client meeting

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.

88 – Malorie Peacock – The 10 Commandments of Case Management

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his law partner Malorie Peacock, for a deep dive into their firm’s “10 Commandments of Case Management.” In addition to this, the two also discuss how they developed these standards for working up a case, how involving their team was essential to the long-term success of their plans, and how they intend to track progress moving forward.

Michael and Malorie begin the episode by jumping right into Commandment #1: setting up the initial client meeting. They discuss why meeting with the client in the beginning of a case is so crucial for building the attorney-client relationship, obtaining critical information to get the case on file, and making the client feel comfortable. They explain why the standard they landed on was to have the initial client meeting scheduled within 7 days of the case being assigned to a litigation team.

Moving on to Commandment #2, “the attorney will file suit within 60 days of the initial client meeting.” Michael begins by asking Malorie why he got talked into 60 days as opposed to his original thought of “within a week of having the file assigned.”

“I keep going back to the fact that these are minimum standards, so they’re something that we want to be able to apply in every single case, if possible.” – Malorie Peacock

Following up on this point, Malorie explains how one issue discussed on this topic was that the attorneys must meet with the client before filing the lawsuit; reiterating the importance of the initial client meeting and not only having it, but “getting it right.” The 60-day window allows for deeper research and investigation, as well as time to discuss with experts.

Continuing to the next Commandment (#3), the team discusses their standards for discovery; primarily written discovery and the involved mandatory disclosures. The standard ended up being to submit written discovery within 30 days of the date that discovery is allowed, depending on the rules and jurisdiction.

“We wanted to make sure that we weren’t encouraging people to just use forms; that we were still giving people time to think about it.” – Malorie Peacock

After a brief discussion, the team move on to Commandment #4, setting depositions. In this segment, Michael and Malorie explain that deposition dates should be scheduled within 45 days of when depositions are allowed to begin: again, depending on the rules and jurisdictions. “It’s making sure that we’re moving that ball forward to get the deposition scheduled,” Malorie says when discussing being aggressive with scheduling, adding onto this by stating, “delay is the friend of the defense … not the plaintiff.”

Commandment #5 establishes the team’s minimum standard of one file review per month. Michael then recites the detailed list of questions contained in these reviews, which, although they may seem extensive, are incredibly important to ensuring an effective file review.

Some monthly file review questions include:

  • Have we served all the defendants?
  • Do we need experts? If so, who have we hired or need to hire?
  • What should we do in the next 30 days to move this case closer to resolution?

Moving on from internal reviews and updates on a case, the team then discusses Commandment #6: client contact. These calls serve the dual-purpose of keeping the client informed as to the status of the case and what (if anything) has changed, as well as to check in with the client on a personal level.

“[Client contact] isn’t just talking to the client […] it’s a set of specific questions and information that need to be relayed to the client, and that the client needs to relay to us.” – Malorie Peacock

Commandment #7 is simply getting a scheduling order or, depending on the jurisdiction, a trial date; the deadline for this being 120 days from the time that the first defendant files an answer. “We do have some exceptions for this one based on what the court will allow and what the rules of civil procedure in that jurisdiction permit you to do.” The two continue this topic by going into detail on the exceptions they foresee regarding this commandment.

The next Commandment (#8) involves implementing a strategy to set appropriate settlement values for cases: “an attorney must present their case to the weekly roundtable before sending a demand or engaging in settlement negotiations.”

Malorie happily steps forward to discuss this commandment, citing it as “one of [my] favorite things we’ve implemented this year.” Malorie explains how during these roundtables, Cowen Rodriguez Peacock lawyers present their case(s) with the purpose of discussing the case and valuation with the team, with the goal of gaining insight and learning from those with more experience.

Michael moves on to one of the self-confessed “least popular” yet still important Commandment (#9): attorneys must submit a report 90 days before the expert deadline and 90 days before trial, to be filled out and submitted to Michael. The importance of this commandment can be summarized by this short but sweet quote from Michael on the subject.

“Less than 90 days, you don’t have time to fix things.” – Michael Cowen

Michael and Malorie continue the discussion of their firm’s commandments with #10: any case that might go to trial, the attorney must set a pre-trial meeting with Michael at least 60 days before the discovery deadline.

“I want to be able to brainstorm with people, come up with exhibit ideas, come up with testimony ideas, but I need to do it at least 60 days before the discovery deadline because [invariably] I come up with ideas that require us to find additional witnesses, documents, visuals, those kinds of things. You need [those items] created, found, and disclosed to the other side in time to use them for trial.” – Michael Cowen

The episode closes with Michael and Malorie adding that an important factor that cannot be overlooked when discussing the standards presented in this episode is the inclusion of the team’s input during the creation of said standards.

“We turned down people’s ideas, we accepted people’s ideas, but we all had a long, lively conversation about it. At the end, I think everybody agreed with every single standard on the list because they felt heard out, and now they understand the perspective of it.” – Malorie Peacock

This episode also discusses the star rating, the fine line between too much detail and not enough, pre-trial checklists, and more.

 

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