Trial Consultant

Joy Stapp, PhD
Stapp Singleton

Although trial consulting has been around for more than 20 years, it (along with many aspects of the legal system) became visible to the American public during the O. J. Simpson trial. The field of trial consulting is not limited to scientific psychology. As you might expect, there are consultants with backgrounds in clinical psychology and the other social sciences (e.g., sociology and anthropology), as well as those with backgrounds in law, communications, marketing, business, sales, education, military, law enforcement, handwriting analysis, astrology, phrenology, and tea leaves. In short, anyone can be a trial consultant or jury consultant.

There are many differences among consultants. Some consultants (and attorneys) believe that the most important part of any trial is jury selection, and many consultants concentrate their efforts on picking the perfect jury (or more accurately, striking the worst jurors). Some consultants spend most of their time working with witnesses or producing demonstrative exhibits, whereas others focus on developing an effective trial strategy.

Our firm, Stapp Singleton, falls in the last category. We specialize in civil cases, especially complex commercial litigation. Although we are often involved in jury selection and working with witnesses, most of our time is spent developing an effective trial strategy that shapes juror perceptions during voir dire and opening statements, is supported by the presentations of the evidence through witnesses and exhibits, is reinforced in closing arguments, and leads to a favorable verdict for our clients. Although we agree that jury selection is important, we believe that even the most effective jury selection cannot overcome a flawed trial strategy.

We develop our recommendations for trial strategy based on empirical research. My background is in social psychology, and my partner, Nancy Singleton, has a doctorate in social anthropology. Our perspectives are quite different, but we share a belief in the experimental method and are sensitive to the biases that can skew our results. We are concerned with issues of reliability and validity--concept that are not always familiar to our attorney clients and their corporate clients. Like all applied researchers, we must make compromises because of time and budget, but we do all we can to minimize bias. For example, we work closely with the trial team to develop a presentation that accurately and fairly represents each side's case. Compared with the typical 'mock trial,' we use a relatively large sample of at least 60 surrogate jurors, and we randomly recruit them from the venue, rather than using newspaper ads or other methods that rely on self-selection. In some cases, we just do one study; in other cases, we are able to do multiple projects to test trial strategies or particular issues (such as damages) or to develop juror profiles.

Over the years, we have been involved in hundreds of cases in venues throughout the United States, working on many types of litigation, including antitrust, contracts, discrimination, employment, environmental, insurance, intellectual property, lender liability, oil and gas, personal injury, premises liability, product liability, securities, toxic tort, and medical, legal, and professional malpractice.

How does one become a trial consultant? I really don't know. I became a trial consultant in 1986 because a trial consulting firm, Litigation Sciences, hired me. My own career path is not particularly instructive. In 1970, I decided to go to graduate school in social psychology because (a) it was interesting, (b) it was science, and (c) it meant I didn't have to get a job as a secretary (one of the few careers available at that time to women with bachelor's degrees in the social sciences). I spent the first 3 1/2 years post-PhD in a series of non-tenure track teaching jobs at Berkeley, Texas, and UCLA. In 1978, I went to work at the American Psychological Association (APA) as the administrative officer for what was then known as Human Resources Research. I designed surveys, analyzed data, and wrote mildly interesting articles about the results.

In 1986, I was looking for a job, and the Houston office of Litigation Sciences, a national trial consulting firm, was looking for a researcher. They called the psychology department at Rice, and Bill Howell gave them my name. I was intrigued by a chance to apply my research skills in an entirely different area. So, I took the job. Although I thought I knew what I was doing right away, looking back, the learning curve was actually a long one. For although I knew how to do research, I knew only a little about lawyers, almost nothing about the law, and zero about marketing. Now I know a lot about all of these. I worked for Litigation Sciences for 8 years, eventually heading its Houston office. Two years ago, Nancy Singleton and I started our own trial consulting firm, Stapp Singleton. As a business owner, the learning curve continues.

(Originally published in the January/February 1996 issue of Psychological Science Agenda, the newsletter of the APA Science Directorate.)