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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.

 

99 – Sonia Rodriguez – The Pursuit of Happiness: Building the Attorney-Client Alliance

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael is joined by his law partner Sonia Rodriguez to discuss a topic sure to resonate with every plaintiff lawyer listening; What can we do to keep our clients happy?

The pair begins the episode with a look at why we want to keep our clients happy. While some of the benefits seem obvious, such as not having a grievance filed against you, getting positive reviews online, and gaining future business through their referrals, Michael and Sonia discuss this in more detail. Michael shares why you want your client to take your advice. And for them to do that, they need to trust you. Sonia agrees and adds that lawyers have a fairly low reputation in the eye of the general public. Clients come to you with this in the back of their minds, so it’s crucial to be upfront, honest, and transparent.

“If you have a client that trusts you, you can go forward with the case strategy as a team.” – Sonia Rodriguez

This leads them to discuss what makes clients unhappy with their lawyer. Sonia explains how the client is initially unhappy when they don’t know how the lawyer is getting paid. To alleviate this strain, Sonia makes a point to have a very frank conversation about the contingency fee and how it works during her first meeting with the client. In this conversation, she also makes it clear that case expenses are separate from the fee. Repeating this throughout the life of the case and making it nonchalant goes very far in building trust with the client.

Michael agrees and adds how crucial it is to fix your own relationship with money to have these conversations. He used to cut his fees all the time, without the client even asking. Sonia shares something that helps with her mindset – that the attorney’s fee isn’t all going into her pocket. It also pays paralegals, investigators, employee health care, etc. It comes down to valuing yourself and your services.

Michael and Sonia’s next topic of conversation is one of the most commonly filed grievances against lawyers – a lack of communication with the client about what’s going on with their case. To nip this issue in the bud, they’ve developed a system which requires a meaningful client contact at least once every 30 days (discussed in more detail in this fan-favorite episode with Malorie Peacock). In this phone call, typically conducted by the paralegal, the client is asked a series of meaningful questions and provided with an update on their case. It not only keeps the client informed, but it also helps the firm know when the client is struggling to keep up with his or her medical appointments. This helps move the case forward, adds value to the case, and helps ensure the client is happy.

After briefly discussing the commonly held belief that the attorney only cares about the money and how to combat it, Sonia asserts a powerful point; attorneys should not put themselves in the position of needing to make the client happy. With a personal injury claim can come a lot of anxiety and depression, and sometimes you can never make a client truly happy. If that is your goal, then you are setting yourself up for failure.

This leads them to talk about managing expectations with clients. Michael and Sonia both agree that bringing up any issues with the case early leads to a happier client in the end. Sonia frames it as not having a “crystal ball.” She will not tell a client early on what she thinks the case is worth. Instead, she tells the client what she “imagines the insurance company wants to pay them.” This is a great way to point out any issues in the case, while diffusing any potential rift between herself and the client and uniting them against the insurance company on the other side.

Michael adds that if the client thinks you need the money, they will doubt you when you advise them to settle. He then shares the powerful explanation that he gives to clients in this situation, where he makes it clear that he is able to take on the risk of going to trial but shares the downsides of doing so for the client.

While there can be a real, scary financial risk for young lawyers with a lot of money invested into a case, Michael shares his personal experience of losing his first $100,000 and his shocking reaction looking back on that experience. At the end of the day, choosing to settle on your advice or not is the client’s decision, and when you make that clear from the start, you don’t need to lose sleep over it.

“It hurts, but when you survive it… it’s a very liberating thing.” – Michael Cowen

Having to be the bearer of bad news comes with the territory of being a lawyer. Michael and Sonia’s next talking point explores the different ways they handle delivering this bad news without damaging the attorney-client relationship. Sonia shares why telling them in person immediately or, if possible, in advance goes a long way to salvaging and potentially even strengthening your trust with the client. She then shares a recent example where her client refused to answer a question in a deposition. Sonia pulled her aside and explained the risks. When the client chose to move forward, she understood a motion to compel could be filed; but it was a decision the client made, and Sonia supported her.

The pair wraps up the episode with Michael sharing a philosophy he learned from his New Mexico office partner, Alex Begum. At the end of the day, personal injury clients don’t usually know if the lawyer is doing a good job or not; but what they do know is how they feel when they interact with your office. Things like offering them a beverage, giving them a gift package, and not making them wait for a long time when they come to see you go a long way. And while the strategies mentioned in this episode won’t make everything perfect all the time, implementing them at your firm will help maximize client happiness over time.

“When you make people feel more respected dealing with your office than anywhere else in their lives, then they will like you.” – Michael Cowen

This podcast episode also covers why online reviews are so important and when you should ask a client for a review, why client happiness is more important in personal injury than most other practices, how to show a client you care about them and not just the money, and much more.

 

92 – Delisi Friday – Back In Action: 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 retrospective look at his recent in-person trial, including prep, mindset and more, only 3 days after the case settled.

The episode begins in a unique way with Michael turning the tables on the traditional Trial Lawyer Nation format and passing the interviewer role to Delisi. She goes on to open the conversation about how Michael is doing after his recently settled trial. “I’m on cloud 9,” Michael says in response, before going into how fun it’s been getting back into a courtroom for his first in-person trial since February 2020. (For the post-trial discussion of that case, check out Ep 53 – The Verdict Is In! with Malorie Peacock.)

After a brief reflection from Michael about just how much he missed in-person trials, Delisi comments on the “calm confidence” he displayed throughout the trial and asks how he developed that skill. Michael goes on to describe working on his mindset and sense of self to “have joy in trial.” He elaborates by sharing how he worked to separate his value as a person and his worth as a lawyer from his trial results. This created an environment where he was not only able to have fun and focus on what he needed to do, but also remove unnecessary pressures.

“You don’t want to say ‘I don’t care whether I win or lose,’ because that’s not true […] but, I just let it go [and] went in there with, ‘I’m just going to have fun, I have a great story, I’m going to tell that story, and I’m going to trust the jury to do the right thing.’” – Michael Cowen

Following a discussion on the differences between this trial and trials in 2019, Michael goes into the unique jury selection process for this trial. For starters, to appropriately space the 45 potential jurors, a larger courtroom was used which came with its own obstacles, such as columns blocking peoples view, the need for multiple spotters, and jurors being unable to hear their peers which limited discussion. “This was probably a little better, because we actually got to talk to every single person and the judge didn’t give time limits. We got to spend a full day doing jury selection, which in south Texas is a rare thing.”

Circling back to voir dire from a conversation about the client in this case and the challenges that arose from her growing story, Delisi cites Joe Fried’s advice from a previous episode (Ep 86 – Challenging Your Paradigm) regarding being comfortable with your number and asks Michael about his number, how he got to it and if he brought it up in voir dire.

Click here to view/download Michael’s opening transcript for the case referenced in this episode.

“I wanted to mention the $30 million number, that was going to be my ask in the case, and I put a lot of thought into why I thought $30 million was fair in that case […] I wanted to get it out there early.” – Michael Cowen

In order to better understand the $30 million number, Michael goes on to describe his client’s injuries and her life before the incident. Before the incident, his client was a charge nurse at a women’s oncology unit in a top hospital in San Antonio. She enjoyed her job, helping others, the comradery with her fellow nurses and some well-deserved bonding time after a 12-hour shift. After the incident, however, that would quickly change.

Following an incident at Big Lots, where a 29-pound box hit her in the neck and shoulders, she would incur physical injuries such as a multi-level fusion in her neck, a rotator cuff injury, back pain and (we believe) a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI).

Delisi then asks Michael about his decision to not have his client in the courtroom. Michael goes on to explain when your client is there, the jury is focused on them (seeing if they’re fidgeting, timing how long they’re seated/standing, etc.) and are not listening to the testimony. He also brings up that his client had some real psychological problems such as anxiety and depression, and that her moods could be unpredictable; a factor that he did not want to risk when presenting in front of a jury and felt would be unfair to her as well.

The only reason to really call her was fear that [the defense] would punish us for not calling her.” – Michael Cowen

Delisi shifts the conversation to Michael’s use of photos of the client before her injury. Michael explains that to know what someone’s lost, you need to know what they had, and how he had to “bring to life” the person she once was. He goes on to say that he worked with his client, her friends, family, and others to get a lot of photos of her smiling, and doing what she loved, to paint a picture of her joyful life. When talking to Michael after the case settled, one juror described the contrast of those smiling, happy photos to her current, pained photos as “striking.”

One of the final topics Delisi brings up in this episode, is Michael’s thoughts on trying his first case with his law partner (and frequent TLN guest) Sonia Rodriguez. He shares why it was a great bonding experience and while there may have been some differences in approaches, that he knows their trial team “will get there” after working more cases together. Delisi brings this topic full circle by discussing the importance of over-communicating with your staff, especially ones that you’ve not tried cases with before, to assure your trial preferences and processes are handled as smooth as possible for all parties involved.

The episode ends on a lighter note with Michael talking about an experience with his 10-year-old son, a meltdown, and his unique approach to make his son smile. He explains that during a 3-day weekend, his son did not want to do his homework and was less than thrilled about being asked to do so. Michael, attempting to soothe the situation, offered a unique (and very attorney) approach to the situation; a Change.org petition to end weekend homework. The two end by calling out to fans of Trial Lawyer Nation to make a 10-year-old boy (and many more 10-years-olds, for that matter) smile by adding their signature to the petition.

This episode also covers the differences between trials pre- and post-pandemic, Michael’s feelings about settling his case during his return to in-person trials, going against respectable defense lawyers, and much more.

73 – Pat S. Montes – The Secret Weapon: Your Client’s Story & The Human Experience

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his good friend and “secret weapon,” Pat S. Montes. A practicing lawyer herself, Pat has developed a consulting business where she works with lawyers and their clients to help the clients tell their stories more effectively.  They’ll take an in-depth look at her process for depo and trial prep and why it is so effective (and healing) for clients to tell their whole story.

They begin by looking at Pat’s background and how she got into her consulting business.  A proud Mexican American and one of six siblings, she explains how her upbringing was hugely influential to her and played a substantial role in her success. She goes on to share how she attended the Trial Lawyers College in 2002 where she realized then that she didn’t really know her clients or their voices. She began a long journey of research and self-discovery, attending countless seminars on psychodrama and storytelling. While Pat does not do psychodrama herself, she utilizes many of the same techniques in her practice. She focuses on getting beyond the client’s outer layer to their inner layer, so they can show the jury what’s really going on inside them.

Pat continues by explaining what psychodrama is, which she simply defines as “finding truth in action.” In this process typically used for group psychotherapy, the “star” (the client) acts out scenes and stories from their life while the present group connects with that experience. In relation to the legal practice and our clients, it is a way of being able to connect with other humans and other human experiences and “finding the truth in the story.” Pat uses role reversal, teaches the clients how to “concretize” their feelings, and more to help them translate their feelings into a story for the jury.

They move on to dig into Pat’s process for preparing the lawyer and their client for deposition. Michael begins this section by asking Pat how she discovered that putting something into action helps the client describe it better. She shares how this process gets the client convicted about how they feel and always begins by asking about the effect of the crash on the client’s life. Their immediate answer to this first question reveals a lot about who they are and how they’ve processed this life-changing event. She will then dig deeper into that answer to uncover the “whole truth,” a process which Michael has seen Pat do with his clients many times and strongly believes is incredibly important to the case, cathartic for the client, and vital for the lawyer to fully understand their client. Michael also notes the importance of the client being completely honest with the jury, because “juries have great bullshit detectors” and will punish you if they sense you’re being dishonest.

Pat will then dig into the client’s “before,” something she thinks is crucial for the client to be able to explain vividly to the jury, saying “If the jury can feel the before, then the jury can feel the loss.” She goes on to say that it’s perfectly fine if the client’s “before” was less than perfect. For example, if the client was in a transition phase before the crash, the last thing they needed was a life-altering injury.

Another important part of Pat’s process is teaching the client how to describe their pain and how it makes them feel. This not only helps them explain it vividly to the jury, but it can even uncover injuries and ailments that have been unnoticed by doctors. She then explains how the lawyer should model this to the client by first describing a recent pain they’ve had. She provides her own example of dealing with Sciatica in such detail that listeners are sure to feel the exact sensation of her pain as she says it.

While this process is meant to build trust and understanding between the lawyer and their client, it also serves to prepare the client to bare the burden of proof for the jury. Many clients initially believe they shouldn’t have to prove anything, or that their story speaks for itself. But Pat will constantly remind the client of how what they say looks to a jury. For example, if the client doesn’t remember the date of the accident, that could appear incongruent with their assertation that “the crash was devastating.”

To help the client go into their deposition feeling emboldened or proud, Pat employs a number of insightful techniques. One example she gives even uses the client’s sense of smell to bring them into their “safe place” which has a number of useful applications in the courtroom and in life. This also makes their story more engaging to the jury and helps the lawyer connect with the emotions they felt in that moment.

Pat then notes the importance of the client describing the joy that their past activities brought to their life. For example, when she asks most clients about their past job, they’ll talk about how it brought them respect and made them feel fulfilled. They typically don’t even mention the money! And when we talk about what these things meant to the client’s life, Pat says that’s where we get the anguish and the “struggles.”

This leads Michael to ask her to explain more about “struggles” and what she means by that. Pat provides a common example of a client saying, “I can’t even walk,” when in reality they can. Many lawyers shut off at hearing this because they think the client is overexaggerating or overly complaining. But while they can walk, they are doing so in a lot of pain. She then makes it clear to the client that they shouldn’t diminish anything, but they should not exaggerate anything.

Michael also adds that when clients are overstating, they’re often scared that if they don’t exaggerate, nobody will listen to them. This is why trust between the lawyer and the client is key, and Michael credits Pat for helping build many of his most trusting relationships with clients. He poetically adds, “Even if it’s not the perfect story, the truth is so powerful in the courtroom.” Pat agrees and adds that the less you have, the more you lose. So even if the client’s “before” story is filled with missteps, it’s vital to tell the whole truth to the jury.

They move on to discuss an insightful way to find the best witnesses for the client. Part of this process is the client acting out scenes from their life, which inherently reveals some people in their life that were there for those moments. Usually, they’re not anybody who the client would list unprompted, but end up being the perfect person to attest to the client’s loss.  As Pat puts it, “It’s who knows your character, not who can speak to it.”

While most of this episode has been about Pat’s depo prep process, she and Michael briefly move on to discuss her trial prep process. This involves setting up a mock jury and having everybody rotate positions to be the jury, the defense lawyer, and the client. This prepares the client for the scrutiny of the defense and the jury, giving them the confidence they need to survive the brutal attacks that can happen in the courtroom. They’ll also cover things like eye contact, what a juror needs, practicing a direct, practicing a cross examination, and more. Between this and the depo prep described in this episode, the client will come out prepared, trusting, and sometimes even “healed” from their emotional wounds.

If you’d like to contact Pat Montes about consulting on a case, you can email her at patmontes@monteslaw.com. She is fluent in both English and Spanish. Michael hesitates to say this because he’s nervous about her getting booked up, but in the spirit of truthfulness, he highly recommends working with Pat to develop your clients’ trust and storytelling skills.

This podcast also covers how long this process takes, going to trial without medical bills, why you should ask your clients who influenced them to be the person they are, why the connection you share with your client should be your voir dire question, how acting out a scene can help clients understand the mechanics of their injury, how lawyers can learn more about this process, why the lawyer needs to be present for this to work, why the plaintiff lawyer should NEVER play the defense lawyer in a role play scenario, why this process feels like therapy, and so much more.