Cowen Rodriguez Peacock

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.

 

82 – Malorie Peacock – Working Through Others: Building a High-Performing Team

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his partner Malorie Peacock to discuss the art of managing your team and “working through others.” They cover effective delegation, hiring for experience vs. hiring for attitude, and how lawyers can be leaders to their teams.

Michael and Malorie kick off the episode with a look at delegating tasks to your team effectively, which is easier said than done when the team member has to do the work to your standards. Malorie starts by sharing her thought process when she wants to delegate a task. She first asks herself if this is something she could expect someone else to do in a way she approves of. If it is, she gives clear instructions and deadlines for when the task should be completed. Lastly, she makes a point to be available and open to answering any questions the team member may have about the task.

Michael then brings up a common pitfall for attorneys attempting to delegate tasks – if it’s not done right, he tends to just fix the errors instead of explaining the issues to the team member. Malorie cautions against doing this and outlines the perfect strategy for situations where the work needs to be fixed ASAP, but the team member needs to be taught the correct way for next time.

The conversation then transitions to a look at hiring and training – specifically for a paralegal position. Malorie shares how both of her paralegals started with the firm as receptionists with no legal experience. They were both trained up to the paralegal role which required a lot of work up front, but the benefit to this was they didn’t have any “bad habits.” Michael agrees that he prefers to train someone up from within, so they learn to do the job the way he wants them to, but not every lawyer agrees with this approach. They continue to discuss the pros and cons of hiring someone with experience vs. without experience, to which Malorie concludes it’s really about their ability to perform their main role of assisting the attorney.

After an insightful look at what the attorney can do to ensure their assistant is successful, they begin to discuss what lawyers can do to be leaders to their teams. Malorie reflects on the true meaning of being a leader and insists it all goes back to trust. Your team should trust you enough to tell you when they messed up, or when they need help with something.

Michael continues this line of thought with the necessity of having uncomfortable conversations about issues BEFORE they become a crisis. He recently had the opportunity to meet with Texas A&M football coach Jimbo Fisher, who is notoriously tough on his players. When Michael asked how he holds his players to such high standards, Jimbo highlighted the need for clear expectations, consistency, and for the team to believe that you hold them to those high expectations because you genuinely care about them. In order to have those necessary uncomfortable conversations, you need buy-in and trust from your team members, so they know you’re coaching them up and not putting them down.

Michael and Malorie then discuss how they communicate with their staff to lift them up. They share a variety of techniques that have worked for them, including not creating emergencies, overcommunicating, being willing to do parts of the paralegal’s job, and numerous strategies to show employee appreciation. One thing Michael has always done and will continue to do is invest in his staff’s education. He does this through weekly internal trainings and paying for his staff attend legal seminars like the annual ATAA symposium. Even the act of spending money on their hotels shows them they are valued and appreciated, and “if you buy-in, we’ll have your back.”

This leads Michael and Malorie to discuss the importance of having your team’s back. This doesn’t mean that you sweep issues under the rug- but it does mean you don’t bad mouth your team members to other people, especially to people outside of your team.

They end the episode with a discussion about managing anger and frustration, something many attorneys struggle with. Michael and Malorie both agree when someone does something wrong and it makes you upset, you need to wait until you’ve calmed down to have a conversation with them about it. Malorie finds it helpful to vent to a trusted person about what happened to let off steam, while Michael likes to take his own time to cool off. It comes down to what works best for you, so you can have a productive conversation without bringing the whole team down.

Attorney leadership, while easier said than done, is vital to the success of any law firm. This is why Michael and his firm will be dedicating the second half of 2021 to developing their attorneys into strong leaders. If this topic interests you, stay tuned for a follow-up episode later this year!

This podcast also covers why the “perfect assistant” doesn’t exist, praising your team members, why you need to avoid unrealistic expectations, Michael’s favorite strategies for building employee buy-in, and so much more.

79 – Malorie Peacock – Finding Joy in the Practice of Law

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his law partner Malorie Peacock to discuss how they’ve been finding joy in the practice of law and in life over the last year. They’ll cover the struggles of working from home, what they’ve done to keep joy in their lives, what they’re looking forward to most in 2021, and what Cowen’s Big Rig Boot Camp annual seminar will look like this year (and how YOU can attend!).

The pair begins their conversation on a topic that everyone listening can relate to- the struggles of working from home. They both agree that a lot is lost over Zoom, from the creative process to human connection as a whole. But they also agree that certain depositions and court hearings taking place over Zoom has been a huge blessing for time management’s sake. While they’re excited to engage and meet in person again, they hope that once COVID is no longer a factor, courts will continue to allow certain proceedings to be conducted remotely.

Michael then asks Malorie the big question of the episode- What did you do to keep joy in your life in 2020? Malorie explains how establishing a home office space helped keep her sane, and how their firm daily check in meetings have kept their team connected. Michael adds how remote work was a really fun challenge at first, from buying everyone laptops to figuring out remote court proceedings. But as time went on, he became very burned out from it all. He now finds joy in getting ready for trial and the excitement of starting to meet in person again.

Malorie then turns the tables on Michael and asks him what he’s most looking forward to in terms of practicing law. Of course, Michael answered quickly with trials. Whether in person or virtual, a good case or a bad case, he says “I just want to get back in the ring. I don’t care if it’s minor league.” He’s also looking forward to seeing people in person for conferences, and he and Malorie discuss how virtual conferences have fallen short.

Malorie continues by reflecting on their (failed) resolutions discussed in a podcast episode at the beginning of 2020. This leads her to ask Michael if he’s made any “resolutions” for 2021. Michael says he has, and the theme is “Taking my life back.” He’s looking forward to traveling, seeing friends, and trying cases. Malorie adds that she’s excited to get back into her routine, which as an obsessive planner, is something she misses dearly. She then shares a personal story about her wedding which was originally planned for September of 2020 and how she’s learned to let go of things out of her control. Michael then ties this beautifully into how lawyers stress about trial, and how this year has taught all of us to stop living in fear and to value the little things more.

After a brief but insightful conversation about burnout in the legal industry, Malorie asks Michael about something she knows he’s very excited about- his annual Big Rig Boot Camp on May 20th of this year. He shares that there are both virtual AND in-person attendance options this year, something he decided to do after the fantastic virtual turnout in 2020. If you’d like to attend Cowen’s Big Rig Boot Camp in 2021 either virtually or in-person in San Antonio, Texas, visit BigRigBootCamp.com and register today, as spots for both options are limited.

Michael and Malorie conclude the episode on a wholesome note. Michael shares how he is making a concerted effort to find joy in his life every day, and Malorie says she’s doing the same. If we can all take a step back and put everything back into perspective, 2021 is sure to be one of the best years yet.

This podcast episode also covers getting used to traveling again, what virtual court proceedings may remain virtual, why virtual conferences just aren’t the same, burnout in the legal industry, and so much more.

 

 

75 – Delisi Friday – Keys to Success: Lessons From Zoom Trial Prep

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his marketing “genius” Delisi Friday to discuss what they did to prepare for a Zoom jury trial. While the case settled one day before the trial was set to begin, they learned some key takeaways on what it takes to prepare a case for trial in this new and exciting format.

They jump right into the episode by discussing the need for movement in a virtual trial. Michael insisted from the beginning that he needed to be able to stand up and move in order to engage with the jury, especially for voir dire and opening. He compares this to a live TV show, versus a normal trial being like live theater. He also emphasizes the importance of proper lighting, the jury being able to see your facial expressions clearly, making “eye contact” with the jury through a camera, and practicing (and recording) every single aspect of your presentation to ensure it goes off without a hitch.

Michael then goes into detail about how he planned to conduct voir dire and maintain eye contact throughout – something he says, even with a ton of practice, “was weird.” They mitigated this challenge by displaying the jury on a 70 inch TV located above the camera. Additionally, they had a smaller screen located underneath the camera where they “spotlighted” the speaker. This allowed Michael to both see the entire jury panel and make “eye contact” with the juror he was currently talking to.

He then explains why “practice, practice, practice” is SO crucial for a virtual trial. This includes using ALL of the equipment you plan on using ahead of time, sharing an embarrassing test voir dire he did with a group of lawyers that was riddled with technical issues. You don’t want to be thinking about whether the tech will work or not, you want to be thinking about your connection with the jury. Delisi agrees and adds that you need to know when to stop adding new things in your effort to be better, give yourself enough time to practice with everything, and minimize the stress of last-minute changes.

They move on to discuss the advantages of a Zoom jury trial versus a regular trial. Michael shares how jurors no longer have to get up and go to the courthouse, they’re excited about the novel concept, and as plaintiff lawyers, you now control what the jury can see. Delisi agrees and shares that they learned so much through this process, including the (shocking) importance of using less visuals.

Michael continues by sharing how important his trial lawyer friends’ input was in this process. The love and sense of community he felt was extraordinary, and the process of practicing with them helped him hone his presentation and gave him a sense of confidence. Delisi agrees and adds that seeing the development of his opening statement was so “magical,” and that she could really see the difference and the growth throughout. She also adds how the Zoom medium and the excessive amount of practice allowed Michael to take more risks and resulted in a much more dramatic and engaging opening statement.

Michael then takes a step back to explain that even if you don’t have a “team of pro’s,” you can incorporate some of these steps as long as you have someone to help you. Delisi agrees and adds that most of the materials they purchased were very affordable – she even utilized a cardboard box to block sunlight from hitting Michael’s face!

They conclude the episode by discussing their main takeaways. Michael shares how he would have tried to have a pre-trial conference earlier to hammer out some issues ahead of time, and started practicing with the technology further in advance. Delisi adds that she learned how important simplicity was in this process, and next time she wants to consider that in how we aid in the storytelling process. Michael agrees and once again emphasizes that you need to practice, record yourself, and watch those recordings. He also reiterates that it’s not about the lawyer or their ego – it’s about the jury and your client. And when the jury trusts you, they’ll work through a technical issue with you. If you trust in them, it takes a lot of your stress away.

While Michael is a bit disappointed that the case settled and he didn’t get to try it, he knew that the settlement offer was what was best for his client and was happy to take it. This process still provided valuable practice for the next time he gets the opportunity to try a case by Zoom, something he firmly believes is the best option for getting justice on personal injury cases right now. He urges any trial lawyer listening to seize this opportunity if it’s presented to them.

This podcast also covers hand gestures, learning to use two cameras on Zoom, the importance of camera angles, light reflections, and considering the video of your witnesses who are not in your office.

SHOW NOTES:

Some of the materials discussed and used for their “Zoom courtroom” are linked below and available for purchase online:

  1. Grey backdrop (under $20)
  2. Headphone extension cable (under $10)
  3. Wireless lavalier microphone (under $80)
  4. Backdrop System Kit (under $70)
  5. Micro HDMI to HDMI cable (under $20)
  6. Cam Link 4K (under $125)

 

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