case prep

40 – Ken Levinson – Focus Groups and Metaphors

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with Ken Levinson, a successful trial attorney who is also very active with his trial consultant focus group practice, for a discussion on how his unique practice is getting big results in the courtroom. Ken selfishly loves his “split practice” primarily because of its process of constant learning which comes with both sides of his practice, noting that he’d never want to give either of them up.

The conversation begins by exploring focus groups, as Ken talks through how they help in cases because lawyers are able to find out what resonates with people and then test it before ever stepping into the courtroom. “Over time, I’ve learned the better approach is to accept what people tell you. Listen, and in a neutral way, find out what’s going on.” Ken goes on to say “I don’t want to fall in love with my case or a witness or a theory without really stepping back and almost looking at your case in a different way” which is exactly what focus groups help him do while pointing to the teachings of Michael Leizerman [link to Michael Leizerman episode] of needing to have a “Zen mind” or a beginners mind. He adds “I think we get lost in the language of being a lawyer and I’ve really tried to train myself to talk like real folks in everyday life about our cases.” Michael then points out how it is incredibly important to be yourself, noting the power that authenticity brings to human communication both inside and out of the courtroom.

After working with so many great lawyers, Michael wonders what Ken has seen separates the good from the elite. Ken points out two factors he’s seen in elite lawyers: 1. They know their cases inside and out and although they may seem to talk very casually about things in the courtroom, they actually work extremely hard; and 2. The better trial lawyers he’s gotten to know are always learning. Ken goes on to point out there are some firms he might do 20+ focus groups for in a given year, and although they have been getting multi-million dollar verdicts for decades now, they are always learning, testing, reading, revising, and thinking about how to improve.

Michael speaks to his own experiences on learning and how over the years, while there are some basic human things that don’t change, many things do change over time and thus, lawyers need to be open to continuing to learn in order to be effective in the courtroom. Ken follows up to describe some of the other things he’s doing to continually get better, such as reading a lot on decision-making, psychology, and metaphors, then discussing what he’s learned with friends and colleagues, testing things for himself in focus groups, case preparations, depositions, and in the courtroom. He also goes to seminars and holds in-house trainings. Ken also discusses some of the ideas he’s learned from R. Rex Parris [link to Rex episode] on metaphors and how he’s been able to incorporate them into his courtroom proceedings.

Talking more about Ken’s experiences with focus groups and testing theories within them, he describes a few exercises he’s used to better understand the imagery that focus group juries associate with their case using simple techniques. Then he takes things a step further to discuss the findings, one-on-one, with the focus group participants. Through this process, he’s discovered many great metaphors and images that have helped his cases as well as some that needed to be tweaked or reworked for a case, noting that it’s better to find out and understand things which can negatively impact your case prior to trial, than during it, of course.

Beyond running his law firm and focus groups, Ken has also written books and articles, which begs the question – how does he have time for all of this? Ken describes his methods of time management which include getting up several hours before his wife and kids, but also includes time blocking and scheduling things based on his own understanding of the best times for him to get work done, which he details more in this episode. Michael also talks through the structures he’s implemented in his life and his firm to help to “move the ball forward” toward accomplishing his goals.

Michael turns the conversation toward what lawyers can do to set themselves up to achieve their goals, whether it is getting a $43 million verdict or a $6 million settlement, to which Ken turns the table a little bit and points out some great advice he had heard from Michael about taking on the right cases and turning away the others. Michael elaborates on this point and discusses the juxtaposition of the normal mentality associated with turning down cases, which really hits the nail on the head in terms of getting more of the types of cases lawyers want to get and building their practice.

Their conversation rounds out in a discussion revolving around the terms Ken has seen come up over and over in focus groups involving trucking cases specifically. Ken talks about terms he’s found to be important to focus groups and juries alike such as “professional driver,” and ideas revolving around vision and forgiveness. Truly insightful information that Ken discusses more in depth, which not only brings perspective to trucking cases at their face value, but also the impact focus groups can have in helping to bring another element of humanity into our cases by getting the perspectives of what’s important in the eyes of others.

 

BACKGROUND

Ken Levinson is a passionate advocate for accident survivors and child safety. For more than 20 years, he has represented disenfranchised clients against corporate giants. By using the law, the court system and his skill as a lawyer, his goal is to level the playing field for those facing the most challenging times of their lives.

 

Leadership

  • Former Section Chair of the American Association for Justice  Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway and Premises Liability Section
  • Vice Chair of the American Association for Justice Trucking Group
  • Board Member of the American Association for Justice National College of Advocacy
  • Co-chair of Overcoming Jury Bias Litigation Group
  • Regional Coordinator of the American Association for Justice Chicago Student Trial Advocacy Competition
  • American Association of Justice Board of Advocates
  • American Association for Justice Law Schools Committee
  • American Association for Justice Voter Protection Committee
  • Committee Chair of the American Association for Justice Litigation Group Coordination Committee
  • Press Advisory Board American Association for Justice
  • Chair Chicago Bar Association Solo & Small Firm Practice Committee

Ken also serves as chair of the section’s Practice Resources Committee, which compiles documents such as pleadings, research, expert reports and other information that might be helpful to fellow trial lawyers. As part of AAJ, Ken acts as Secretary of Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway, and Premises Liability Section and Chair of the newsletter committee; he has served as Education/CLE Vice-Chair of the Trucking Litigation Group (2014–2015) and Co-chair of Publications Committee (2013-2014). Additional memberships include the Chicago Bar Association, where Ken has also been the Solo & Small Firm Practice Committee Chair from 2009-2019, Vice Chair (2008 – 2009), and the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, where he is currently a member of its Board of Managers. Under ITLA, Ken is also a co-chair of the legislative committee. In 2010, Ken was elected to serve a three-year term on the Trial Lawyers College Alumni Board. He is currently serving on the editorial board of The Warrior, the Trial Lawyers College magazine.

Ken has written numerous articles for prestigious lawyer publications and spoken at dozens of conventions for trial lawyers and American Bar Association organizations. Ken also recently appeared on an episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast.

 

Honors and Awards

Ken is currently the Vice Chair of the American Association of Justice Trucking Group. Ken also formerly served as Chair of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway and Premises Liability Section and  Illinois Board of Governors for the American Association for Justice, a designation that carries Illinois Trial Lawyers Association (ITLA) Board status. He has been recognized by Leading Lawyers and Super Lawyers magazines as one of the top attorneys in Illinois, including the Super Lawyers Top 100 in 2012, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. He is the co-author of Litigating Major Automobile Injury and Death Cases, a two-volume reference series designed to help attorneys build strong cases for their clients by highlighting real-life case studies related to Major Auto Injury and Death. The book is published by AAJ Press/Thomson Reuters.

Named one of The 40 Lawyers Under 40 to Watch in Illinois by the Law Bulletin Publishing Company, Ken is among a select group of trial attorneys that has graduated from legendary lawyer Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College, which is dedicated to training and educating lawyers who represent people against corporate and government oppression. Ken is one of only 100 trial lawyers from Illinois selected for The American Trial Lawyers Association, where membership is by invitation only.

 

Education

After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree from Hobart College in 1989 and his Juris Doctor in 1992 from Case Western Reserve University School of Law, Ken was appointed an Assistant Illinois Attorney General, representing state agencies and employees in civil matters, including both personal injury and civil rights cases. He has been admitted to practice before the Illinois Supreme Court and the Northern District of Illinois, United States District Court since 1992. Levinson is also admitted to the Federal Trial Bar.

 

Personal

Ken volunteers his time and resources to a variety of community and charitable organizations in the Chicago area, such as sponsoring the Tristin Speaks Benefit, which raised funds for autism awareness. Ken is a former member of The Citizens’ Council of LaGrange, a non-partisan community group that promotes better government through the recruiting and evaluation of candidates for local public office, having co-chaired the Council’s Qualifications Committee. Ken participated in the 39-mile, two-day Avon Breast Cancer Walk and the St. Jude Walk/Run to End Childhood Cancer. Ken also supports Art in Motion, an event hosted by the Associate Board to raise funds for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, now known as the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab.

Ken is an area native, born in Chicago and currently living in LaGrange, IL. He is happily married and the father of three boys, keeping him very active in youth and sports-related activities. One of his favorite pastimes is to go with his wife to their sons’ high school varsity games and in-state and out of state tournaments for basketball and volleyball.

Ken can be reached at all hours via email: Ken@LevinsonStefani.com

 

RESOURCES

How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market by Gerald Zaltman

Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal About the Minds of Consumers by Gerald Zaltman

Metaphors We Live By author George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

 

 

29 – Keith Mitnik – Thoughtful Prep for Winning Cases

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In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with renowned attorney, host of the Mitnik’s Monthly Brushstrokes podcast, and author of Don’t Eat the Bruises – How to Foil Their Plans to Spoil Your Case published by Trial Guides. With a $90M verdict, ten 8-figure verdicts, and a ton of 7-figure verdicts under his belt, Keith’s vast knowledge of trying civil court cases is truly extraordinary, to say the least.

Michael hits the rewind button right up front to ask Keith how he learned to become a trial lawyer. Keith recalls how he knew from a very early age that he wanted to become a lawyer, but always assumed he would become a criminal lawyer. It wasn’t until he asked a professor of his about connecting with some of the best lawyers in Orlando, which happened to be partners of his professor, that Keith learned about other opportunities outside of criminal law. His journey to becoming a civil trial lawyer was organic but swift, having interned for the lawyers his professor introduced him to, and trying his first case only 2 months after becoming licensed with the firm. Keith attributes much of his learning back then to being allowed to dig right in and learn from being “in the trenches” versus following someone around for 10 years before getting any “real” experience. It also helped that both his mentors were exceptional lawyers who came from opposite schools of thought, where one was the type to turn over every stone and simply outwork the other side, and the other was a brilliant free thinker in the courtroom. Michael also points out the myth that it is hard to get trial experience these days, whereas he suggests doing what he did in the beginning: get out there and tell other lawyers you’ll try their Allstate cases, and there are a lot out there to get experience from. It is also important to recognize there is value to taking a case to trial well beyond the verdict or settlement that is reached, especially for attorneys looking to get experience. Keith also advises young lawyers going into the courtroom that “it’s not about being pretty.” Jurors are not deciding about things based on how polished you are. They are deciding it based on your integrity, believability, honor, honesty, AND the preparation you did to get there. Not just in the hard work, but in the mental preparation of thinking through how it’s all going to play out and putting yourself in the best framework to maximize your chance of winning. And all of that happens outside of the bright lights and intimidation of the courtroom.

Michael notes that one of the things he’s taken away from Keith’s books, podcast, and other teachings, is that he really takes the time to think through his cases and the best way to present them, but asks Keith exactly how he structures his life in a way that allows him to have enough uninterrupted time and deep focus to do the case right. Keith says anyone can learn to be a good talker, but what separates you from the pack is the thinking that goes on before you enter the courtroom. Most of the good talkers he’s seen have just gotten good at repeating the same, somewhat canned “routine,” or have gotten good at memorizing those lines. Whereas the exceptional lawyers separate themselves from the others because of the mental process of planning before they ever walk in and recognizing that the other side is going to put up a good defense, as they always do. Essentially preparing to dismantle their defense and ideally leave them with nothing. Keith goes on to explain not only will that set you apart, but it’s also the fun part of trying a case because you can be working toward solving the problems of the case no matter where you are in litigation. Keith then reminds us of Sherlock Homes and how his greatest gifts were not his analytical strengths or his extraordinary knowledge of science, the arts, math and physics, but rather it was his ability to focus on a problem long enough to solve it. Ideas and practices like this are good reminders not to shortchange yourself on one of the true joys of trial work and will likely also be included in Keith’s upcoming book. Before leaving the topic, Keith talks about one other core principle that he uses on every contested point of a case, which he calls “the wisdom of the whys,” where he asks why are we right and why are they wrong? Of course, you need to be brutally honest with yourself with these points, so you can see the times when the opposition is right on a point here or there, and then be able to take things one step further for those points to ask, even though they are right on one point, how are we still right overall, which Keith refers to as the million dollar question.

The conversation shifts to talk about the methods used to persuade a jury to give full damages in a case, or as Keith refers to it, maximum justice. Keith uses a two-pronged approach for this, the first being that you as the attorney need to believe in the number you are fighting for, and the second being that you need to present the jury with a reasonable damage model. This approach of believing and validating to the jury why your client deserves the damages you are asking for, and in some cases may seem like an extremely high number at first, allows the jury to gain perspective on the numbers instead of smelling the fear of those who might be inclined to just pick a big number out of the air that even they don’t understand or believe their client is deserving of. Keith also suggests if you can lay out a damages model that the jury can understand, even if they disagree with it, they can at least have the ability to discuss it in a format that makes sense instead of punishing you or your client for damages no one believes are just. To drive the point home even further, Keith describes the “pep talk” he’s given himself in the past about why he is trying this case in the first place and the thoughts he needs to be overcome, especially in the early years of a practice, in order to have the full and deserving confidence for what is being fought for in the courtroom. Truly inspiring and passionate words.

Keith and Michael are able to fit almost a full day’s worth of topics into this episode that every lawyer is likely to learn from including connecting with the jury through the power of analogy, tips and tactics for approaching voir dire to establish the ideal jury, the burden of proof, and the detailed strategy Keith uses to prepare for closing that gives him all the confidence in the world by design. Keith also is kind enough to offer an emailed version of a memo he drafted internally for his office regarding putting an end to the defense belittling the pain of your client just because you can’t see it. Michael had a terrific time talking with Keith and is excited to share this episode with everyone.

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

 

BACKGROUND ON KEITH MITNIK

 

Keith Mitnik is the author of Trial Guides’ bestselling book, DON’T EAT THE BRUISES:  How to Foil Their Plans to Spoil Your Case. https://www.trialguides.com/products/dont-eat-the-bruises

He is also known for his popular audio tape 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, often times 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.

 

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