Description of a Struggle

One Afternoon at a Legal Focus Group with Seven Random Participants, 12/12/12

The hotel is a surprisingly sprawling affair. Its many wings and decorative roofs and meeting rooms extend away from the hotel in true Upper Valley fashion, which is to say additions are tacked on seemingly at random and at will. The hotel appears to be an extemporary fort and its insides do nothing to dispel this impression, as its lobby boasts a collection of elevated corridors, blazing fireplaces, decorative and functional stone walls, multi-leveled ceilings, and a surprising number of desks (the front desk, gift shop counter, and a variety of desks corresponding to offices unknown), all of which come together and greet the wary traveler with an unsettling and somewhat unprofessional sense of busyness. The guest is further offended by the uncalled-for pomp of a remarkably officious attendant and is even further overwhelmed by the fact that this entire display is centered around a gigantic indoor stone courtyard, which is itself buried by countless fake trees roped together many, many times over by strings of festive holiday lights, to say nothing of the patio’s surprising number of tables, buffet stations, waitstaff areas, and the enormous, ceremonial pergola in one of its corners. To make matters even crazier, the back half of the patio and all of its many features is surrounded by glass-front meeting rooms and activity centers. But once the guest gets used to the chaos, it’s kind of nice. A guest can feel comfortably secluded in the patio’s secret woods. Like the Bohemian Grove, working in one’s own private forest is conducive to good business, which is why the view from the windows of the meeting rooms are obscured by the hundreds of fake trees. Further luxury is bestowed by the swimming pool and its large AstroTurf beach, a strange though contextually appropriate feature considering the bomb-shelter ambiance of the patio and is in fact much bigger than the actual pool itself. In fact, it’s so big and AstroTurfy that it could be a putting green, though no holes or clubs or leering clown obstacles are present to allow it to function as such.

The reception area and courtyard and woods are so surreal that it would be understandable if guests wandered off with mouths agog, a sort of living metaphor of the mind-boggling meeting that took place the afternoon of 12/12/12. The eight guests scheduled to participate in a legal focus group held in a meeting room at the hotel were spared the indignity of being lost by the presence of one of the host legal firm’s employees waiting politely at the front desk (or at least the desk that looks the most like the front desk), dispatched to snag participants as they walk in. The group was walked over in sets of two or three to the meeting room and welcomed to their own coffee and pastry station outside the room. There was a sign on the table saying that its provisions are for a private group and not the public, though the public can hardly be blamed for assuming that any of the tables hidden among the trees are as public as any other. The coffee is typical hotel coffee, of better quality than gas station coffee if one wants to split hairs but not as strong. The pastries are typical hotel pastries.

The eight participants were recruited by a temp agency. Everybody but one arrived on time and all began tacitly sizing one another up, making assumptions about what the others’ opinions will likely be regarding the case whose particulars have not yet been divulged. All anyone knows is that they are being called to weigh in on a legal case and will be compensated financially and via sandwich. The assignment is scheduled to be about four hours of work, from 10am-2pm and will pay $11/hr.  It is assumed that the focus group has been convened as a practice run for the lawyers, to better gauge a random sampling of the public’s (and therefore the jury’s) likely opinions about the case and to some degree the way it should be argued in court, but until the host lawyers explain exactly what’s going on, this is only speculation. The eighth person doesn’t arrive by 10:05 and is therefore barred from participation, as once the presentation starts nobody else can join in. Thus the final group is comprised of only seven people. The demographics break down as such:

Five women and two men, of which:
– one man is in his late 20s;
– one woman is in her late 30s;
– one woman is in her late 40s;
– one man is in his 50s;
– one woman is precisely 57;
– and two women are over 60.

All have been contacted by the temp agency; college experience ranges from a BA to no experience at all; the 57-year old starts a conversation with “Last time I had a job…,” the lighthearted though not boastful tone of which indicates it was a comically long time ago. The preliminary paperwork filled out at the behest of the law firm asks about Former Employment, which she gleefully answers by writing “Whatever I can get my hands on” and then answers 40 yrs. to the next question, How long have you been doing it? The man in his 50s had his jacket tucked into his underwear and immediately asked the host where the bathroom was, giving the unfortunate impression to anyone who was paying attention that he had been interrupted that morning mid-dump by the necessity of getting to the meeting on time. He came back and smiled at everyone, loudly proclaiming that he was going to write “Santa Claus” where the form asked for his full name, in apparent protest of the questionnaire’s invasions of privacy. He was roughly handsome in an outdated, Burt Reynolds-sort of way, which, fortunately or not, also looked kind of porno circa the 1970s, a distinction stemming almost totally from his full, black mustache. One of the women in her 60s looked like someone’s grandma who lives in a quiet planned community, the other 60s+ lady was slight but not weak, the kind of older woman whose cruel smile augments the power of her sinewy forearms, which grips unsuspecting victims like a scary, wraithlike claw as she says something mean to them. The man in his 20s is reserved but trying not to be; his attempts to engage the others in conversation sound like the stilted dialogue of someone not known to take the initiative in conversation but then tries to in order to get better at it; the woman in her 30s has highlighted hair and a raspy smoker’s voice and the woman in her 40s looks like a mom and is wearing what may or may not be the top of a set of flower-patterned scrubs as a shirt.

The seven sat around a table shaped like a U. That the table was in a private meeting room in a hotel with complimentary coffee and set with complimentary pens and pads of paper (that unusually only had about eight sheets of paper attached to them [and this was before the pads were even used]) endowed the participants with a sense of professionalism before any information or explanation was given as to what was expected of them. It was an involuntary but nonetheless clearly welcomed sensation: posture quickly went rigid, coffee was sipped thoughtfully, and the guy with the moustache began taking off his glasses and pointing with them for emphasis every single time he spoke for the rest of the day, and if he was already holding them when he began speaking he just put them back on in the same way he took them off to emphasize the care and weight put into his opinions; on or off, the gesture of contemplation was the crucial component needed to get his point across, no matter what point was being made and regardless of its relative importance to the topic at hand. The open end of the table faced a projector screen, and at least three laptops were connected to one another by cables and their various adapters. A camera was set up in the corner to record the proceedings and it became apparent that most of the group’s deliberations will be watched live by the law firms in the next room. After the usual aggravations trying to set up technology for a presentation, the laptop projection finally took place. Skype was started and was used to call a woman in the room and was kept running the entire time. This seemed weird but then it became clear that her Skype account was probably open in the next room, with Skype acting as a way to hear the conversation going on in the meeting room. The surveillance is unnerving but after all not unexpected as the whole point of the exercise is to see what “real people” have to say about…

…Someone being sued. The case, whose public details must be kept to a minimum for reasons of propriety and because the case has not yet gone to court, involves a man who fell asleep at the wheel and then crashed head-on into a family driving in the other lane. The infants and the fiancé in the passenger seat were unharmed, but the mother suffered a shattered femur and middle finger and was trapped in the wreckage for at least forty-five minutes as the fire department tried – as one lawyer put it – to “exticrate” her. The sleeping driver was essentially uninjured. After surgeries, rehab, and ongoing pain, the mother sued the other driver. The driver concedes that he fell asleep and should be held accountable for everything that happened, including the medical bills, and then offered to pay an additional 2x the medical bills on top of it for the pain/inconvenience/terror of being in such an accident. (The mother of the victim reported that someone found the victim’s cellphone and called the entry listed as ‘Mom,’ where the mom heard nothing but screaming and hectic emergency activity for forty-five minutes.) The victim and her lawyers considered this amount too low. In essence, the focus group was convened to decide how much, all things considered, the victim should be compensated. Three lawyers for the victim were present and the one lawyer for the defendant kept quiet until his presentation an hour and a half into the proceedings, except for this one time when he needlessly raised his voice and told everyone to be quiet and listen because it was important, a task that didn’t need to be asked, as everyone was already quiet for the most part and knew it was important.

“Choices need to be made,” said the lawyer for the plaintiff gravely. It was a theme that he repeated in different and identical forms throughout the afternoon. His speech began with the deep breath and wizened look around the room well-practiced by lawyers and middle-school principals. “He made a choice to work all night, to go without much sleep, to get in his car, and then to DRIVE to his VACATION HOME in KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine.” His case was made slowly, quietly, with appropriate pauses for emphasis and solemnity, though he sometimes veered from his serious tone to one of direction-exchanging dad-jocularity, especially when he was discussing the series of highways and routes the defendant took that led to the scene of the accident. The ease with which he went back and forth between tones of voice highlighted his skills in lawyerly polemic but the fact that he was obviously playing a character was irrelevant to the group, judging from the gasps of sympathy, guilt, and shame that started within minutes of his recounting of events. He was dressed rather casually, with rockabilly two-tone shoes and a faded tattoo of some unknown symbol between his thumb and forefinger. He was 53, he said, and he had a salt-and-pepper goatee and the full head of hair that helps instill more confidence in full-haired middle-aged people than those who are bald, as if their head of hair is an accomplishment unto itself, his forthright honesty is evidenced by the fact that he looks better than his unfortunately glabrous brethren.

On the other hand, this wasn’t necessarily true, for while the lawyer for the defendant had an equally if not even fuller head of hair, he also committed a series of small gaffes starting as soon as he began that taken in concert (and coupled with the overall-unsympathetic defendant) doomed his case to oblivion. He attempted to make his case plainly, using both ‘aww shucks’ common sense and impassioned speech highlighting the idea that everyone is protected equally under the law (“that’s what makes this country great”). He built on this idea by imploring everyone not to decide things in passion, to please listen to the facts of the case, noting with dubious, cringe-inducing taste that “there were lynchings when people decided in passion.” In an attempt to convey his earnestness and the plainness of the idea of justice, he said he didn’t “prepare a fancy [PowerPoint] presentation” like the other side. His choice of the word ‘fancy’ was kind of cute considering what was being described as fancy, but had he not mentioned this, its absence (and thus his evident unpreparedness) would have likely gone unnoticed. A few moments later, he further damaged his character by saying unapologetically that he wasn’t good at math: when discussing the total compensatory damages his client was willing to pay, he couldn’t add two figures together and his imploring glance at the audience implied that someone should add it for him and then shout out the answer, which someone promptly did, though it was absolutely the wrong answer, so wrong even that the mathless lawyer knew the figure was way off. A quick look was exchanged among the legal teams that basically questioned the validity of the opinions of people who couldn’t add, like, These are the people to whom we are giving power over the life and livelihood of someone else?

His five minute presentation came to a whimpering end and the victim’s lawyers’ began anew, picking up right where they left off, explaining how the medical procedures the victim had to endure were so brutal that they looked more like “someone working on a piece of machinery than a human being,” thanks to the pins and rods that were drilled and hammered into place to fix her broken bones. The plaintiff’s lawyers succeeded where the defendant’s failed: while the attempt to engage the audience in math might have been a ploy to relate to them on their level and to moreover flatter them with a sense of their own intelligence, the many aspects of the case simply would not come together and make the defendant seem likeable let alone relatively blameless in the accident. The plaintiff’s lawyers tried the same trick with much greater success. One lawyer communicated his trust in the participants by not even flinching when they, with the confidence that comes from watching a lot of TV, threw around legal terms like “aggravated” that hadn’t once appeared in anything presented that day, and by claiming ignorance about the pronunciation of medical terms, saying “I don’t know how to pronounce this, maybe you all will know” and then profusely thanking the audience member who knew how to pronounce it.

But even these characters and their stories grew tiresome: attention soon waned and a number of participants took to idle drawing. One woman drew and shaded shapes and another filled her iPad with variations on the same face. The two women sat next to each other and were fully engaged in their doodles that were for some reason extremely annoying to watch: the quality of the terrible art could be excused or ignored as it was simply the result of an activity done while on the phone or while listening to something important (and therefore wasn’t supposed to be good) if the person drawing didn’t appear to be concentrating so hard on the drawing, as their expressions of such deliberate creation and the artistic poise they affected should at least yield a product whose quality is proportionally equal in quality to the time and effort they seem to be devoting to the drawings. Thus that their drawings weren’t was severely disappointing. The backlight of the iPad made doodling a dangerous pastime as anything she drew or wrote was illuminated and readily visible from any angle. The presenters merely had to look in her direction to see that her attention was elsewhere, though ‘elsewhere’ suggests she was captivated by something equally as important as the details of the case, which collections of poorly-rendered smiley faces (even for smiley faces) inarguably weren’t, even if the concentration with which they were drawn might suggest otherwise.

Fortunately for everyone, the real point of the activity/experiment was about to begin. The rest of the time was to be left for the participants to discuss certain factors of the case. The lawyers packed up and noted that they would be in the next room paying attention to the deliberations; instructions were given to answer just two questions on a sheet of paper pertaining to the case. The real focus of the afternoon was to decide how much the plaintiff could sympathetically sue the defendant for, with the participants’ ways of arriving at this figure being studied and applied to the case, as again, it was reasonable to expect that the participants’ sympathies and ways of thinking would be similar to those of the actual jury that would be selected for the actual case. The 57-year old was promptly appointed foreman by dint of her personality, her appealingly unusual name, and the shawl that was royally draped around her shoulders; she feigned surprise at the honor and apparent respect her being commanded, though it was clear that this came as no surprise and was probably expected.

The first order of business was to hear individual opinions on the case, ending with each participant naming the figure he or she thought appropriate to ask the defendant to pay. The man with the moustache was on one end of the table and thus spoke first, of course taking off his glasses thoughtfully before he began. His said his figure was initially five million dollars but he would settle for the (completely arbitrary) amount of 2.8 million. He put his glasses back on and didn’t really explain how he had arrived at the number, letting its decimal point speak for its trustworthiness, rationality, professionalism, and accuracy. No more figures with decimal points were given but the semi-agreed upon number exceeded that which the plaintiff’s lawyers were going to ask. It was determined that the amount that could satisfy the defendant’s debt to the victim and to society was three million dollars, with the rationalization that “it would probably be compromised down in court” aimed at any detractors who thought the penalty was too harsh.

(Given the cameras and microphones and the dramatic lawyers and the isolation in a disconcerting hotel, there was the unavoidable possibility that the whole affair was some sort of complex psychological experiment. It would have been easy to fake a plausible legal battle, not to mention that the extent to which the common person could sympathize or take issue with any number of the issues the afternoon’s particular case raises, as again it is simple enough to be believable and therefore sympathetic. Or maybe it was a gang of wealthy folks who liked to watch people squabble for amusement. They could have been on the other side of the wall eating popcorn with their feet up, shaking their heads in disbelief but laughing in pleasure at how ridiculous a group of people will let themselves be. Then again, it could be heartwarming: when random people are endowed with responsibility, they step up to the task; the professional playacting notwithstanding, most people at least took the opportunity somewhat seriously.)

The participants’ next duty was to determine whether or not the defendant acted with malicious disregard, the positive determination of which allowed for the possibility of more money for the plaintiff. For reasons of space and for reasons of maintaining a readable narrative of the events, the debate about this point will not be related in full let alone transcribed; suffice to say the already-prickly topic was made all the more prickly by the fact that one participant “didn’t like the way [a paragraph of a legal document] was worded,” which then set off a tangential argument about what exactly the paragraph meant and what the literal meaning, once agreed upon, would mean for the point that was originally being debated and then what it would mean for the case as a whole. A few participants seemed willing if not somewhat interested in a debate about the semantics of legalese but their amused indulgence quickly turned to annoyance when they realized they were in a prolonged debate about things they weren’t even being asked to debate about, and besides, who put him in charge of deciding what was valid wording or not? A maddening argument ensued

A:            “Yes, but I don’t think ‘the Plaintiff alleges’ means that the girl herself said this.”
B:            “Yes, it does. It says that she said that right there: ‘the Plaintiff alleges.’”
A:            “Yes, I know, but ‘the Plaintiff alleges’ shouldn’t be taken literally. It means that her entire side of the argument is based around the idea that the driver should have known better than to drive while tired.”
B:            “Yes, exactly! She says that the driver should have known better than to drive. That’s just common sense.”
A:            “Yes, of course it’s common sense. That’s why it’s meaningless.”
B:            “Do you agree that being tired can lead to dangerous driving?”
A:            “Yes, everyone agrees with that. That’s why it doesn’t matter. It’s just a common sense, a truism, not a scientific piece of evidence.”
B:            “So you agree that the driver drove dangerously because he was tired?”
A:            “Yes, that’s obvious.”
B:            “So you agree with what she said, that driving while tired is dangerous?”
A:            “Yes, I agree that she might have said that at some point, but I don’t agree that her saying makes any difference when it comes to making a case against him.”
B:            “But you just said you agree that driving tired is dangerous.”
A:            “Yes, I agree that it is. But everyone knows that. Her stating it makes no difference, if she stated it at all, which I don’t think she did, at least not literally, and not in the way you think she did, literally.”
B:            “She did say that. It says it right here.”

and culminated with the man in his late 20s yelling at one of the women in her 60s, accusing her of scoffing at the points he was making and therefore “not taking the fact that these are real peoples’ lives” seriously. The foreman quieted everyone down and looked askance at the petulant objector.

A woman from the law firm came in and said that they would have no problem paying for another half an hour of everybody’s time as the issue still wasn’t settled unanimously as it was supposed to be. Everyone agreed that they would soldier on and come to an agreement. The woman left but reappeared minutes later when the same debate about the paragraph began again instead of a discussion about payment, looking amused as she drew the whole thing to a close and thanking everyone for their participation. The participants grabbed their coats rushed out, not many said goodbye and further conversation was avoided lest the arguments begin again without the supervision of the law firm to keep tempers under control. And as quickly as they came and set up, the lawyers too were gone. The room was cleared out, the technology disconnected, the tables left bearing dishes and silverware but nothing else, this generic detritus erasing the notion that anything supremely confidential occurred inside the room; by the looks of it, it was probably just a boring, mandatory HR seminar but certainly not a legal focus group discussing the lives of real people nor a secret psychological test that was invariably going to teach the world something sad about human nature.

In conclusion: Is the insanity and utter otherworldliness of the hotel’s interior a fitting metaphor for the confusing, interesting, intersecting displays of the human mind that came together and resulted in the proceedings of that afternoon’s focus group? This similarity might be stretching the capacity for random analogy in the universe; things can accidentally be similarly weird but do not always conveniently share the same symbolism; if anything, the design of the hotel is the opposite of the design of the focus group: the hotel’s many accouterments, despite their busyness and seeming randomness, are all too precise, all too planned, altogether too logical in the fact that each part of the design took into consideration the rest of it, even if only to make sure that a beam wasn’t being projected through a wall or that the hundreds of strings of Christmas lights didn’t get tangled up with something else. The fact that point A leads to B which leads to C then to M then N then F which also leads to C and Z but which both ultimately lead back to A is important: there is always some type of literal connection between disparate parts.. It doesn’t take a madman’s pareidolia to see there are myriad ways that everything that comprises the hotel somehow fits together. An architectural analogy can describe the logic of the focus group as well – the group’s discussions seem to imply distinct chains of logic but the real architectural parallel of the focus group is the immutable force of a single, solidly impenetrable wall. Maybe extending from this wall there would be the beginnings of a few artistic flourishes or the earliest foundations of a second wall, but these pieces, if eventually ever completed, would ultimately be irrelevant when considering the wall as its own immovable entity, and one infinitely, maddeningly powerful at that.




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