Which Is More Powerful: The Court of Public Opinion or The Court of Law?

When it comes to legal cases or controversies, so many verdicts arise from the court of opinion first. Social media, broadcast media, newspapers, websites – these platforms spread information rapidly and make determinations before courts have delivered final decisions. This includes legal journals, law reviews, trade media in the legal industry, and even legal analytics on CNN and Fox News. 

Therefore, when a newsworthy circumstance is presented to the public, it is possible that all the true significance of the situation will never be made known from a court of law. It is the initial publicity that may stick in the end. A court case might go on for years with wins, losses, evidence, verdicts … without the public hearing all the true details. 

Public Opinion Gives Early Verdicts Through Media

As an example, the 2006 Duke Lacrosse Case has been used as a typical case study in the power of public perception. It’s been covered, both in the moment and retrospectively, by many media outlets – including its own Wikipedia page and an ESPN documentary called “Fantastic Lies.”

When three members of the Duke University men’s lacrosse team were accused of sexually assaulting a woman, the school’s president was quick to make an ultimate judgement – cancelling the season, accepting the team coach’s resignation, and expelling the accused from the university. Others, including the area District Attorney and prosecutor, implied guilt even before evidence was reviewed.

After the initial news coverage, the story was never heard from again. After months of investigation, it turned out the claims were false and the prosecutor had gone rogue in his tactics. The prosecutor later acknowledged there was no evidence, apologized for his assumptions, and was disbarred for his “unethical conduct” during the case.

In this case, the court of public opinion showed how powerful it is. As the media picked up the story and spread it across its platforms, most pundits and people made up their minds that the accused were guilty. It may take years to resolve cases in court, but it can take only 15 minutes for a judgement to be cast by the public. And, while those young men were ultimately found not guilty, they still are trying to shake off the accusations.

It is important to have both a strong legal counsel and council in the court of public opinion. Many times, business owners and the C-suite will think a comment or action will quickly blow over, even when their legal counsel says not to get involved in a discussion. On the other side, legal teams may say there is a strong case worth pursuing, regardless of what people might say publicly. 

To this day, people still think about the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, even decades later. Ignoring the court of opinion is to risk staining your name forever.

The Public Can Influence the Courts

In an interview, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Bryer admitted that the public can influence a judge’s ruling before ultimately backtracking. His slip of the tongue gives us insight into just how powerful people’s opinions can be. And considering that public opinion often precedes the court of law in decisions, you have a comprehensive strategy in winning your case in both places. In many issues of transformative legislation or rulings, courts followed the change in society, which is based heavily on public opinion. 

A personal example of this is the comparison of sugar to corn syrup. Today in my household, we’ve switched from pancake syrup (containing high fructose corn syrup) to real maple syrup because of media headlines and research claiming the negative health effects of corn syrup. Though a ruling in the court of law could find that corn syrup provides a similar chemical structure to sugar, and research could prove its positives, public opinion has already made up the minds of many consumers. 

Monitor Your Public Perception to Get Ahead of Damaging Opinions

To better control your public image and message, start by regularly monitoring the industry areas in which you regularly work. If news columnists are questioning another financial advisor about how their advice can be unbiased, you (as a financial planner or other service provider) could proactively decide how you might respond if you were accused of not putting your clients’ interests ahead of your own. This strategy allows you to get ahead of possible backlash based on prevailing public opinion.

As we partner with service organizations and law firms, we continuously monitor relevant media for news that may potentially impact their constituents. For example, when working with a law firm that does labor relations litigation, we might be watching to see how the news is reporting on union versus nonunion discrimination issues. 

Why a Law Firm Should Monitor News

1. A client may express their own opinion on a public situation.

The firm needs to observe what its constituency is doing and saying to successfully represent them and strategize for the future.

2. An opportunity may arise to share a stance on a related legal issue.

A situation might give the law firm a chance to chime in on a public opinion rather than litigation where the parties involved are not able to speak publicly. 

3. You are free to share expertise and insight for your brands benefit.

While a different attorney may be bound by a restriction on speaking publicly in an area, an independent lawyer can address a general public opinion issue without penalty. You are at liberty to comment and showcase your expertise to promote your firm for future clients.

Minimize Litigation by Winning Over the Public

Public relations is an integral part of legal strategy. If you can influence public opinion to join your side, you could limit litigation time and expense by making an out-of-court agreement or settlement more appealing. By presenting stories, research, interviews, and other public relations in the media, the opposing side could see a quick resolution as more beneficial to their public perception.