher on one of his juries. We tried asking what he would do if was a summertime venire comprised mainly of teachers who had been excused during the school year – he said he would strike them all and/or try for a mistrial. Really? (Turns out he didn’t get along with teachers in school – we had to ask.) The one that still amazes me is when an attorney told Melissa he never selected any women “with big handbags” on his juries. True story! But, back to demographic groups, much research has show that the only demographic variable that has any predictability for verdict is occupation. But, occupation still leaves a huge range of potential life experiences. One extreme example of occupational stereotypes is “the German engineer” thought to be adverse to plaintiff cases because they are exacting and strict, maybe even cold. Well, what if that German engineer had a child who died as a result of a medical error? Stopping after the 1st line question yielding this occupational detail would lead to a mistake in understanding what that German engineer really thinks. Finally, to disconfirm such stereotypes, and I hear them myself with some regularity from attorneys, I have been known to turn things around and ask the attorney “Do all attorneys believe the same things?” “Do all male or female all attorneys believe the same things?” I even drill this down to age or racial groups of attorneys. Because the peer group, attorneys, is familiar to the attorney asking, they soon get it that the answer is no. How could it not be? So, even when one is not as familiar with one group as another, assuming “they” think a certain way should be avoided. Allowing simplistic observations to create a trap can have serious repercussions.