education

81 – Mallory Storey Ulmer – Baptism by Fire: When Tenacity Defeats Tenure

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with attorney Mallory Storey Ulmer from the Walton Law Firm in Auburn, Alabama. Mallory is a young lawyer who recently achieved a $15 million settlement for her clients in a not-so-plaintiff-friendly state. She and Michael discuss her path to such early success, the details of how she worked up the case, and her advice for other young lawyers who want to make a big impact on a big case.

They begin the episode with a bit on Mallory’s background. After working as a paralegal for 8 years, she decided to go to law school with the intention of becoming an insurance defense lawyer. While in law school, she received a prestigious internship at a plaintiff firm and fell in love with plaintiff work, stating “once you’re on the right side, you can’t switch over.” She and Michael then discuss the emotional toll of plaintiff work, especially in a state like Alabama that’s “no plaintiff’s paradise,” but agree the satisfaction of representing people who need it most can’t be beat (as long as you have the right mindset).

This leads Michael to ask Mallory what she’s done to develop her skillset. She says that one of the best decisions she made was joining an excellent firm with a great reputation. Walton Law Firm has robust systems, great lawyers, and makes education a top priority. She’s been able to learn from some of the best minds in the legal industry both in her office and through a wide variety of legal seminars.

While these opportunities helped build her knowledge base, she and Michael agree at some point you just have to jump in and start trying some cases (or as Mallory calls it, “baptism by fire.”) Michael also notes the importance of networking with other lawyers, to which Mallory agrees. Because of her networking and impressive resume of cases, she is now being invited to speak more often at legal conventions.

Next, the pair jumps into the nitty gritty of the $15,000,000 case Mallory recently settled. While she can’t share too many details due to a confidentiality agreement, she agrees to share what she can within those boundaries. This case had an incredibly complex liability sequence, which stemmed from a series of car wrecks and resulted in catastrophic injuries to her client. In fact, her client’s crash occurred when the defendant driver was not driving a commercial vehicle, further complicating the regulatory guidelines for the company.

Another difficult aspect of this case concerns the venue: Alabama, which is no “plaintiff’s paradise” and has contributory negligence, similar to North Carolina as discussed in our episode with Karonnie Truzy. In short, this means if the client is ANY part at fault for the wreck (even 1%), they cannot receive any compensation. This causes worry in any case, but in a case of this size, Mallory knew she needed a plan to combat this defense if the case went to trial.

She then describes a genius argument of wanton (willful) conduct which would have taken away the contributory negligence defense. While she was never able to use the argument because the case settled, this is an incredibly impressive strategy she plans to “keep in her pocket” for future use.

After discussing the importance of discovery and depositions in the case, Mallory shares why she decided to frame the case as a “systems failure.” This boils down to the fact that juries don’t like to award a large verdict against one driver; they’d much rather award a large verdict to a company where the driver was a victim as well.

Michael and Malorie then have a brief conversation about why it’s necessary to work with others (even if you don’t agree). This starts with politics and ends with an astute observation from Mallory about how this also applies to defense lawyers.

Moving back to Mallory’s case, Michael asks how Mallory found rules and systems to apply to her case when the defendant was not driving a commercial vehicle at the time of the crash. She decided to fall back on the company’s materials, training, and supervision. Regardless of the type of vehicle the defendant was driving, those standards should still apply.

Michael chimes in that his firm’s strategy for a case like this is “compared to what?” He will look at what other similar companies do and argue that while something may not be a regulation, it is certainly the industry standard. Mallory agrees with this strategy and adds that those publications are perfect for getting excellent sound bites in depositions and appealing to an educated jury pool who may sympathize with business owners but understand companies should care about and know these things.

The episode concludes with Mallory’s tips for other lawyers who get a big case like hers. Her first piece of advice is to posture aggressively from the beginning, meaning to act like you’re taking the case to trial. This is especially true in a case with large damages because there’s too much at stake. She insists that this is scary for defense lawyers who don’t want to try the case. Her second piece of advice is to “prepare, prepare, prepare.” She’s found this shuts out any fear that may creep in. It takes a LOT of time and energy, but it has always worked to her advantage as the defense is never as prepared as she is.

Mallory’s last piece of advice is to know what you don’t know, and don’t be afraid to pull somebody else in if you need help. She urges other young lawyers to not be afraid of “looking stupid,” and be willing to spend the money you need to on experts and co-counsel. “You will most likely earn that back three-fold, and you’ll be glad you did it.” In the end, pulling in people who are experienced to guide you will result in a better fee for you and a better result for your client. Then next time, you can use what you learned, and you may not need to get as many people involved.

If you’d like to get in touch with Mallory to discuss a case, ask her to speak, or to learn more about this case, you can reach her by email at mallory@waltonlaw.net, or by phone at 334-321-3000. She’s happy to talk strategy or help in any way.

This podcast episode also covers the importance of discovery and depositions in Mallory’s case, proposed Texas House Bill 19, why you should try to work with defense attorneys (and what to do when they’re unbearable), Mallory’s approach to jury research, and so much more.

 

Guest Bio:

Mallory Storey Ulmer is an attorney at Walton Law Firm, P.C., in Auburn, Alabama. Prior to joining Walton Law Firm, P.C., Mallory gained experience in whistleblower, fraud, and employment litigation while working at Beasley Allen Law Firm, with some of those cases gaining national attention on merit. Mallory’s current practice is focused on representing victims in personal injury litigation, including the areas of wrongful death, motor vehicle and trucking litigation. She has experience handling cases in the Southeast and Midwest at state and federal court levels. Mallory recently obtained a $15 million settlement in a contested liability case arising from a crash that caused catastrophic injuries to our client.

Mallory is an advocate of the Alabama Head Injury Foundation, which provides resources for members of our communities affected by traumatic brain injuries, and she is passionate about representing people who have been seriously injured and families of those killed as a result of the negligence of others.

Mallory and her husband, Dr. Matthew J. Ulmer, and their daughter, Amory, reside in Auburn. They enjoy traveling, visiting with family, finding good local eateries, and being outdoors.

 

53 – Malorie Peacock – The Verdict Is In! Post Trial Discussion

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen talks with his law partner Malorie Peacock about their recent jury verdict. (In Episode 51 they discussed trial prep and included how they were preparing for an upcoming trial.) This time they will be discussing their $3,420,000 jury verdict, what worked well, how they overcame the challenges of this case, and the power “of a trial to heal.”

Malorie starts by sharing the background on the case. This was a construction site incident where their client was working when a trench collapsed and killed him. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) found the company did not provide the required trench protection. (For our listeners outside of Texas, Michael explains that in Texas there is optional workers comp, so the company did not have workers comp at the time and he was able to directly sue the employer.)

At face value, this may seem “like an easy win.” However, there were challenges in the case. The first was the lack of eyewitnesses, which was an obstacle for liability, so the case required the use of witness statements. OSHA keeps their witness statements anonymous, so the ambiguity made it more difficult than using a live person. Because of this Michael and Malorie knew there would be doubt in the minds of the jurors, so Michael had to use Keith Mitnik’s philosophy “doubt is not an out” in order to address the issue of anonymous statements that didn’t answer all of the questions in this incident.

Another challenge on the case, which related to damages, was the client being undocumented and working under a different name. This was “the elephant in the room,” which Michael and Malorie discuss in detail explaining why they chose to share this information in trial (even if most lawyers fight to have this excluded). Michael also points out his absolute shock with the defense alleging this was a sham marriage just for papers and provides insight on how a lack of photos and the appearance of the widow was used to argue this.

After sharing the challenges of the case, the topic shifts to jury selection and how a large portion of their jury panel knew about OSHA. Michael also shares his disappointment to his question “who would like to be on the jury,” but Malorie felt differently and was very impressed with the response. In this trial Michael used Sari de la Motte’s inclusive voir dire, shares how it was received by the jury panel, and the result of it making the defense “be reactive instead of proactive.”

Using visuals to educate the jurors was also important, but this doesn’t happen overnight. They discuss how they planned the visuals, why you need to show them to your experts, and talk about how they can be used in an expert testimony. When you use PowerPoint in trial it forces you to stick to a visual plan, but with poster boards you can decide IF you want to use it AND when. Malorie loved when a juror would ask one of them to “move a little bit over” so they could read a poster board. And Michael loved that the jury felt comfortable enough to ask them to move out of the way. This showed them the jury wanted to understand the information and knew why it was important to see it.

The podcast ends with an emotionally raw and incredibly honest conversation about the power “of a trial to heal.” Malorie shares the moment when the jury put money in the blanks the client “started sobbing uncontrollably” and how powerful it was for both her and their client. Trial is “the last stage of closure” in a death case. It is extremely significant and impactful for your client.

This podcast also covers the interesting questions the jury asked and how those questions were answered, feedback from the two alternate jurors, what you can learn from the defense voir dire, dealing with spacing issues in the courtroom, the surprising link between OSHA and high school theatre sets, the process of building trust with your client, the differences between an injury case and a death case, as well as other trial details you will want to hear.

 

15 – Phillip Miller – Understanding the Minds of the Jury

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In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with author, trial consultant, and lawyer Phillip Miller from Nashville, TN.

Oddly enough, Phillip never planned on being a lawyer, being raised as a “military brat” traveling the country with his family that had a background in medicine in the military. It was actually the misfortune of dealing with attorneys in the wake of his father’s unfortunate passing, and subsequently, his mother passing 11 months later, which led him to want to go to law school at night while working during the day as a systems analyst. His practice started from humble beginnings to the point where he was paying overhead with no cases and not really knowing anyone in the field. However, his first case, which happened to be a car wreck, helped him to see his future in personal injury law.

Phillip credits his path to early success to his emphasis on education and taking as many CLE courses as possible. So much so that he began to have as much knowledge as those who were teaching the courses and soon after found himself invited to be on faculty with ATLA, which propelled his learning even more. Phillip notes that you don’t just get invited and start teaching. You first start out by writing a paper on the subject matter, which led to him reading more and becoming exposed to other great lawyers, and the cycle continued to help make him a better lawyer too. Michael also recalls a similar feeling of learning more from doing research and writing papers than from going to lectures to hear others speak on a topic.

Phillip discusses his views on learning from others and says that if you only talk with those who are practicing the same things in the same area, you’ll likely turn out to be just like them. Whereas he has sought to talk and learn from people from all over the world, just to get a different perspective on how others try those very same cases and continue to work cases from all four corners of the country and everywhere in between.

When asked by Michael about his approach to cases when he gets brought in, Phillip sites having worked with and picked up methodologies from Rodney Jew, like becoming an expert in taking depositions and the strategy behind them. As a great example of this, Phillip talks through the idea of “jury proof,” which goes beyond just the duty of breach, a duty of causation, and damages line of questions and instead delves into other questions that, if aren’t explored, resulting in a jury filling in their own answers. In other words, thinking beyond the obvious questions and answers that will help to win your case and looking at the case through the lens of a defense juror. Phillip goes on to say that these techniques are great for finding the “land mines” which could potentially damage a case. Then taking it a step further to use focus groups to help prioritize those detrimental pieces of jury proof, which helps to set up cases to be tried in an order geared towards a jury.

Phillip continues to talk through these “land mines” and the idea of working through the “bad” facts of a case to make them irrelevant or immaterial to the case, which sometimes includes just accepting them and moving on. He also notes that this does not always come easy to the plaintiff’s lawyers who are used to fighting for their client.  Michael also points out (from something Phillip mentioned earlier in the day) that juries tend to make the trials about what you take time to make them about; so when the defense has something bad for your case and you spend time-fighting about it, you end up making the focal point of the case more about that item.

The episode concludes with a discussion of the 5 things Phillip has learned about focus groups and juries and their significance to every case. He even gives some great insights on a product liability case involving talcum powder he worked on recently that really drives one of those jury lessons home.

 

Background on Phillip Miller

Phillip is nationally recognized for his work as a deposition/trial strategist and has been hired by firms in 30 states and the District of Columbia to help them prepare their biggest, most significant cases. Phillip maintains an active practice in Nashville, TN. He has been certified and re-certified as a Civil Trial Specialist, he is AV rated, and has been designated as a Super Lawyer repeatedly. His innovative approaches and case strategy work, including techniques like the “Miller Mousetrap”, have earned him recognition among trial lawyers nationally. Although 70% of Phillip’s time is doing deposition/case strategy and focus groups for other firms, Phillip has personally tried to a verdict both a tractor-trailer case and a school bus case within the last 12 months.

His two most recent books (co-authored with his friend, Paul Scoptur) are “Advanced Deposition Strategy and Practice” released by Trial Guides in July 2013; and “Focused Discovery” in the newly published Anatomy of the Personal Injury Lawsuit, in 2015.  His newest book “Focus Groups – Hitting the Bullseye” is published by AAJ Press and released in January 2017.

For more info on Phillip Miller, visit:

https://philliphmiller.com/

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