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August 31, 2005

My Diversion: Jury Duty in America's Finest City

Although the three other lawyers and I were not selected, last week, after postponing it twice, I showed up for jury duty at San Diego Superior Court. Jury duty is never convenient for anyone, and the lady at the Jury Services office near the Jury Assembly Room at 220 West Broadway in downtown San Diego said I could postpone again. I stayed anyway. Lawyers don't regularly make it on to juries. I knew that being in many respects defense-oriented in my trial orientation -- even though I generally represent companies in civil cases -- would keep me off even a criminal jury.

I was curious, too. My litigation experience has been chiefly in federal courts all over the U.S. Nearly all my clients, generally out-of-town companies, prefer federal trial courts. But sometimes clients don't have that choice. So I was curious about the San Diego system under California’s one day/one trial system and how it compared to D.C. (where I was trained) and Pittsburgh (where I co-founded my firm 13 years ago). My conclusion, by the way, was that San Diego's system was as fair and efficient a state system as I have encountered -- so I'll leave it at that.

I was also curious about the jurors who showed up, and what they thought about the "system" and "process" -- words some used to describe their past jury service experiences during voir dire. The case was a criminal prosecution of a mild-mannered middle-aged Georgian (i.e., the country on the Black Sea between Russia and Turkey) charged with kidnapping and assault -- not exactly your typical news item in staid, pleasant San Diego. I had hoped for a civil business case.

But I wasn't disappointed. There were 40+ members of the pool for this case and 5 of them really surprised me. Maybe trying to get out of jury duty, or maybe just venting, they said in effect they didn't trust testimony (pretty much any testimony) by police officers or detectives. Two were college-educated housewives, two were middle manager executive white males and one was an engineer in his twenties. As large American cities go, San Diego is reputed to be a relatively well-mannered, conformist, law-abiding and conservative place, with a disproportionate number of military retirees and refugees from the American midwest -- so this bowled me over.

What struck me even more was that 5 different jurors, who also seemed well-educated, said -- in response to being asked whether there was anything which would prevent them from being impartial in the case -- that they were cynical about or somehow disillusioned with "the system", i.e. lawyers, judges, courts and outcomes. I talked to some of them after we were all excused from duty. One had bad experiences with lawyers generally; one thought courts less than even-handed; one had read news reports about ill-grounded cases, both criminal and civil. But whatever the reason, these 5 out of 40+ (and, I think, the tip of the iceberg in the room) repeated the same message: it doesn't work. All seemed intelligent and even-keeled. All were irked.

What does this all say about how we’re serving clients, at least clients as individuals? It tells me that lawyers (including judges), the real guardians of how clients and citizens think about the system, certainly aren't helping market one another. And no one I heard or talked to in the courthouse last week talked about excessive fees, wasted resources, or high-priced expert witnesses, either. It wasn't about money. I'm not a psychiatrist, and I don't pretend to know what these people were really thinking or their real experiences. But they had been abused by the system, and felt that as ordinary people they were somehow used as the equipment the lawyers and the system needed for an endless and to them pointless game. I seriously doubt whether they felt the same way about the medical or accounting professions or about their banks or landscaping services. They seemed to think we (and the rest of the system) haven’t served them and that we don’t really care whether we serve them or not.

Posted by JD Hull at August 31, 2005 09:00 AM

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