Trial Consultant Training

The nature and scope of trial consultant training reflect the array of services that are offered to clients, such as jury research, presentation strategies, and assistance with exhibits. There are no standard academic or professional requirements for trial consultants. Their training varies considerably across the profession, but it tends to involve a relevant academic background, some on-the-job training, and continuing education. Graduate training in the social sciences tends to be quite valuable, typically more than a background in law. However, on-the-job training helps provide competencies and strengthen skills that are difficult to obtain in any other way. Continuing education helps trial consultants remain up-to-date on valuable developments in the industry and advances in methodological, technological, and statistical areas.

Trial consultants provide either a narrow or a wide range of services to their clients, who are usually attorneys but can also include insurers, corporations, or individuals. These services generally include case consultation and trial strategy, witness preparation, jury-related services, or presentation and technology-related services. Trial consultants who specialize in trial strategy often have a foundation in social psychology and communication and a solid understanding of law and legal procedure. Those who specialize in witness preparation may have a background in theater, communication, or counseling. Consultants who specialize in jury-related services such as jury selection or community attitude surveys typically have experience with social science research methodology and statistics as well as a foundation in social psychology. Finally, trial consultants who specialize in presentation and technology-related services tend to have a foundation in graphic art and communication. Of course, there are trial consultants who offer the full gamut of services. Thus, trial consultant training is quite diverse, reflecting the umbrella of services that consultants may provide and tapping into a range of disciplines.

Academic Preparation

Most successful trial consultants have graduate degrees in the social sciences, with a doctoral degree in psychology (particularly clinical psychology or psychology and law) being quite prevalent. In these types of academic programs, students acquire valuable skills in research design and methodology as well as in qualitative and quantitative data analysis. Graduate programs in the social sciences, particularly psychology, typically provide students with a solid theoretical background as well as research experience. These are particularly important for consultants who provide jury-related services such as mock trials and community attitude surveys. Analytical and communication skills are also valuable skills that can be honed in graduate programs in the social sciences, although other types of training, such as law school, can provide these as well. Some trial consultants assist their clients with mediations and arbitrations, so an understanding of the theories and applications relating to negotiations and conflict management is often helpful.

There is no clear academic path for individuals interested in trial consulting. Currently, there are no known academic programs that are dedicated to training future trial consultants. Appropriate academic preparation depends on the types of services that the individual plans to offer. For example, a person interested in focusing on graphics or demonstratives (e.g., developing day-in-the life videos of someone with a serious disability, designing illustrations to be used at trial) would need different training from someone who is more interested in conducting jury research in the form of posttrial interviews. In 2007, several universities offered masters and doctoral programs in psychology and law, forensic psychology, or related disciplines (e.g., Florida International University, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and some other institutions offer relevant courses). A few of these programs offer a combined J.D./Ph.D. degree (e.g., University of Nebraska at Lincoln), although it is not clear whether the dual degree constitutes a superior academic path for those interested in trial consulting.

It is important to note that familiarity with the law and legal procedure is crucial, regardless of the nature or scope of the services provided. Attorney clients do not expect trial consultants to be legal scholars, but they do expect a functional knowledge of the law and a solid understanding of legal procedure. A careful read of relevant texts as well as in-court observations of proceedings is strongly advised.

The level of academic training that trial consultants should have depends on the level of responsibility and the type of work. For example, a master’s degree in the social sciences should suffice for someone working as an associate or assistant to a more senior trial consultant. A doctoral degree in psychology or the social sciences provides valuable academic preparation for more senior-level positions, as well as the type of credentials that attorney clients often value. It is not clear whether graduate training of any form would be necessary for someone working in graphics or presentation-focused aspects of trial consulting. Proficiency in the appropriate software and graphic arts coupled with a background in communications should be adequate.

On-the-Job Training

Most trial consultants tend to acquire hands-on training by working for a consulting firm. This experience provides an invaluable opportunity to learn about the profession, the business, and the clients. Working with more experienced consultants can help individuals learn about best practices and gather their own sense of what works best. Moreover, many seasoned trial consultants have considerable insight into how jurors respond to certain types of arguments or evidence, particularly if they have worked on a particular type of case for a long time (e.g., medical malpractice cases). Someone who acquires training under the tutelage of a consultant who has built a practice around certain types of cases would likely acquire specialized knowledge in that area, which is probably difficult to obtain in other ways.

It is in the courtroom that novice trial consultants often obtain considerable insight into courtroom dynamics, trial strategy, appropriate behavior, and the idiosyncrasies corresponding to some state and federal courts. By observing hearings and trials from start to finish, a novice trial consultant who is working as part of a trial team acquires know-how that is probably difficult to obtain in any other way.

On-the-job training can also help individuals learn about the business of trial consulting, including how to market and sell trial consulting services as well as meet the needs of clients. Such hands-on experience helps consultants provide answers to clients’ questions. For example, a client may wonder whether jurors will understand the testimony of a scientific or technical expert in a complex civil case. A trial consultant might suggest some witness preparation to help the expert deliver the information clearly and convincingly in a way that fits with the themes of the case and to prepare the witness for cross-examination. The consultant might also recommend some demonstratives or exhibits to help the witness convey complex information clearly and help jurors use the testimony and evidence as intended. Additionally, surrogate jury research might test, among other things, the extent to which mock jurors understood the expert’s message and incorporated that evidence into their decision-making process. Of course, clients do not always have unlimited resources, so successful trial consultants learn to devise solutions that meet the needs and fit within the constraints that clients bring to the table.

Trial consultants must also successfully manage clients. Understanding client needs and managing the complex interpersonal dynamics and political issues that can emerge when working among attorney clients, corporate clients, support staff, and others is important. Depending on their practice, trial consultants often find themselves working with multiple clients, such as corporate defendants and insurers, who do not always share the same goals. These are the types of situations that test consultants’ skills in diplomacy, conflict management, communication, and critical thinking. As another example illustrating the importance of understanding client needs and politics, trial lawyers sometimes hire trial consultants only to be able to blame them for providing bad advice if the verdict is unfavorable. Such practices are probably uncommon but reflect the importance of being able to understand the trial consultant’s role in a particular situation. Generally, trial consultants tend to acquire and hone many of these competencies through hands-on experience.

Finally, some successful trial consultants have built their practice entirely on their experience and have no relevant academic credentials. These consultants present a compelling argument when they point to their repeat clients, who are pleased with the level of services they provide. However, it is likely that in the future, trial consultants who acquired their knowledge and skills exclusively on the job will face increasing challenges in providing cogent answers to questions about statistics and methodology from increasingly sophisticated clients.

Continuing Education

Trial consultants need to update their skill set and remain up-to-date with current best practices and developments in the field and changes in the law. Clients are becoming increasingly sophisticated with regard to social science and technology, so trial consultants are additionally motivated to keep up with professional developments. For continuing education, trial consultants in the United States typically turn to the American Society of Trial Consultants (ASTC). Every year, the ASTC organizes a conference where trial consultants can take “Trial Consulting 101” and can discuss emerging trends and findings with seasoned experts. Other related professional organizations include the American Psychology-Law Society and the Law and Society Association. The annual meetings of these organizations sometimes provide useful information about scientific findings that are relevant to trial consultants (typically relating to jury behavior).

Certification of Trial Consultants

The ASTC has considered the merits and drawbacks of certification for trial consultants. Considering the diverse nature of the services as well as the swift changes that technological advances can bring, the current state of the profession in the United States excludes any professional certification or state licensing. However, the ASTC has outlined some practice guidelines for some services (e.g., witness preparation, jury selection), and its annual conference provides workshops and sessions designed to disseminate these best practices. As the ASTC moves to identify practice guidelines for additional services (e.g., posttrial interviews), trial consultants should consider the implications of training or education.

References:

  1. Cutler, B. L., & Stinson, V. (in press). Training and education of trial consultants. In R. L. Wiener & B. Bornstein (Eds.), Trial consulting: A psychological handbook. New York: Springer.
  2. Posey, A. J., & Wrightsman, L. S. (2005). Trial consulting. New York: Oxford.
  3. Strier, F. (1999). Whither trial consulting? Issues and projections. Law and Human Behavior, 23, 93–115.
  4. Strier, F. (2001). Why trial consultants should be licensed. Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 1, 69–76.

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