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34 – Sonia Rodriguez – Hindsight in the PI World

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In this episode of Trial Lawyer Nation, 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 episodes 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.

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