Episode

106 – Malorie Peacock – The Only Constant: Overcoming Change

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his law partner Malorie Peacock for her first episode since coming back from maternity leave to have a fitting conversation about change. They’ll take a look at different types of changes, including personal, business, law, and intentional ones, and discuss how to embrace them instead of being overwhelmed by them.

Starting with personal change, Michael asks Malorie how she dealt with the change of not working during her 3-month maternity leave. She shares how at first, she was a zombie (which I’m sure all parents listening can relate to), but once she and her husband got into a routine, she found it hard not to check in on her cases. And while she enjoyed her leave, she’s happy to be back doing the job she loves again, and Michael is also glad to have her back.

Michael then shares his experience of taking over the housework while his wife stays in the guest house with Covid. He had a referring attorney call him when he was trying to help his wife and sons, but he had to ask the attorney to call back tomorrow. He was nervous the attorney would take his business somewhere else, but after their discussion the next morning he realized everything would be fine. Malorie poignantly shares that the fear and anxiety we have about change is usually worse than what actually happens.

Continuing with business change, Michael reflects on his law firm growing and the inevitable turnover that comes with growth. He’s found that no matter how much effort you put into making your law firm a good place to work, there are other factors that can cause people to leave. Malorie agrees, adding that it’s just not realistic to expect everyone at the firm to stay forever. And when someone does leave, even those you thought would be with you their entire career, having the right attitude is the key to moving forward effectively.

Michael continues this topic by mentioning the book “No B.S. Ruthless Management of Profits and People,” assuring listeners that the title makes it sound worse than it is. There’s a section of the book which discusses the employee-employer relationship, saying you need to be realistic about that relationship and how people see you. At the end of the day, this is just a job for them.  Malorie agrees and adds that psychologically, it’s a good thing if your employees expect to be treated well. It means they perceive themselves as people who work hard and are committed.

Michael then shares how he copes with drastic changes. He takes a 12-24 hour “mourning” period where he lets himself feel it and vents to someone trusted. After that’s done, his focus moves to how they can make it even better than it was before. Could the systems for that position be improved? Do you need to re-think how you structure the position completely? These are all questions you should be asking yourself for each employee turnover.

Moving on to changes in the law, Michael reflects on when he first became a lawyer, and they took the money out of workers’ compensation cases in the state of Texas. Then came the medical malpractice caps and other tort reform policies. Each time, there were lawyers who refused to change and faced serious financial struggles, and there were lawyers who got creative and found ways to adapt- sometimes resulting in them being better off than before the “bad” change. Malorie wholeheartedly agrees and adds that finding a group of lawyer friends to brainstorm with has been very helpful for her in these situations.

As Michael and Malorie begin to wrap up the episode, Michael praises Malorie for her positivity in the face of change and her ability to be creative and look for solutions. It’s something she partially credits to her natural personality, but she also makes a conscious effort to find something good about the change (even when it’s mostly bad) or take the time to think about all the good things in her life. It helps assure her that the world won’t end, and this positive outlook rubs off on those around her. Michael then shares his journey to having a positive outlook on change, and the two of them exchange a heartfelt moment of exchanges with their children that resonate with each of them.

The episode ends with a reminder to register for Cowen’s Big Rig Boot Camp as soon as possible. In-person seats are already full, but you can get on the waitlist or register virtually here! We’d love to see you there.

This episode also covers why “1” is the most dangerous number of anything, why you should avoid negative people, how to overcome some recent bad case law in Texas, and much more.

 

105 – Keith Mitnik – Deeper Cuts: Systems That Simply Work

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with legendary Morgan & Morgan trial lawyer, podcast host, and author, Keith Mitnik, for a second time. They discuss Keith’s recently released book, “Deeper Cuts: Systems That Simply Work from Winning Workups to Thumbs-Up Verdicts,” new voir dire techniques, and the importance of words.

Jumping right into the podcast episode, Michael asks Keith how he gets full damages on cases with no obvious villain. Keith shares a recent example where he framed everything around the statement, “It’s not about how much she’s going to get. It’s about what was taken, and what’s a fair value for what was lost.” He draws an insightful connection between our modern-day justice system and the “eye for an eye” justice system of the past. The “brutal” eye for an eye system was never about the punishment, but about recognizing fully what was taken from the person who was wronged. He’ll explain this concept to the jury, and the results are powerful.

Keith continues by explaining the evolution of his voir dire process over the years, including how and when he gets the jury to get a discussion going. He’s tried many methods throughout the years and shares their flaws, but feels very good about his current strategy, which he calls “The First Big 3.” He’ll set up voir dire with the story about full recognition, then start questioning the jury on the big 3 types of bias:

  1. Feelings against this type of lawsuit.

  2. Feelings against the non-economic part of pain and suffering.

  3. Feelings against large verdicts.

After asking the jury about these 3 items, he’ll share the idea that it’s not about how much was taken, but how much was lost, and ask how it felt when they heard that.

Continuing this line of thought, Keith adds another change he sometimes makes to his voir dire, which is asserting that the jury’s job is not to assess the income of your client – it’s about the value of his or her health, which is way more precious than income. These changes have made for a great dialogue between Keith and the jury.

Michael then asks Keith about something he loved in the book – having the client create a list of the “little things.” Keith explains how we often base damages around the big things that are important to the client – but especially with hobbies, those things are rarely important and are often unrelatable for the jury.

To assist with this process, Keith gives clients a small notepad and a homework assignment- to write down every little thing they notice has changed due to their injury. This includes things they continue to do but in a different way and things they do but now it hurts. Then, he’ll sit down with the client to choose a list of the best ones. By the time the client is deposed, the client is able to readily provide a laundry list of relatable examples of how the crash has changed their life, and the defense lawyer is highly motivated to settle the case.

This leads Keith to share a brief but heartfelt story of a recent trial where he decided to ask the jury in voir dire about race, and why he plans to do it again in the future. It’s a story sure to resonate with any trial lawyer hesitant to bring up a sensitive topic in voir dire.

If you follow Keith Mitnik, you know he’s a man of many words – a self-proclaimed “word nerd.” So Michael asks the next logical question – why do words matter, and how does he come up with the words he uses? Keith explains the process he uses to find the best anchor words, where he circles any words he feels might not be the best, then turns to one of his many trusty thesauruses to see what else is available (He recommends either Word Hippo for iPhone or Wordflex for iPad). He shares some real-life examples before explaining the difference between inert words and activator words:

     Inert Words – Ambiguous words with different meanings to different people.

Activator Words – Consistently activate a particular meaning and a feeling.

From there, a word can be either a positive or a negative activator word, meaning it can work in your favor or against you if you aren’t careful. Keith shares numerous examples of inert and activator words, and how he chooses them based on the person he’s addressing.

Moving away from “Deeper Cuts,” Michael asks Keith what his strategy is for going into a case that someone else worked up to try it. Keith highlights the obvious disadvantages as well as the not-so-obvious advantages of this – notedly that he’s able to experience the case “in one, overwhelming wave, just like it will with the jury.” It provides a truly fresh perspective. His one requirement is that he needs to spend time with the client before the trial begins, to connect with them in his heart.

He continues by sharing the different ways he’s split cases up with other lawyers before, and how it varies depending on the other lawyer’s experience and skillset – though as you probably know, he almost always takes the voir dire, opening, and closing.

Michael and Keith then wrap up the episode with a promise to have Keith return soon. In the meantime, you can purchase his books Deeper Cuts: Systems That Simply Work from Winning Workups to Thumbs-Up Verdicts and Don’t Eat the Bruises, listen to Keith’s own podcast “Mitnik’s Monthly Brushstrokes,” and even join his listserv. To join, email Keith at kmitnik@forthepeople.com and copy his assistant Mary Arnold at marnold@forthepeople.com asking to join. They’ll even send you the past editions if you ask!

This podcast episode also covers why it’s important to emphasize your client’s injuries were brought to them “unnaturally,” a story from a recent trial where Keith had to improvise with a client on the stand, how to combat a convincing defense expert, why Keith almost always does both voir dire and opening, and much more, including numerous stories of Keith’s real-life trial experiences.

 

Bio:

Keith Mitnik is the author of Trial Guides’ bestselling book, Don’t Eat the Bruises:  How to Foil Their Plans to Spoil Your Case.

He is also known for his popular audiotape series “Winning at the Beginning” and for his monthly podcasts.

He is a frequent keynote speaker at seminars for trial lawyers across America.

Keith is Senior Trial Counsel for Morgan & Morgan. In that role, he is in trial almost every month, oftentimes 2 or 3 times a month, trying everything from suits against cigarette companies, medical malpractice, and product cases to car crashes and premises cases.

His list of verdicts is staggering.

He has been a commentator on many national television broadcasts and has been interviewed by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes.

Keith is recognized for creating and teaching systems that simply work – for any lawyer, in any case.

Lawyers all over the country attribute significant verdicts to his methods.

 

104 – Jamal Alsaffar – Sutherland Springs: The Untold Story of a Foreseeable Tragedy

Warning: This episode contains details of the Sutherland Springs massacre. Portions of the show will cover issues of domestic violence, gun violence, and content that may be disturbing to some listeners. Listener discretion is advised.

This episode is dedicated to the memory of all those whose lives were taken in the Sutherland Springs massacre, the survivors, and their families.


In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with trial lawyer Jamal Alsaffar, who served as lead counsel representing the victims of the Sutherland Springs massacre vs. the United States Government, obtaining a $230,000,000 verdict.

They begin the episode with a look at Jamal’s background. Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, he moved to Austin to go to college, where he met his now wife and law partner. Today they are both partners at National Trial Law in Austin, Texas, along with Jamal’s mentor, Bill Whitehurst. Jamal has tried numerous personal injury cases involving medical malpractice and catastrophic injury but has found a rare specialty in Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) cases.

Michael then quickly asks Jamal how he got started in FTCA cases, as it is notoriously difficult to sue the federal government. He shares how his first FTCA case was a birth injury case at an Army hospital. Even though he had many hoops to jump through, he ended up obtaining a very favorable verdict and realized that military families weren’t receiving high level trial lawyer representation in their cases. From there, his practice spread, and now he tries FTCA cases all over the country.

As Jamal lists the many requirements to try FTCA cases, it’s clear why there are so few lawyers who specialize in them as they are fraught with land mines.

The tone shifts somber as Michael asks Jamal about what happened in the Sutherland Springs shooting. He describes how on November 5th, 2017, a former Air Force member walked into a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where he opened fire. 26 members of the congregation were killed, and 22 were injured. While this man was in the Air Force, he was convicted of multiple felonies involving domestic violence and put in jail. Federal law requires that the agency who convicted him report the felony to the FBI’s background check system, but the Air Force did not. Because of this, the shooter was able to legally purchase firearms and ammunition at Academy Sports, which he used to commit mass murder.

Diving into the legal difficulty of a case like this, Michael asks Jamal what legal challenges he faced with holding the federal government liable on tort liability for someone failing to report criminal convictions. Jamal shares how they faced a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss on this issue, and the government’s defense was they cannot be held liable for this failure to follow federal law. But as Jamal successfully retorted, of course they can.

As Jamal puts it, at the end of the day, they didn’t have an excuse for not reporting this felony. In fact, as they learned in discovery, this was not a one-time clerical error. There was a documented 30-year history of the federal government not reporting felonies to the FBI’s background check service on a massive scale. Various internal warnings noted between a 30-50% failure rate, which was even worse at the base the shooter was stationed at in New Mexico – where many employees didn’t even know they were required to report. This was clearly a systemic problem which had been going on for a very long time.

“What we found was a 30-year history of the federal government not reporting on a massive scale.” – Jamal Alsaffar

Michael asks if the government has since done anything to fix this problem, to which Jamal replies with two powerful examples:

  1. In the Air Force alone, there were over 5,000 unreported felons. As a result of this litigation, all 5,000 of those have now been reported.
  2. The entire system of reporting and checklist system has now been automated and modernized for every branch of the military. They now use the system Jamal’s expert recommended.

Reflecting on those successes is momentous – as trial lawyers, we often think about the good we’re doing for one family, but it’s so rare to have the opportunity to tangibly make the entire country a safer place.

The next issue the government tried to fight on was foreseeability. They argued they could never have foreseen this man would do what he did. Jamal explains how they were lucky with the evidence, but it wasn’t magic – this was gumshoe work and discovery. After being stiff armed so aggressively that they wouldn’t even give Jamal mandatory disclosures, the judge became so angry with the U.S. attorneys he sanctioned them (without Jamal even asking) and ordered they provide the documents and witnesses requested.

“The level of negligence and how high it went … all the way up to the Secretary of the Air Force.” – Jamal Alsaffar

It was immediately clear why the U.S. attorneys tried to hold onto this information. The contents of these documents were appalling.

  • The shooter’s violence was documented, and his domestic violence crimes were committed with guns.
  • He had been institutionalized by the Air Force for mental health twice, including for trying to use a gun to kill himself.
  • While in the mental hospital, his computer searches included “how to commit a mass shooting” and “how to get weapons”, and the government knew about those searches.
  • He had threatened to commit a mass shooting on the base, to his superior commanders,

This man was institutionalized by the Air Force while he was threatening and planning to commit a mass shooting.

Michael then inquires if the shooting was random, or if the man knew people at the church. The answer is haunting – it was not random, but an act of domestic violence. It was the church his wife grew up in, and where she would go to escape him.

“It was not a random act. It was related to the very thing the Air Force convicted him of and failed to report on.” – Jamal Alsaffar

Michael then asks Jamal how he became the lead attorney on a massive trial team filled with heavyweights. The answer lies in one of Michael’s first questions: “What on Earth is the FTCA?” Jamal is one of only a handful of attorneys who try these cases regularly, but he also credits his communication, honesty, and preparation. He had an air-tight plan before he even filed the lawsuit, then meticulously drafted complicated pleadings where even a small mistake could ruin the case. But even with his vast FTCA experience and knowledge of how these cases work, he admits he had never tried a case like this before – in fact, only a few people have, and never at this magnitude.

“This is one of the most unique trials that’s ever been done in the history of the FTCA.” – Jamal Alsaffar

One big decision Jamal and his partner, Tom Jacob, made was to not depose any of the government’s experts. They knew the government wouldn’t settle, so there was nothing to be gained from taking a great depo. They did file one partial summary judgement, but they intentionally kept out some real bombshells they found in discovery and strategically saved them for trial.

As a result, they were able to surprise the judge with 2-4 new documents or facts he had never seen each day of trial that were “eye-popping.” As Jamal shares some of these, it’s easy to see why saving them was the right call. As the U.S. attorneys tried to defend themselves by saying this man was simply a monster, Jamal made it clear they knew this man was a monster and did nothing to stop him from harming the public, even after they banned him from accessing military bases and upped his security risk after he tried to access them anyways.

“He was a monster that you knew better than anyone else … even his family. And you let him loose.” – Jamal Alsaffar

Jamal continues by lamenting the fact that the judge only let him use one of his carefully crafted trial boards, but the timeline he was allowed to use showed a detailed progression of the shooter’s madness, aggressiveness, weapons purchases, and where he would have been caught and prosecuted if his felonies had been reported. It was a fantastic visual aid Jamal agreed to share with our listeners and can be found below.

Included in this timeline was one of the most shocking pieces of evidence in the entire case, which Jamal found by mining for third party discovery. The sheriff’s department had responded to a call at the shooter’s residence just 3 days before the massacre took place, where the exchange was caught on their body cameras. Because the man was acting aggressive and erratic, even threatening the cops, they looked him up in their database – where they found no record of his felonies because the Air Force didn’t report them. In this exchange, the man had a gun and stated he was armed, which he would have been arrested for carrying if the officers were able to see his felony conviction record.

Michael then asks how the trial was broken up. Jamal explains how the liability trial and damages trial were conducted separately. The liability trial took about 1 ½ months, but they had to wait another 2 months for the verdict. After the judge found the government to be 60% liable, he tasked Jamal’s team and the U.S. attorneys to get together and decide how to present this case efficiently. The result was an estimated 1-month trial for Jamal’s team, but an estimated 6-month trial for the U.S. attorneys. The judge decided to put faith in Jamal and agreed to a 1-month damages trial.

With so many plaintiffs and the delta variant spreading rapidly, Jamal had some challenges to overcome if his 1-month damages trial was going to be successful. He had to limit each plaintiff in the case to 1 hour of testimony, which required immense cooperation and preparation with his many co-counsels. To stave off the government’s fear of a Covid outbreak in the trial, Jamal even set up a Covid testing room in the courthouse, where each witness was required to test before entering the courtroom.

During the damages trial, Jamal shares some of the terribly heartbreaking stories told and how he used the actual courtroom to tell them, in lieu of the visuals he originally had planned. He tells a profound story of a realization he had one day, while sitting where the massacre took place and preparing mentally before trial. It’s a phantasmal story you have to hear in order to understand why every time the courtroom doors opened … people were on edge.

Part of the reason Jamal put so much effort into the verbal description is because he did not want to show the video of the shooting or the aftermath in the trial. After stating repeatedly to the government he would not submit the video into evidence, it was shockingly the government who moved to have the video entered the day before trial. And even though Jamal rejected it, the judge agreed to admit it because it is evidence. Jamal then asked for the video to not be shown to the media or the family members and placed under seal, which the judge agreed to.

The government may have thought Jamal would want to show the brutal carnage at the church, but that was never something he considered. Instead, Jamal chose to use stills from the video to show the scene right before the shooting. Describing this loving space, the joy, and the sense of community, “the second before it turned to hell,” Jamal’s remarkable skill to visually tell the story with his words will surely bring a tear to your eye.

After sharing more examples of the other evidence used in the case, Jamal highlights how important it was for the judge to understand the sights, the sounds, and the smells of that day. He deftly narrates the poignant scene when each plaintiff and witness spoke on the stand, shared what they saw, and verbalized their pain. With each testimony, the damages case came together for the judge.

Once the trial concluded, the attorneys had to wait patiently for the verdict for MONTHS. Jamal says the liability verdict is more stressful than the damages verdict and shares the very moment he read the result – a historic $230,000,000.

Broken down, it’s a reasonable amount for each plaintiff based on the standard for deaths and injuries. This way, the verdict is much less likely to be appealed, though Jamal admits he wanted more. He praises the judge who handled the case and includes his well-researched, well-founded opinion which will be tough for the defense to overturn on appeal.

Jamal and Michael wrap up the episode with a look at how background check laws work and how successful the program is when agencies report felonies to the FBI as required. This foreseeable tragedy should never have happened – and thanks to the work of Jamal, all of his co-counsel, and everyone who worked on this case, it will hopefully never happen again.

Resources provided by Jamal Alsaffar:

 

Guest Bio:

Jamal Alsaffar is a partner at National Trial Law in Austin, Texas. Jamal represents victims of catastrophic injuries across the state of Texas and has a national practice prosecuting cases against the Federal Government under the FTCA (Federal Tort Claims Act). Jamal and his partner Tom Jacob recently obtained a $230 million verdict against the federal government for their role in the largest mass shooting in Texas history that took 26 lives and injured 22 others at the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church. Jamal has chaired AAJ’s Federal Torts practice section several times over the past decade, and has served as co-chair of the AAJ MedNeg/Birth Trauma group. He has been selected as one of the 20 “Leading Lawyers” in Texas under the age of 40—way back when he was under the age of 40. And has been named by his peers as a “Super Lawyer” consecutively from 2014-2022. Jamal soon hopes to be hired for his dream job—a perfect fit as he’s been telling anyone who will listen over the years—the next manager for Manchester United football club in England. He has three kids with his wife, law partner and boss, Laurie Higginbotham.

 

103 – Delisi Friday – A Bittersweet Victory: Post-Trial Discussion

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his Director of Marketing and Business Development Delisi Friday for a raw, honest conversation about his (very) recent jury trial win where the number was not what he wanted.

“When you try hard cases, you don’t always get what you want.” – Michael Cowen

They begin the podcast episode with the facts of the case. They were in federal court in Laredo, Texas, a community with a huge trucking and logistics industry. Their client was rear-ended by a truck at only 5 miles an hour. Initially, the client was diagnosed with only soft tissue damage, but later discovered a herniated disc that required surgery. This was argued by the defense to be a pre-existing condition, which the jury ultimately agreed with, only awarding enough money to cover the medical bills before the surgery.

As Michael explains the largest offer they received was only $25,000 during the trial, when the jury verdict was $80,000, Delisi asks Michael why he feels this is a loss. He breaks it down into 2 reasons: 1) he doesn’t feel the client is materially better off because they went to trial, and 2) he believes the case is worth a lot more than the result.

With that being said, he recognizes the challenges he was up against – low property damage and medical treatment gaps. When you try cases like this, he argues you’re not going to win them all. He tried the case well and gave it everything he had, but it didn’t go his way this time. He compares this to the Bengals, a great football team, losing the Super Bowl this year. At the end of the day, they’re still a great team.

“You’re not always going to get a home run every time you get up to bat.” – Michael Cowen

One of the biggest hurdles in this case was the low property damage. Delisi asks Michael about the challenges of them, and what he does to overcome them. Michael emphasizes that low PD cases are always a challenge because they fail the “oh shit!” test. When you have a picture of a vehicle after the wreck that causes people who see it to say, “oh shit, are they okay?” it’s much easier to try than when you don’t have that initial reaction.

Michael shares the strategy he used in this voir dire, which acknowledged both potential outcomes of a wreck – where the vehicle can look really bad but the person is okay, and where the vehicle can look almost completely fine but the person is very injured.

Delisi then asks Michael about his mindset going into this trial. Michael reiterates, as he has in many past episodes, his mantra for trial – the judge and the jury want to do the right thing, and he’s going to have fun (which he did). But as Delisi asks him why he didn’t want to go talk to the jury after the verdict was read, he says he’s just not there yet. He’s also not sure if it would have been helpful, given both his mindset and the gut feeling he believes the jurors made their decision off of. But even after this experience – he still trusts the jury and will continue to do so for his future trials.

“It feels like I asked someone on a date, they said no, and then I’m supposed to call them and ask why they didn’t want to go out with me.” – Michael Cowen

Changing the tone, Delisi asks Michael what he thinks went well with the trial. He shares how they ran a fast, smooth trial, he felt very comfortable and got to use two “new toys”, a King flip chart and a magnetic white board with cardboard vehicles , which he thinks were highly effective for the cost. He felt good about the cross-examination of their experts and the witnesses they decided to put on. He also explains how the client is a Spanish-speaker, along with most of the witnesses, the challenges that came with this, and how they overcame them.

This leads to Delisi asking about the two associate attorneys from their firm Michael tried the case with, and what takeaways he thinks they had. Michael shares that he had them each take 2 witnesses, which they both did very well. And while he admits it’s not as fun as doing it all yourself his firm takes pride in training and this truly is the best way to learn.

Delisi then asks the question on everyone’s mind – why is Michael Cowen trying a low property damage case? He explains how Malorie Peacock, his partner, is out on maternity leave, and he didn’t think it would be fair to the client or the referral partner to have two associates with less experience be the ones to try it themselves. He was also excited to try a case in a courtroom, even though low property damage cases aren’t cases he plans to take on in the future.

Circling back to mindset, Delisi wants to know more about why Michael was in such a good headspace going into this trial. He cites the work he has been doing on mindset and acknowledging he doesn’t have control over what the jury’s going to do. Even the best home run hitters in baseball strike out, but as Delisi playfully quips “I’m proud you got on base.”

Before wrapping the episode, Michael adds one more aspect of this case that made it tough – the fact that he didn’t have a “villain.” The driver admitted it was his fault, the defense lawyers were reasonable, the company didn’t train much (which is not the custom in this venue). It’s hard to get the jury to give you money when your client’s just hurt – there needs to be a villain. But sometimes, it’s really just a crash in a parking lot.

Ending on a heartfelt note, Delisi praises Michael’s courage and honesty for recording this episode only one day after the verdict was read and openly sharing this on the podcast. Even after this, Michael adamantly encourages everyone listening to get out there and try cases, even if they don’t always go the way you hope they do.

“If you can keep swinging, you’re going to hit something. So get out there and swing.” – Michael Cowen

 

102 – Michael Leizerman – The Value of Life: Understanding What Was Taken

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with the Zen Lawyer, Michael Leizerman, for his second time on the show. They’ll cover the importance of language in trial, the difference between something being “taken” vs. “lost,” connecting with your client, Leizerman’s upcoming Zen Lawyer workshop, and so much more.

The episode begins with Cowen asking Leizerman how he’s doing, then immediately retracting the question because he just asked it. Leizerman says this is actually the perfect way to begin the episode, because they’re going to talk about habits. Phrases like “pain and suffering,” harms and losses,” and others have become the go-to for trial lawyers everywhere – but that doesn’t mean they’re the most effective phrases to communicate your client’s injuries. Instead, Leizerman encourages you to think about it a different way; how the defendant took something from your client. 

Diving into further detail, Leizerman uses the example of how you feel when you lose your phone, versus when someone took your phone. When someone takes something from someone else, you feel like they need to either give it back or compensate them for their loss. In the personal injury world, there is no way for the defendant to give back what they took, so they must pay the value of what was taken.

This strategy also changes how the jurors see it. Jurors know it’s wrong for someone to take something. When you give them an active wrongdoer, and describe what they took, it can be very powerful.

Next, Leizerman shares the importance of describing what the defendant took from your client. This goes much deeper than the medical diagnosis, where most lawyers stop. If the client can’t work anymore or can’t play little league with their daughter, this goes down to the very state of their being, and you need to make this very clear to the jury.

“[The jury’s] sole job is to put a value on what was taken from [my client].” – Michael Leizerman

This discussion naturally flows into a topic frequently covered on the podcast – the case is about what we choose to make it about. Using the example of a herniated disc case, where the defense almost always claims there was degeneration prior to the incident, Cowen describes how he uses the treating doctor’s deposition to describe what the client’s life was like before the incident and what was taken from them. Leizerman loves this example and describes how he uses the defense’s medical expert to make the same point brilliantly, citing an impressive recent $10,988,000 jury verdict in a herniated disc case.

After discussing why it’s so important to spend time with a client in their own home, they transition to the concept called “companioning,” where you are present for someone’s pain without trying to fix it. Leizerman shares a deeply personal experience with his mother, who is currently in hospice, where he held her hand and sat with her for a long time. Applying this to lawyering, Leizerman says he has many phone calls with the client where he only speaks about 5% of the time. He simply listens, lets them speak, and every time they thank him for the conversation.

Cowen then adds that one of the greatest self-imposed sufferings in his life has been his “need to fix.” Over the years, he has gone on a journey to accept that his job is not to fix – it’s to get the client as much money as he can. Leizerman deeply relates to this feeling and gives it the term “empathetic distress.” Flipping the script, Leizerman then asks Cowen to dig a little deeper into how he’s coped with his need to fix. He gives an insightful answer and shares a meaningful example from a recent wrongful death trial, where the verdict gave the spouse such a feeling of validation. Leizerman agrees and had a very similar trial recently, where simply being heard was the most important thing for the client.

“My job is to reduce suffering in the world, and that includes reducing suffering in my own life.” – Michael Leizerman

Cowen then asks Leizerman what skills he has used to comfort people who are grieving. Leizerman describes how he is truly present with his client in their pain and aware of their energy. He recognizes the concept of energy may sound “wacky” to some, but he believes it works for him and makes a real difference in his connection with his clients. This has served him well in depos, where the defense will want to take a break as soon as his client begins crying or showing strong emotion. The clients feel supported enough to continue through the tears and pain of that moment, often resulting in a very powerful deposition.

They end the episode by discussing Leizerman’s workshop on Zen meditation. Cowen has attended before, and credits it to a huge jump in his skills and mindset. It has helped him be more present in the moment and make him an overall happier person. Leizerman appreciates this, and adds that Zen Buddhism is non-theistic and not about being calm all the time, but being truly present in a moment. Michael Cowen encourages all lawyers listening, especially lawyers with some experience under their belt, to attend.

Michael Leizerman’s next workshop will be held October 19th-22nd in Toledo, Ohio. You can learn more about the workshop and register here.

This podcast episode also covers why you shouldn’t beat yourself up when you misspeak in trial, why you need to tie the wrongdoing to what was taken, the details of both Cowen and Leizerman’s most recent wrongful death trials, why it’s important to look for non-portrait photos of your client before the incident, Michael Cowen’s experience at Michael Leizerman’s Zen workshop, and much more.

 

Guest Bio:

Michael Leizerman is a partner at The Law Firm for Truck Safety, which handles truck accident litigation across the United States.  He is the co-founder of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys (ATAA). He concentrates his practice in select catastrophic injury truck collision cases across the country.

Michael was the first Chair of AAJ’s Trucking Litigation Group. He and his wife and law partner, Rena, wrote the 4,000+ page treatise Litigating Truck Accident Cases. Together, they also spearheaded efforts in partnership with the NBTA and the ATAA to obtain the first and only American Bar Association-accredited board certification in truck accident law in the country.

Michael has taken 13 truck and bus cases to trial since 2006. He has received record-breaking truck accident settlements and verdicts across the country, including multiple verdicts with punitive damages. He and his firm have received multi-million-dollar results in over 50 settlements and verdicts.

Michael is also the author of the Trial Guides book The Zen Lawyer: Winning with Mindfulness, published in 2018.

 

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