What is the difference between a focus group & mock trial?

George R. Speckart, Ph.D.


When exploring research options, clients often ask about the difference between a Focus Group and a Mock Trial. These terms are often used interchangeably but there are, in fact, important and relevant differences. The distinction between a Focus Group versus a Mock Trial may be thought of primarily in terms of exploratory versus confirmatory research.  In a Focus Group, very little is initially known about the case and the general approach is to provide respondents with a broad array of case facts, arguments, evidence, and testimony that could conceivably surface in the litigation. This exploratory method allows jurors to impose their own conceptual structure on the pattern of facts and issues, allowing the discovery of what type of approach is required to “meet the jury where they are.” The benefits are:

1) to illuminate areas for which (mis)comprehension may be expected to provide obstacles, or opportunities; 

2) to allow preliminary assessments of how graphics and demonstrative exhibits may benefit trial strategy; 

3) to reveal the distinction between themes that are useful versus useless, allowing the discernment of where the trial team’s initial conceptualization of the case has been “more clever than correct;” and 

4) to discover thematic frameworks that jurors use, which may have been previously unanticipated, enhancing tactical opportunities that were not realized prior to the research.  

Fact and expert witness credibility may also be evaluated in this design, providing a blueprint for more extensive witness training based on how jurors construe the demeanor and persona of each witness. It is also important to note that Focus Group research may be broken up into “modules” for large, complex litigation. Thus, instead of having one focus session with respondents at the conclusion of the presentations, there may be intermittent focus sessions at the conclusion of each homogenous segment.

Mock Trial research is more trial-like, utilizing structured verdict form interrogatories, judge’s instructions, with opening statements, closing arguments, and cases-in-chief. This confirmatory research approach simulates trial conditions more faithfully, allowing for the potential of predictive validity – i.e., the potential to forecast a probable trial outcome (provided, of course, that certain methodological prerequisites are met). While both the Focus Group and the Mock Trial utilize adversarial presentations, only the Mock Trial includes jury deliberations. For in-person Mock Trials, Courtroom Sciences, Inc. uses the most trial-like research setups in the industry, including a judge, jury box, and counsel table with monitors throughout the courtroom. The utilization of such trial-like conditions is a key factor in maximizing the predictive validity of the research. There are also scientifically-valid options to conduct both Focus Groups and Mock Trials virtually as well. 

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