Voir Dire -- One Key to a Successful Trial
Updated: Apr 13, 2021
By Clayton T. Robertson, Attorney-at-Law (Criminal Defense / Civil Litigation Attorney)
If you've seen a trial or been a defendant (or plaintiff) in one, you already know that one of the most important parts of a trial occurs before the first witness even takes the stand. "Voir dire" is the legal term for jury selection. (I'll spare you the French translation, which many lawyers enjoy discussing as a long lead-in to the topic.) Jury selection is when the trial attorneys ask questions of potential jurors and, if it is done well, have a brutally honest conversation with potential jurors about the general aspects of the case, the jurors' backgrounds, and key topics that will affect their ability to serve on the jury. The ultimate goal is to determine whether some jurors should not serve on a particular case because of their pre-existing beliefs, opinions, biases, or prejudices that could impact their ability to be fair and impartial. This doesn't mean that a potential juror can't be fair and impartial in all cases; it means that perhaps there is something about a particular case, whether it is civil or criminal, that could make it difficult for a particular juror to serve on that particular jury.
When you speak with a potential attorney for your case, you need to get a sense of whether this is a person who will feel at ease in front of a jury, will they communicate well, are they personable, do they carry themselves well, and what type of experience do they have picking juries? Also, picking a jury requires a good "sixth sense" and the ability to "read a person." What I mean by this is that, because most communication occurs non-verbally, it's essential that a lawyer has the ability to interpret these non-verbal cues. In other words, it's often not so much what people say; it's how they say it, their tone, their facial expressions, whether what they say matches their non-verbal cues (i.e., when there is a mismatch between the verbal and the non-verbal, that's a particularly bad sign), and the rest of the person's demeanor.
To be good at reading people, you need to take time to listen. You also need to be respectful so they can open up to you. As you speak with your potential attorney, do you get a sense from them that they are too absorbed with what they want to say without taking the time to listen to you? Or they do not respectfully answer your questions? Or help you to feel comfortable? If so, then potential jurors might have the same reaction.