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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.

89 – Michael M. Guerra – From Guts to Glory

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with McAllen, TX trial attorney, Michael M. Guerra, to discuss his multiple 7 and 8-figure verdicts & settlements, recent “monster” settlement in a “legally tough case,” and advice on how to achieve verdicts like these in your cases.

Cowen and Guerra begin the episode by discussing Guerra’s background and how he got into doing plaintiff’s work. Guerra begins by explaining that he had an Allstate defense firm job waiting for him after law school and was “quickly terminated,” citing that his heart was not in it. Seeing as he was married right before starting law school, had a baby on the way and a mortgage to pay, he quickly took a job as a court-appointed lawyer; a position leading him to over 100 jury verdicts.

In 1995, Guerra was appointed Guardian Ad Litem in a death case in Plainview, TX, where he would meet Mikal Watts. This meeting would ultimately lead to Guerra opening Watts’s McAllen office, where we would work alongside Watts before going off on his own.

“Pushing trials and then just going in there and watching good defense lawyers do what they did. I learned a lot [from them].” – Michael M. Guerra

Guerra then goes into a harrowing story of a case he took on just after going off on his own; a case involving the death of his friend’s father, a high-ranking Sergeant Major in the Army who was killed after his RV exploded when he lit his morning cigarette. The explosion was due to a gas leak in the RV trailer.

Guerra began the case by enlisting the help of several experts; namely Mike Schultz (Illinois) to look at the trailer and Tim Dunn (Georgia) to investigate the gas system. Shortly after beginning the case, a call from a Sheriff’s deputy would change everything for Mike. “He [said], ‘Hey, Guerra, I’ve got to tell you. When we got into the trailer…we found the [gas] burner in the ON position.’” Understanding that the Sergeant Major had most likely left the stove on by accident, Mike’s original thought of a defect or leak causing the explosion was called into question. He couldn’t believe it.

Continuing past this unfortunate revelation, Mike began researching the trailer and oven manufacturers and came upon an interesting, and ultimately crucial, piece of information: the company sold the exact same trailer in Australia with one key difference, their stoves contained a “flame failure device.” This device, which automatically shuts off the gas once the flame goes out, was absent from American models of this trailer; a safety feature that would’ve cost the company only 99 cents per burner to install.

That case consumed me for 10 months, [as] we got it set for trial.” – Michael M. Guerra

The case was settled a week into trial for an amazing result and, more importantly, saw the trailer manufacturer agree to include the “flame failure device” safety feature in all future models.

The two then move on to discussing Guerra’s latest case out of the Port of Brownsville; a case involving “ship breaking,” the process of dismantling a ship to reuse parts or extract materials, a flash fire, and 2 men who suffered significant burns (one who was burned on over 80% of his body and passed away).

After discussing details of the case including the ship owner filing a Limitation of Liability Act, getting removed to federal court, and then returning to state court, the two begin to discuss Guerra’s invaluable 2-day, 36-person mock trial, which gave him the confidence to ask for huge numbers ($250-$300 million) in voir dire; a task that, Guerra confessed, scared him.

“It took a lot, for me personally, to [ask] for that kind of money; knowing people would throw hand grenades at me.” – Michael M. Guerra

When everything was said and done, calmed and confident from his meditations, prayers, and with some last-minute motivation from a Nick Rowley CD in his car on the morning of trial, Guerra couldn’t wait to get started. The jury was selected on Friday, presenting evidence was scheduled to begin on Monday, yet they would not have a chance to begin, as the case was settled on Saturday evening.

Cowen then shifts the conversation to what Guerra did to pressure the defense in the case. Guerra responds, “most jurisdictions from coast to coast have laws that create a duty for insurance carriers to use good faith when settling cases. In Texas, we call it the Stower’s Doctrine, which says that if an insurance company refuses to settle a case, that reasonably should have been settled within policy limits, the insurer can sue that carrier and they can be on the hook for the entire amount of verdict even above their policy limits.”

“It’s an everchanging, very dynamic area of law, in my opinion” – Michael M. Guerra

Guerra closes the discussion by talking about how he hired several different policy lawyers, including coverage lawyers specializing in reading insurance contracts, to help draft a demand to the carrier. “That really paid off in the end,” he says as he reflects on the impact of hiring those lawyers, including a quick note on the defense commenting on how expertly done the demands had been.

This podcast episode also covers the importance of working with and learning from great lawyers, advice for handling “monster” cases, why you should give your cell phone number to everyone, and much more.

Guest Bio

Michael M. Guerra was born and raised in McAllen, Texas. He received a Bachelor of Science degree from Texas A&M University in College Station and a law degree from Texas Southern University in Houston. While at A&M, he was a member of the Corps of Cadets. In law school, Mr. Guerra was an American Jurisprudence Award recipient in Constitutional law. Mr. Guerra has been licensed to practice law since 1993. He is certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in Personal Injury Trial Law and has served as a member of the Exam Commission. Mr. Guerra began his career by successfully trying dozens of criminal trials to jury verdict. He transitioned his practice to representing plaintiffs in civil litigation, including representing hundreds of landowners in an aquifer contamination case and representing the Plaintiffs in America’s first Ford Explorer – Firestone tire case to reach a jury. Since then, his efforts have been instrumental in compelling safety improvements in product manufacturing and premises management. Over his almost 30 year career, Mr. Guerra has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in recoveries for his deserving clients. His efforts have achieved astonishing results, including a $33 million injury verdict which was the record verdict in Texas for a case of its type, as well as multiple settlements of more than $20 million.

Mr. Guerra has been featured as a speaker in numerous civil litigation seminars and his articles have been featured in national publications. His cases have been profiled by, or he has been quoted by numerous major news organizations such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and Fox News.

Mr. Guerra is a fellow in the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA,) as well as the Attorney Information Exchange Group (AIEG). He has been named Texas Monthly – Texas Super Lawyer in multiple and consecutive years and he was named to The National Trial Lawyers – Top 100 Trial lawyers. Mr. Guerra is on the Advisory Board of the Texas Agriculture Lifetime Leadership (TALL) program and is on the Advisory Board of the McAllen Pregnancy Center. He is also a member of the President’s Board of Visitors for the Cadet Corps at Texas A&M University. Mr. Guerra was selected as the 2018 Ronald D. Secrest Outstanding Trial Lawyer Award recipient by The Texas Bar Foundation. The award recognizes a trial lawyer who, in his or her practice, has demonstrated high ethical and moral standards and has demonstrated exceptional professional conduct, thus enhancing the image of the trial lawyer.

Michael Guerra is married to Mindy Guerra and has three children.

 

61 – Malorie Peacock – Elite Litigation: Strategies to Maximize the Value of Every Case

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael is joined by his law partner Malorie Peacock for a discussion of strategies they use to maximize the value of every case. They cover steps to take when you first get a case, storyboarding, gathering evidence, conducting a targeted discovery, the benefits of spending 3+ uninterrupted hours on a case, and so much more.

Michael and Malorie start off the episode with a conversation about what you should do when you first get a case to end up with the maximum value. They both agree you need to conduct a thorough investigation right away. Michael describes how he used to believe if he spent money on a case, he had to get a settlement out of it and get his money back. He would spend $20,000 to investigate and find out it was a tough liability theory but still file the lawsuit, do a ton of work, and spend even more money just to end up with a reduced settlement value and an unhappy client. He has since learned to write off these cases so he can spend his time and money on a case with potential for a better outcome. Malorie then explains how you can research the case yourself if you really don’t want to spend money early on, but Michael and Malorie both agree it’s best to hire an expert as soon as possible.

The discussion shifts to the topic of storyboarding early on in a case. Malorie explains how you plan out exactly how you want things to unfold, but you don’t need all the information right away to plan for a deposition. She describes her highly effective outlining strategy of placing information into “buckets” based on what she needs to talk to each of the witnesses about, constantly asking herself, “What do I really need? What makes this impactful for a jury or not?”

Michael then urges listeners not to appear nitpicky to the jury by bringing up non-causal violations. He shares an example of a different lawyer’s case with a truck driver who did not know any English. While truck drivers are required to speak enough English to understand road signs, the crash had nothing to do with this. That is, until they dug deeper and discovered a massive, shocking flaw in the trucking company’s training procedures.

While many of these strategies can be effective in making the case about the company and maximizing case value, Malorie emphasizes how you can’t ignore what happened in the crash. If it’s the worst company in the world but they had nothing to do with the crash, it doesn’t matter. Michael argues you should always try to make it a systems failure, but if you investigate and there is no credible story, you need to change course. They then discuss other places to look for systems failures which are often overlooked, including the company’s post-crash conduct. Finding these creative case stories and being willing to change course if you find a better story are key to maximizing case value.

Malorie brings up that there are lots of places to gather evidence, many of which are often overlooked. Michael urges listeners to go out to the crash site and walk around, look for cameras, and talk to people whenever possible. He also sees Freedom of Information Act requests as a valuable asset in any case involving an industry with regulations. You can see more than just past crashes, audits, and violations. He explains how sometimes you will see a trucking company who earned the highest score in a safety audit because they promised to fix the issues they had, which they never fixed. Malorie accurately replies, “That sounds like gross negligence.” They both discuss other types of companies who break promises often, and how showcasing this can be a valuable tool in showing the jury this company didn’t just make one mistake, they purposefully lied and tried to cover it up.

Michael and Malorie then discuss how they conduct a targeted and specific discovery. Michael shares how forms can be useful, but adds that you need to look at the issues in your case and adjust those forms accordingly. He describes his strategy of conducting a root cause analysis to dig deep into the reasons a crash may have occurred, a strategy which is incredibly useful for any plaintiff’s attorney. Michael and Malorie then agree on the importance of reviewing depo notes immediately after the depo is concluded and share a useful practice tip to make this process more efficient. After reviewing depo notes, Malorie highlights that many attorneys are hesitant to send a request for production for just one document. She disagrees with this thought process and has found doing this shows opposing counsel you know what you are doing and can even put you in favor with the judge.

Malorie then asks Michael to elaborate on a strategy they use at their firm based off the book “The 4 Disciplines of Execution”, where you block out a 3-hour window of time each week to brainstorm on a case. Michael explains how this time does not include depo prep, discovery, or other “defensive” items, but is meant to be spent “playing offense.” Attorneys are directed to do something to purposely move the case towards resolution and increase the value of that resolution. Michael then emphasizes the importance of these being three uninterrupted hours, because “It takes time for things to gel.” If you spend 30 minutes, 6 times in one week on the case, you have to refresh your memory of all the documents and details, and never dive deep into the critical thinking this activity is meant to promote. This is why Malorie spends the first part of her time reviewing every important document in the case, and inevitably this process leads her to ask questions and explore the answers. She urges listeners to not be intimidated by this process, and notes you don’t need to have a specific goal in mind besides to understand the case better and seek answers to the question, “What is this case about?”

Another strategy they use at their firm is “Workdays.” This is where they gather 3-6 people, including both attorneys and non-attorneys, to spend an entire day working through one case together. Malorie emphasizes the importance of everybody participating and being committed to spending this time on the case at hand. This doesn’t work if people come and go or try to discuss a different case. Michael adds that you don’t need an 8-attorney firm to do this. He’s found success in scheduling once-a-month lunches with peers and implementing a similar strategy.

Malorie has also found utilizing focus groups early-on in the case to be critical in understanding juror perceptions about the immediate facts of a case. Michael agrees this strategy can provide valuable insight into the direction you should take a case story, what questions you need to answer and how your client and experts appear to jurors. They then discuss a time they hosted a focus group where only three people attended, which shockingly ended up being one of the most useful focus groups of the entire case.

To wrap up the episode, Malorie notes “You’re not maximizing the value of a case by wasting time on it.” Michael urges listeners to look at each case individually and carefully, then triage it. Some cases are just not great, whether it be because of tough liability, a great recovery, or a client who presents poorly. Malorie aptly concludes by saying, “Maximizing value doesn’t mean getting $20 million on every case… It’s about allocating your time and resources carefully.”

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.

 

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