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90 – Sonia Rodriguez – The Trials of War: Tactics, Strategy & Mindset

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with Cowen Rodriguez Peacock partner and attorney, Sonia Rodriguez, to discuss Sonia’s rediscovered inspiration and lessons from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” and the strategies and tactics trial lawyers can utilize from it while still dealing with a pandemic.

Michael opens the episode by telling Sonia about his feelings of frustration about his upcoming case (which is less than a week away at the time of recording) being canceled due to Covid concerns. Sonia responds to this by saying this trend of “getting the rug pulled out from under you,” seems to be the “new normal” for trial lawyers during the pandemic.

The two then begin to discuss how this impacts your case outside of the courtroom, specifically having to invest time and money into a case multiple times due to cancellations, the need to find flexible experts, and the pandemic’s “giant wrench” in your damage evaluations.

“We all know that, even in non-pandemic times, the certainty of a trial date was never really that certain. But now, the prospect of having to prepare multiple times for the trial setting is going to multiply the cost.” – Sonia Rodriguez

The conversation then shifts to what trial lawyers can do in times like these to maximize the value of their cases. Sonia begins by discussing her re-reading of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and its impact on her successes in 2021.

“I’ve been practicing law for almost 25 years, and I’ve never made more money in a one-year period than I have during this pandemic,” Sonia says leading into her first citation from the book (with a notable twist for trial lawyers); “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without [a trial].” This, she notes, is similar to the modern-day strategy, “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

Sonia then delves deeper into this concept by discussing how she prepares for war, or in this case trial, by hiring and preparing our experts, paying for exhibits, and (probably most important) laying plans and evaluating her cases strengths and weaknesses.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”– Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”

Building on the subject of the importance of evaluating your case, Sonia presents one of her touchstones for case valuation: Remember torts 101, negligence has two parts. She presents that it’s easy to fall into the rut of evaluating your case based on your client’s damage model. However, if you look at your case carefully, based on liability factors you believe, and go to battle fairly evaluating both components, you will add value. Michael agrees with this, adding that if the defense did something really bad, you’re more likely to get a bigger result.

The two continue this conversation with Sonia explaining how mediators only want to talk about low property damage and pre-existing conditions; subjects to which she responds, “I spit on that!” Instead, she wants to talk about this trucking company, how they have no training protocols, how they’ve had the same types of crashes for the last 3 years, and so on; ultimately aiming to change the framework of the conversation to focus on liability.

“No one really knows what a case is worth. There is no magic formula … . If we, in our heart of hearts, believe it’s worth more, we can get more.”– Michael Cowen

Sonia then shifts the conversation to “attacking by fire,” or, in other words, always coming from a position of strength, even if you have weaknesses in a case. Regarding the weaknesses of the defense, however, Michael adds, “you always want conflict in the other room.” We want to add pressure to the other side to the point that they want out. Adding a final point to the subject of “attacking by fire,” Sonia hones in on her “fun” way to strategize; namely finding the pressure point of the defense and exploiting that weakness.

Moving on to discussing and evaluating the actions of the defense, Sonia cites Chapter 9 of “The Art of War,” entitled “Assessing Strategy Based on the Actions of Your Opponent.” Here, Michael and Sonia discuss how noticing aggression, “frenetic” activity, or threatening motions from the defense are clear signs of fear and, more importantly, weakness. “Especially when you respond with calm,” Michael says, “There’s nothing like that calm, quiet confidence.”

On that note of quiet confidence and taking power from the defense, Michael begins to take the conversation in a different route, breaking down his feelings about the results of cases and how that relates to his self-worth as a trial lawyer.

“It’s not that I don’t care about the result, it’s that my self-worth is detached from the result.”– Michael Cowen

This prompts the closing topic of conversation for the episode, mental health in the practice of law. Michael and Sonia discuss the trials and tribulations of their profession including starting and ending trials, letting go of trials (win or lose), the discipline required to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and being compassionate to yourself. “I think perfectionism is something a lot of lawyers struggle with,” Sonia says, “The struggle holds us back.” The two end the episode by sharing their own strategies for coping with the struggles of practicing law and close with a positive note of constantly seeking to be better in their cases, mental health, business, and practice.

This episode also discusses finding the weaknesses in your case and how to overcome them, the importance of obtaining key information during the initial client meeting, and trusting your intuition.

63 – Sonia Rodriguez – “You Got Me”: Discrediting Defense Paid Opinion Witnesses

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his law partner Sonia Rodriguez for an overview of deconstructing defense-paid opinion witnesses. They highlight many of their favorite strategies to use when dealing with a witness who won’t answer your questions, their favorite unexpected “gifts” from witnesses, and the importance of why someone becomes a defense-paid opinion witness in the first place. This episode is full of shocking real-life examples you don’t want to miss.

Michael begins the episode by highlighting the defense strategy to hire someone to discredit their client. He asks Sonia, “What do you do to deal with this?” Sonia describes the first action she takes, which is reviewing what organizations they show they are affiliated with on their CV (curriculum vitae). Most professional organizations have ethical guidelines which these witnesses must abide by. She’s found success in displaying these guidelines to the witness during the deposition and using them to prevent the witness from stating biased information.

Michael then describes the common narrative these witnesses all portray which every plaintiff attorney listening is sure to relate to. Any injury from the crash goes away in 6-12 weeks, but any injury from 10 years ago is most certainly the cause of everything today, even if they haven’t been to a doctor for it in 9 years. Sonia has combatted this in medical witnesses by focusing heavily on the client’s description of pain. Most doctors will admit that the patient’s description of pain is a very important part of the diagnosis. She uses this information to put the witness in a position of saying, “the records aren’t adequate,” which does not play well with the jury.

The conversation then shifts to the difficult but highly effective strategy of turning the defense paid opinion witness into your witness. Sonia explains why this is so difficult to do successfully, but has maneuvered these difficulties by focusing her depos on what she knows she can get from them. She shares an example of this where she was able to build up the witness’s credibility, then use it to get some simple, clear concessions.

On the other hand, Michael says his primary goal in every defense paid opinion witness depo is to make them his witness. Instead of fighting with them in an area where he does not have credibility, he spends his time researching the witness, reading prior depositions, and trying to find what they will give you based off those prior experiences.

Michael elaborates further on the importance of reading past testimonies by sharing a shocking example with a biomechanical engineer who claimed his client could not possibly have a herniated disc from the crash. Before trial, Michael read several of his previous depositions and went through all of the literature the witness cited in the case. He then shares an example of how he used those prior depos to discredit the witness, how his voir dire helped him do this while also relating to the jury, and why reading the literature can help your case.

Sonia wholeheartedly agrees and gives her real world experience using the literature to your advantage. She shares an example where a neurosurgeon used a study about the prevalence of herniated discs to claim her client’s pain wasn’t caused by the crash. After reading the article, Sonia found that it only referred to a specific type of herniated disc, which was not the type her client had. After revealing this, all the witness could say was, “You got me.”

Another all too familiar roadblock is the witness who just won’t answer your questions. While Sonia and Michael both agree this will always be a barrier, they both share insightful techniques on how you can overcome this. Sonia does this by always recording the testimony, so she can show the jury the witness was refusing to cooperate or concede to basic things. Michael then offers another strategy he employs with uncooperative witnesses – using basic, fair questions in a true or false format. While you may still need to ask the same question 10 times to get a response, you can always cut out the first 9 asks. The key to this is to never appear mad or frustrated because it doesn’t present well to the jury. Sonia agrees with this strategy and points out how well-suited it is for a Zoom deposition.

On a lighter note, Michael and Sonia share their favorite unexpected “gifts” they’ve received from paid opinion witnesses. Sonia details her experience of utilizing past testimony to prove an orthopedic surgeon was simply touting lies for money and highlights the importance of sharing information with other members of the plaintiff’s bar. Michael’s favorite “gift” was an ex-sheriff providing testimony on a drunk driving case, who made an incredibly racist statement in his deposition. The judge insisted the case not be made about race, which Michael had no issuing agreeing to. But when Michael asked the sheriff the same question at trial (assuming the witness had been prepped not to make the same mistake), he made the SAME racist statement he made in the deposition.

While these unexpected “gifts” are a huge blessing, they’re hard to come by on most cases. Sonia and Michael conclude the conversation by exploring why people become paid opinion witnesses in the first place. He accurately states, “This isn’t why people want to become doctors or engineers.” Michael explains how many of them either just weren’t good at their jobs or experienced an injury that rendered them unable to perform surgery.

This podcast also covers using before and after witnesses, focusing on the symptoms instead of the diagnosis, whether or not to “go in for the kill” in a deposition, verifying the qualifications of a witness, and so much more.

57 – Sonia Rodriguez – The Digital Frontier: Technology, Roadblocks & Creative Solutions

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his law partner Sonia Rodriguez. They discuss pushing cases during COVID-19, educating the defense and clients on Zoom, the increased need for technology in law firms, finding creative solutions, the effect of the pandemic on jury attitudes, and strategies to safely return to the office.

The discussion begins on the topic of pushing cases and overcoming defense delay tactics during COVID-19. Sonia emphasizes the need to continue to move cases, even if you’re met with objections from the defense, saying “The wheels of justice don’t come to a complete halt.” Sonia suggests offering a clear, transparent proposal for technology to the defense prior to depositions. Fellow Cowen Rodriguez Peacock attorney Jacob Leibowitz has created guides for Zoom for Depositions and Zoom for Mediations which have been helpful in easing uncertainty surrounding this new technology. Michael has also found success in offering practice sessions to the defense counsel, noting that this works well when people are acting in good faith.

Unfortunately, not all defense attorneys are acting in good faith with their objections to this technology and will try to drag the case out. In these situations, Sonia encourages attorneys to file a Motion to Compel Deposition. She has found success in this because courts in Texas have been utilizing the technology themselves. This makes it hard for defense attorneys to suggest depositions by Zoom aren’t appropriate when the hearing may very likely be held by Zoom. Sonia and Michael agree that it’s in every firm’s best interest to keep their cases moving during COVID-19 and to find creative solutions to problems which may arise.

The conversation shifts to a discussion of preparing clients for Zoom depositions. Sonia insists the process isn’t much different, other than a loss of “relationship feel” between the client and the attorney during deposition prep. The important factor in this is ensuring you create a comfort level for your client that makes them feel prepared.

Sonia and Michael agree the biggest roadblock they’ve faced regarding client preparation is a lack of available technology for the client. Many clients do not have a laptop, Wi-Fi, or a room where they can sit privately and quietly for a 3-4-hour deposition. Their firm has mitigated this issue by sending tablets to clients who need them and emphasizing technology training during deposition prep. They note that this strategy does not always work, and some depositions will inevitably need to be delayed until we can meet in person again. The underlying goal is to keep 95% of your cases moving.

Michael and Sonia move the conversation to the overall increased level of understanding regarding video conferencing technology like Zoom. Sonia describes her experience with sharing exhibits through Zoom, and her trial and error of doing so. She’s noticed how advanced the knowledge of this technology is for many court reporters and mediators and has learned through their advice as well. She then shares a story of when she served a witness with a Zoom deposition subpoena. She expected a lengthy process of explaining the technology to the witness, who shockingly replied that she was well-versed in Zoom through her children’s virtual school courses. Michael notes that he doesn’t know how enforceable a Zoom deposition subpoena would be, but again emphasizes the goal to move 95% of cases and save the rest for when we return to normal. Sonia echoes this by explaining the duty we have to our clients to move cases and represent them earnestly. While we cannot guarantee their trial date will go through, we can guarantee we are continuing to work on their case.

Michael makes the point that we all only have a given amount of energy to spend in the day. While it’s easy to get caught up in things outside of your control, it’s crucial to not let this suck up your energy. He emphasizes the importance of spending your energy on what you can control right now- moving your cases. Sonia agrees and adds that as trial lawyers, we are wired to be creative and tackle the unexpected in our cases and in the courtroom. She shares a brilliant example of this comparing today’s landscape with an elmo projector.

There has been much speculation around how COVID-19 will affect jurors’ perceptions in the long run. In Sonia’s opinion, this will depend on the economic situation once juries come back. If people have been out of work and cannot afford to be there because of their economic situation, this will not be good for the plaintiff’s side. She believes if the economy can stabilize, jurors may feel a heightened sense of civic duty and comradery around rallying on a jury. Michael has hesitations about trying a case where the jurors feel endangered by being present, but has a positive outlook on the long term effects, stating “Americans have an incredibly short memory.” He notes the worries of juror perception after events like 9/11 and the 2008 financial collapse, which had no long-term negative effect.

Sonia and Michael conclude with a discussion of how and when firms will begin to gather in a physical office space again. Sonia says our top priority needs to be to keep our clients and our families safe. Michael shares his hesitation to open too quickly by saying, “We sue companies for putting profits above people” and we should hold ourselves to this same standard.

This podcast also covers ethical concerns with virtual depositions, when to provide hard copies of exhibits in virtual depositions, bench trials via Zoom, overcoming technical issues, and much more.

37 -Sonia Rodriguez – Caseloads: Quality vs. Quantity

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with Cowen | Rodriguez | Peacock partner, Sonia Rodriguez, for another installment of TLN Table Talk to answer the questions of our listeners. This show focuses mainly on questions revolving around caseloads and determining the best approach for your practice.

The first question from our listeners is about the number of cases an attorney should take on at any given time. Sonia discusses the balancing act, especially for younger lawyers, of quality vs. quantity. Attorneys may want to trim down their docket of cases, but need to make sure these are quality cases that will help keep the lights on and not arbitrarily setting a number for maximum cases. She also reviews some of the dangers of trimming a docket and how it can be a very dangerous economic decision. And she notes that each case should be thoughtfully selected to match the goals for the practice.

Sonia came from a practice with partners with duel loads. (IE: One partner that handles big cases and more complex cases, and the other might carry a larger volume case load to help pay the bills and keep the lights on.) This was a consensus among the partners about how the practice would operate. She points out that her practice has never been based on a very small docket and personally finds this to be a scary prospect. Michael, on the other hand, has operated in the full spectrum of caseloads. He recalls early on having 200 car wreck cases at one time with average case values being fairly low, some of which in hindsight were never economically viable. He even breaks down the impact some of those low value cases can have on a practice. And he also points out it is nearly impossible to be a high-volume lawyer while also trying to be a boutique, high-quality on one case, lawyer. The systems for handling each are very different as well as the tradeoffs which need to be made regarding one type of practice versus the other, both from a personal and professional perspective. Sonia adds there are many lawyers out there building a heavy case load practice and becoming very successful, which ties directly into Michael’s assertion that the type of practice you choose to run must also match your personal preferences, personality type, and aspirations. Michael also describes this as knowing where you are in the marketplace and his explanation on how you figure this out is phenomenal for both young and seasoned lawyers to take note of. He also gives some direct advice for our younger attorney listeners to understand the path to getting bigger cases when you work in someone else’s firm and don’t have the final say in certain matters such as case load.

The next question comes in a few parts. The first being, do firms making the transition into reducing their caseloads spend less on marketing and instead spend more time focusing on referrals? Michael explains why he made a conscious decision to stop marketing to the public when he decided to raise the threshold on the size of cases he wanted to take on. He goes on to reveal the reasons behind this decision which may or may not be what you think. Sonia also brings up a great point about the type of practice you run being largely based on your own risk tolerance and how it relates to the demands of different types of practices.

Secondly, when a firm makes the transition to a smaller caseload, do they end up reducing staff as well? Michael has definitely seen this model work both ways, but discloses why he personally has more staff now, working even fewer cases. He has found when your average fee goes up, you can increase the amount of man/woman-power you can put into the case and so you can pay better, which in turn helps you attract more and better team members to work on cases. Sonia also adds, from her own experience, the more time you have to focus on a case for an extended period of time the more ways she thinks of how to really make a big impact on a case. In other words, the luxury of being able to focus your time and energy on one case, actually creates much more work than she previously appreciated. Michael also explains how it is important to make sure you have the right people in your firm based on the practice model you want to run with since not everyone will be the right fit.

And third, the listeners concern is that like many firms, there are highs and lows and the only way to neutralize this is by taking on a higher number of cases. Michael debunks this right off the bat from his own experience, by explaining how the lower his case volume is, the steadier his revenue has become. Sonia also lays out a great way to analyze the true value of a case when looking at a high-volume practice where cases can sometimes be prolonged with continuance requests (Hint – cases that you carry for a shorter amount of time tend to use less office resources).

Another listener asks: Are you ever embarrassed to have a damages number that is too high? Michael starts right out in stating if you don’t believe this is the right number to get justice for your client, or you are embarrassed about the number, then you definitely shouldn’t present it to a jury. Sonia also asserts that such embarrassment felt by a lawyer is likely to be attributed to the lack of understanding of what their client’s pain or damages truly is. Furthermore, she goes on to say any lawyer using a formula to come up with a number, such as 3X damages, isn’t doing what they’ve been retained to do. You really have to believe what you are fighting for, which sometimes requires you to work through some of your own thoughts which may be holding you back. Michael also points out when you’re trying a case, you want to be 100% dedicated to doing everything you can to win a case, but you cannot be attached to the result.

The conversation concludes with Michael and Sonia reviewing, by listeners request, some of the books they’ve read and would recommend to help run a better practice. And Michael shares his obsessive behavior to really dig into his reading when he finds resources that really click with him. This not only includes his reading of books pertaining to being a great trial lawyer, but also books about becoming a successful business owner.

These Table Talk podcasts could not happen without the interaction and questions submitted by our listeners. We are incredibly thankful for your feedback. We encourage you to continue to send us your thoughts, ideas, and questions as we love sharing our experiences.

“Please note the TLN19 discount code mentioned in this show has now expired.”

 

RESOURCES

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni

The Truth about Employee Engagement: A Fable about Addressing the Three Root Causes of Job Misery by Patrick Lencioni

The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business by Patrick Lencioni

34 – Sonia Rodriguez – Hindsight in the PI World

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In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with Cowen | Rodriguez | Peacock partner, Sonia Rodriguez, for another installment of TLN Table Talk to answer the questions of our listeners. This episode focuses on advice for our up-and-coming personal injury attorneys on the things we know now and wishes we knew earlier in our careers.

Starting right off in the broad sense of the industry, we start with a question about what advice would we give to a lawyer who is in the first 2 years of practice. Learning the hard way, Sonia states why it is critical for a successful personal injury law practice to understand the difference between a PI practice and a typical business practice when you are talking to bankers and lenders. The discussions you’ll have with bankers and lenders about lines of credit and assets in regards to your practice can sound like a foreign language to certain bankers, so you really need to find a bank that knows the PI practice and knows that many times the assets you have are going to be intangible, and are more likely to be in your file cabinet or on your server. Michael also points out how the banking regulations have also tightened up in recent years where it has become harder for PI lawyers to borrow against their case list. To this point, Sonia suggests once you have a few years under your belt, you should start saving/hoarding your money so you can borrow against your own investments and savings when you want to. They both agree once you hit your first big case, you don’t want to start living like that has become your new lifestyle every year or every month and you need to live below your means for a long time. Michael recalls avoiding the temptation to go buy the expensive Mercedes and shares how his first house was only $67,000, which was in stark contrast to other lawyers who went out and bought big houses and could barely pay their credit cards or make it month to month. It was with this foresight and now shared knowledge, that Michael reveals his early financial habits have led him to build the successful practice he has today.

Providing additional advice for PI lawyers just starting out, Michael weighs the pros and cons of gaining experience by starting in a district attorney’s office (hint – it’s not advised…and for good reason). He goes on to suggest several much better ways to gain experience and learn from other attorney’s experience, this podcast being one of them, which will prove to be more advantageous in building a solid foundation for a personal injury practice. Thinking from the other end of the spectrum, Sonia also offers advice regarding business relationships and how they are bound to change over time and shares the key factors you need to consider before entering into a partnership, regardless of the current or past relationships status. A lesson the majority of seasoned attorneys would likely agree with, hindsight being 20/20. Michael, being one of them, recounts one of the things he knows now that he wishes he knew earlier, and how he wishes he had spent a seemingly small amount of money early on to hire a lawyer to draft his agreements with other lawyers. Being lawyers, he says, “we think we can do it ourselves,” and in the process, we end up overlooking the holes in an agreement and only looking at it through rose-colored glasses as if nothing will ever change in the relationship. Michael reveals, in his own hindsight, the amount of money he’s paid out on legal fees to draft things for him now, has turned out to be less than 1% of what he’s paying people that he wouldn’t have had to pay had he had those agreements in place. LESS THAN 1%!

Sonia transitions by discussing the amount of stress brought on day-to-day in this industry. Our bodies were never designed to handle these amounts of mental or physical stress that can come with a heavy litigation practice, she says, and on the plaintiff’s side, it can also be very easy to become emotionally invested in our client’s cases. As a trial lawyer, you need to find a mechanism for an outlet, such as exercise, meditation (if it works for you), or even journaling, in order to maintain your mental health. Michael adds that you need to find a balance in order to internalize and feel your client’s pain without it taking you over. The Harvard Business Review published a great article about the stress and anxiety of being a perfectionist, as we tend to do in this line of work which also lays out several options for mental self-care.

Michael continues to state, as he has on many episodes of this show, to get out there and try more cases. There is never a shortage of cases to be tried in any firm. And no one will remember the cases you lose as you gain experience or even years into your practice for that matter. He goes on to say that you do not suffer a reputational hit for losing a trial and how he has actually lost more cases than some people have ever tried, but still has tons of referrals coming in because attorneys remember the ones he’s won.

Throughout the rest of this episode, Michael and Sonia discuss topics like: the power of saying “NO,” the importance of reputation; how to use a cost/benefit analysis to determine the right cases to take on; their opinions on paying for online profiles with various legal organizations, what to do in discovery when you think the other side is hiding something from you; how to (and more so, how not to) attract leads online; tricks to leveraging social media and pitfalls to avoid when using it; and many others along the way.

These Table Talk podcasts could not happen without the interaction and questions submitted by our listeners. We are eternally grateful and encourage you to continue to send us your thoughts, ideas, and questions as we love sharing our experiences with them.

“Please note the TLN19 discount code mentioned in this show has now expired.”

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