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Why, When, and How to Run a Legal Focus Group in Pennsylvania

Legal focus groups allow you to make educated decisions based on facts and data about how you should be building your case from the very beginning. Instead of shooting from the hip, you now can build your case based on how a jury will ACTUALLY react to your client’s situation by testing the facts in front of a group of people who act and think like potential jurors.

In one recent example, we had a lead poisoning case we tested in front of a focus group. We were deciding whether to take the case. The case involved a mother and her three children living in a house in Pennsylvania for a period of three years that had an abnormally dangerous amount of lead in the home. Our fear was that a jury would resent the mother of these children for not removing the children from the home.

To our surprise, the focus group participants were extremely sympathetic to the mother. This is an example where we as lawyers went into a focus group expecting one thing and got a completely different result. As we expected, they also were livid at the landlords for putting this family through this tragedy and exposing her children to this dangerous condition. In fact, in the numerous focus groups that I have witnessed, I have never seen participants angrier at a defendant than they were in this fact pattern presented to them. So, the focus group both surprised us and confirmed other aspects of the case. We were able to make an informed decision about taking the case.

Even experienced lawyers CANNOT read the mind of a juror. What we, and they, CAN do is present the facts to a similarly situated group of people, remove the bias from the room and let them tell us how we frame our cases.

When Can You Run a Focus Group?

Focus groups are helpful at any point of your process of building a case. You can run one or multiple of these focus group types on the same group of participants for the same case depending on how you do so. Run a focus group before taking the case, before discovery, or present the whole case to a mock jury before trial. The most popular, and in our opinion the most effective, is a narrative focus group run early in the development of a case, which lets a focus group highlight the issues and problems you will have to address.

How to Set Up the Focus Group Over Zoom From a Technical and Practical Perspective

Obviously, there is some work to getting your legal focus group together. Below are the basic steps to running your own focus group in Pennsylvania. Keep in mind, while this article focuses on running focus groups over zoom, you certainly can do it in person. As someone who has facilitated and done both, there are pros and cons to each, but zoom is effective, and it is less costly and time consuming. Here are the basics to get started with a zoom focus group:

Days Leading up to the FG

  • Establish cases you want to test
  • Create a lineup for those cases (what you want to test when)
  • Set the date
  • Post an ad for participants (or reach out to a focus group participant company to provide people you may use at a cost)
    • I use craigslist, have run a Facebook ad and have a link in the bio of my social media feeds.
    • I drive users to a survey for which they can fill it out and join the bank of participants that I have constantly growing.
  • Prepare anything to be presented at the focus group, Powerpoints, photos, etc.
  • Create a google survey for use at the focus group (I find them the most user friendly) for the things you want to test.
  • Select your candidates for the focus group
    • You should expect 20% of people you select to not show up on the day of the event even if they say they are confirmed
    • Your goal is 10-15 participants. You should try to have at minimum, 15 confirmed participants.
  • Email them, at minimum, 3 weeks before the focus group that they have been selected.
  • Remind them a week before the event
  • Send them the zoom link the day before the event
  • Test all technology.
    • You will need two laptops recording
      • You should record one laptop on “gallery” and the other on “speaker view”
    • Make sure all tech is charged and ready
    • Email all participants a link to sign your confidentiality agreement (can be very simple language)
      • I use Assuresign digital signature so the participants can sign very easily without printing anything out.

Day of the FG

  • Start the Zoom
  • Record from two computers
    • Make sure to record “to computer” not “to the cloud” to avoid space issues.
      • Keep in mind, it is a good idea to stop and start the recordings after each case you are putting on.
    • Go over ground rules
      • I set strict rules such as raising your hand if you want to speak, you must always have your camera on, no cell phone usage etc.
      • I also threaten to remove anyone the moment I notice they are on their cell phone
      • At a certain point if I notice certain people interrupting or speaking out of turn, I gently remind them of the rules to raise their hand if they want to speak. It keeps the video clean and keeps the
    • Make sure all cameras are on for each participant. If a camera isn’t on, or you are having problems, you must clear that up before allowing them to continue
    • Do a tech warm up
      • Make sure everyone knows how to use the comments function of Zoom
      • Ensure everyone’s camera is on and you can see everyone’s face
      • Make everyone speak to ensure mics are working
    • Do a general warm up
      • Ask them questions that are harmless, where do you get your news, etc.
      • Make sure everyone says something and introduces themselves.
    • Put your case presentations on

What to Do After the FG

  • Pay your participants
    • I use Venmo or Paypal and go one by one and as they are paid they can drop off the zoom
  • Wait (patiently) for your recordings to download to your computer. Do not even think about closing your computer as it is rendering, you risk losing the recording.
  • Send your recorded videos immediately to Rev.com so you can get a transcription of that focus group made

Importance of Careful Interpretation

When your focus group ends, you must interpret what just happened. There are things to look for in this process, but too many to list here. The goal is to hear what the focus group participants are saying even when they are not saying it.

For example, someone says the following, “I was going to side with the plaintiff here, but I simply cannot get over the fact that she was looking down at her phone when she was crossing the street.” This is an oversimplified version of a “just can’t get over” fact. There are countless examples I can give of where these come up, but the most important thing to note is that these are the facts you need to deal with at trial and have a plan for.

There are times where one participant will say something and then the rest of the group nods in agreement. These are important non-verbal methods of communication to look for when you have something that came up that resonated. At times, you should ask a question, watch the participants for non-verbal agreement, then pick people who agreed by nodding with a specific point and ask why it seems like they agree with what was said.

While going through the process of interpreting the focus group, you should reference the transcript and potentially clip the video with some of the most impactful statements. Imagine if, in response to hearing a defendant’s main argument, a participant says something along the lines of “that is a stupid argument.” You’ll want to play that clip during a mediation (which is another great benefit of focus groups – you can use clips at mediation to bolster your position).

Things to Avoid and Remember When Running a Legal Focus Group

There are a few mistakes that can lead to a bad outcome for your focus group. The first and most important thing to realize is that you are not trying to “win” your focus group. Your goal is to learn what you don’t know, not reinforce what you do. If you try to argue your point, or you tip your hat that you have a dog in the fight, you will rely on bad data and have a horrible outcome for your client.

Some of the biggest mistakes I see people make with running their own focus groups are the following:

  • Misinterpreting what the focus group is saying
  • Assuming you know what they are going to say
    • For example, assuming that the participants think someone is liable. Remember, saying “if at all” will make that issue fade.
  • Interrupting the participants
    • You are there to listen to them talk, not the other way around. Let them finish their thought. If they are rambling, gently end the topic, but it is better to let people finish their thought than it is to end the topic. The most valuable juice comes when you squeeze the orange the hardest.
  • Arguing your point
    • Who cares what you have to say. Let me repeat that. NOBODY CARES ABOUT YOUR OPINION. If you argue in favor of your client, the focus group is pointless.
  • Admitting you have a “dog in the fight”
    • At the beginning of every focus group, I do not tell the participants whether it is my case or not. I typically say something along the lines of “these are cases that are from the area where people are having difficulty coming to a resolution, so they called our firm to help them. Sometimes, we even get calls from both sides. Long story short, I have no dog in this fight and don’t care about what you have to so, I only want to know what you truly think about the facts presented to you.”
      • Whether it is your case or not, does impact how they respond to you. The participants are just human. They want acceptance and approval. If they know you care about what they have to say, they will tell you what they think you want to hear which is exactly NOT why you are doing the focus group.
    • Answering questions
      • When you are asked a question, respond with “is that important to you.” Generally what people are thinking behind why they asked the question is more important than the answer by tenfold. Don’t answer the question, learn why they asked it.

Contact Us to Learn More About the Benefits of Focus Groups in Personal Injury Cases

Running legal focus groups in Pennsylvania will change the way your law firm operates. No longer do you have to be the wild west, cowboy attorney who knows the answer because of their “experience.” In my opinion, not running a focus group is borderline malpractice. We now, using focus groups, can stop guessing at trial on the most intricate issues of our cases. If we do not use these focus groups, our clients are who inevitably suffer.

If your firm would like to learn more about how to do this, or want to make your life simpler and send cases to us to focus group, feel free to reach out directly to me, Ethan Ostroff, or my focus group partner Lou Ricciardi. Also, a special thank you to Andrew Finkelstein who was kind enough to teach me how to run focus groups alongside his best focus group moderators at Total Trial Solutions.

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