finance

43 – Joseph Camerlengo – The Complexity and Rewards of Operating a Specialized Law Firm

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with Joe Camerlengo, an extremely successful trucking lawyer from Jacksonville, FL, who is also the outgoing president of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys (ATAA), for a deep dive conversation on the specialization of trucking law.

Joe’s start as a lawyer began after being a finance major in undergrad, going to law school to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and then falling in love with being a trial lawyer after taking a trial practice course. From there he only interviewed at defense firms and only wanted to be a defense lawyer, having “drank the Koolaid,” and thinking people were exaggerating their claims, lying, and cheating. But his perspective changed after his then-girlfriend, now wife got T-boned in her car and suffered a soft tissue injury which he quickly realized are very real and hurt. At that point he started to plan his exit although he didn’t want to leave, having only been at a defense firm for two and a half years. What he really wanted, was to wait until he tried cases and learned more about excess coverage in multiple layers and multiple defendants, which he did, and then waited until he was on the eve of being a partner at the defense firm and left to start his own plaintiffs firm.

Michael wastes no time in asking Joe how he became a trucking specialist, to which it all started with a single case Joe recalls vividly. The Tony and Johnson case was a case where a 19-year-old girl was killed by a double trailer truck which was driving on a small county road. Joe immediately dove into the regulations, bought Michael Leizerman’s book, The Zen Lawyer: Winning with Mindfulness, went to seminars, and fell in love with the complexity and being able to do real justice in that first trucking case. While the results of that case would obviously never bring Tony back, he was able to resolve it in a way that brought justice to her family and further pushed the trucking company to agree to not drive their double trailers on county roads anywhere in the state of Florida.

Michael then contrasts this with automobile cases where the driver who caused the wreck is a major factor. You can resolve those cases or if you try them, you rarely get full justice because a large percentage of responsibility is going to go to someone else. Plus, when you try them, you’re not going to win them as often, so the settlement values are such that instead of fully taking care of somebody, you are helping them more than they would have been helped had you not been there, but not really getting them full justice. As an example, he points to award a couple of million dollars for a quadriplegic over a lifetime is not really going to take care of them, as opposed to a trucking case. They both agree that with trucking cases there’s more likely to be a situation where the trucking companies are at fault, they DO have the resources, you can actually do more complete justice and in some cases, when you really have a good case, you can force them to agree to safety changes as part of a settlement and it just feels better knowing the impact you’ve had beyond the case itself.

Joe talks through the financial ups and downs of having your own practice and the discipline it takes to stay the course and be focused on the cases you are looking to take on while maintaining the expenses of the rest of your practice. Michael goes on to describe the conversation he had with Michael Leizerman when Cowen wanted to know how he got to the point where he only had good trucking cases and recalls Leizerman’s simple words, “I just said no to everything else.” Michael and Joe continue to talk about what goes into building a successful firm in direct relationship to the profitability of narrowing the scope of cases they’re willing to take on, which in large part, includes a firm’s capacity. Joe brings up a point that’s so often overlooked where you cannot run your people or yourself at 100% capacity. “That’s when you will break down. That’s when you’ll burn out. That’s when you’ll make mistakes,” Michael explains. Joe describes the need to have space in your inventory for that new call, because if you’ve said yes to some of those smaller cases because you had capacity at the time, and now you’re almost at capacity when the 9-figure case calls, the firm will likely not be in a position to do its best work on that case or the others. You need to have some capacity in your life, in your firm to take on arising unknown opportunities. The unfortunate side of the self-imposed stress placed on people when running at capacity all the time is the drugs, alcohol, suicide, infidelity, and everything else people do when they’re managing the stress in a bad way. You have to do what’s right for you and develop a stress level to where you’re still having quality time with your family and you’re not overworking yourself or your people. Joe recalls “they say people make you money,” whereas his theory at his firm is “happy people make you more money,” strongly suggesting the need to give your people support and “treat them like they’re gold.”

Michael and Joe continue to talk through a variety of topics regarding the solid building blocks they’ve both used in building successful practices including: Systems within the firm (intake checklists, forms, etc.) and the idea that when you follow the systems, it frees you up to do the creative stuff; The necessity to never neglect the business side of your firm and the impact it can have on your clients; Savvy accounting tips for lawyers who focus specifically on phantom income and their associated taxes; and several other important factors for law firms to consider.

This jam-packed podcast concludes with an in-depth look at one of Joe’s latest trial successes that have been 8½ years in the making and culminated with an astonishing $11.32M verdict for, of all things, a car wreck case involving their firm’s long-time IT employee. Joe is gracious enough to share so many details about the trials and tribulations of this case, and they were plentiful over the course of the life of the case.

BACKGROUND

Joe Camerlengo is a founding partner of The Truck Accident Law Firm where he maintains a nationwide trial practice specializing in the areas of serious personal injury and wrongful death caused by trucking, bus, and commercial motor vehicle crashes.   He is extremely hardworking and a passionate advocate for his clients.   Joe is board certified in truck accident law by the National Board of Trial Advocates and board-certified in civil trial law by both the Florida Bar and the National Board of Trial Advocates.   Joe is a member of ABOTA, has achieved a preeminent AV rating by Martindale Hubbell and has been voted a Florida Super Lawyer in Civil Trial and Personally Injury Law every year since 2008.  Joe serves as the President of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys, the Education Chair for the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group, Chair of the Florida Justice Association’s Trucking and CMV Crash Section and serves on the board of the National Board of Trial Advocates and the National Board of Trucking Trial Advocates.  Joe speaks all over the country on issues relating to handling Trucking Crash cases and advanced trial techniques.  He has been a repeat speaker for the American Association for Justice, the Florida Justice Association, the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys, the 360 Advocacy programs, and many other trial lawyer organizations.

An extremely hardworking and passionate advocate for our clients, Joe Camerlengo specializes in the areas of serious personal injury and wrongful death caused by a tractor-trailer and commercial motor vehicle crashes.  Joe is board certified in civil trial law by the Florida Bar and the National Board of Trial Advocates.  Joe lectures other attorneys on handling tractor-trailer crashes all over the county and has served as faculty at the AAJ Truck Litigation College.  Joe has achieved a preeminent AV rating by Martindale Hubbell and has been repeatedly voted by his peers as a Florida Super Lawyer, a member of Florida’s Legal Elite and a National Trial Attorneys top 100.

Joe is passionate about making our roads safer by pursuing and helping other attorneys pursue, bad trucking companies and dangerous truck drivers.  Joe remains actively involved in the leading trucking litigation attorney organizations.  He is the President and Board Member of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys; the Education Chair and Board Member of the American Association for Justice Interstate Truck Litigation Group; a board member of the National Board of Trucking Trial Advocates; and Co-Chair of the Florida Justice Association’s Trucking Litigation Group.

Joe began his legal career defending insurance companies and corporations for 7 years before founding the Camerlengo Law Group in 2001 to focus on civil justice.  He has been representing plaintiffs in serious injury and death cases since then and enjoys the challenge of taking on large corporations and insurance companies. In 2014, Joe and his team joined Coker, Shickel, Sorenson, Posgay, Camerlengo & Iracki.  In 2017, Joe joined forces with leading trucking trial attorneys Michael Leizerman and Joe Fried to form The Truck Accident Law Firm, handling trucking crash cases all over the country from the home office in Jacksonville, Florida.

Joe is a double Gator, having received his B.S.B.A. in Finance in 1991 and his Juris Doctorate from the University of Florida Levin College of Law in 1994, both with honors. Joe has been a member of the Florida Bar since 1994 and is also admitted to the United States District Court, for the Middle and Southern Districts of Florida and the United States Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Joe is actively involved in the Florida and Jacksonville Bar and his community and is a recognized leader on diversity and inclusion issues.  Joe currently serves on a Florida Bar Grievance Committee.  He has served on the Florida Bar’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee since its inception, serving as chairman in 2011-2012.  He is a Past President of the Jacksonville Bar Association. Joe also supports several charitable and community organizations such as the American Cancer Society, the Jacksonville Human Society, the Jacksonville Host Committee for Florida’s Children First and Leadership Jacksonville.  He enjoys coaching kids’ sports, playing golf, working out, surfing and, most importantly, spending time with his wife and their daughters.

Joe can be reached at jvc@truckcrashlaw.com

Additional Information:

EDUCATION
The University of Florida, Warrington College of Business, B.S.B.A. in Finance with honors (1991), Levin College of Law, Juris Doctorate with honors (1994)

CERTIFICATIONS
Board Certified in Civil Trial Practice, The Florida Bar, Board Certified in Civil Trial Practice, National Board of Trial Advocates

BAR ADMISSIONS
Florida Bar, member since 1994, Board Certified in Civil Trial since 2011, U.S. District Court, Middle and Southern Districts of Florida, U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals

PROFESSIONAL HONORS, ACTIVITIES & AFFILIATIONS: 
Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys
President (2018 – 2019), Vice President (2017-2018), Board of Regents (2016 – present)

National Board of Trial Advocates
Board Member (2016-present)

National Board of Trucking Trial Advocates
Board Member (2016-present)

American Association for Justice, Interstate Trucking Litigation Group
Education Chair (2018-present), Membership Chair (2017-2018), AAJ Truck Litigation College Co-Chair (2018), Vision Zero Committee (2016-present), Side Underride Committee (2015-present)

Florida Justice Association,
Trucking Litigation Section Co-Chair (2016-present), Eagle Member, since 2006

American Board of Trial Advocates, since 2015

Jacksonville Bar Association, since 1994
Chair – Diversity Committee (2010-2011), President (2008-2009), Founder, Diversity Symposium (2009), President-Elect (2007-2008), Board of Governors (2000-2006), Co-Chair, Entertainment and Sports Law Committee (2004-2005), Foundation Advisory Committee (2001-2005)

President, Young Lawyers Section (2000-2001), President-Elect, Young Lawyers Section (1999-2000), Secretary, Young Lawyers Section (1998-1999), Board of Governors, Young Lawyers Section (1996-1998), Sports Commissioner, Young Lawyers Section (1994-1996)

Founder, 4th Judicial Circuit Trial Docket (2000-2001)
Florida Bar Association, since 1994
Executive Council, Florida Bar Standing Committee on Diversity & Inclusion (current), Chairman, President’s Special Statewide Committee on Diversity and Inclusion (2011-2012), Appointed to President’s Special Committee on Diversity and Inclusion (2010)

American Bar Association, since 1994
American Association for Justice, since 2001
Jacksonville Justice Association, since 2001
Treasurer (2006-2009), Secretary (2005)

University of Florida Bull Gator, Since 2006

Frequent CLE Presenter on Trucking and Trial Strategies

Certified NFL Agent (2000-2005)

 

RECOGNITIONS

Martindale Hubbell AV Rated, National Trucking Lawyers Top 10, 2017-present, National Trial Lawyers of the Year Top 100; 2012-present, Florida Super Lawyer, Plaintiff’s Personal Injury & Civil Trial; 2008-present, Florida Trend’s Legal Elite, 2014 to present, AVVO Superb Rating – 10 out of 10; 2008-present, Leadership Jacksonville, Class of 2010, Jacksonville Business Journal, 40 under 40, 2009, Florida Justice Association Bronze Eagle Award, 2008, Florida’s Legal Elite, Civil Trial Practice, FLORIDA TREND Magazine, 2006, Million Dollar Trial Advocates, Member since 2003

 

CIVIC ACTIVITIES:
Assumption Catholic School League Soccer Coach (2011-present), Armada Jacksonville Football Club Soccer Coach (2014-present), Arlington Football Club Soccer Coach (2010-2014), Leadership Jacksonville, Class of 2010, Jacksonville Host Committee, Florida’s Children First (2004-present), Jacksonville Area Legal Aid Volunteer, Sulzbacher Center Volunteer

REPRESENTATIVE CASES:
Tractor Trailer Wrongful Death:  Settled $8.8 million total recoveries, Tractor Trailer vs. Motorcycle serious injury:  Settled $6 million Policy Limits

10 level Spinal Fusion:  Judgment $5.86 Million, Rear End Collision by parts delivery truck:  Jury Verdict $4.85 Million, Tractor Trailer Head-On Collision:  Settled $3.975 Million, Tractor Trailer Rear-End Collision on Interstate:  Settled $3.5 Million, Head-On Collision with Limo Van:  Settled $2.65 Million, Tractor Trailer vs. Motorcycle Wrongful Death:  Settled $2.6 million, Tractor Trailer Tire Came Off:  Settled $2.2 Million, Head-On Collision with Small CMV:  Settled $2.05 Million, Commercial Vehicle vs. Pedestrian crash:  Settled $2 Million, Fatal Bus vs. Pedestrian Crash:  Settled $1.65 Million, Intersection Collision:  Settled $1.43 Million, Intersection Collision:  Jury Verdict $1.2 Million, Intersection Collision:  Jury Verdict $1.1 Million, Commercial Vehicle Crash at Port:  Settled $1.1 Million

QUOTE:
“I have been privileged to represent many families that have suffered greatly at the hands of bad tractor-trailer companies or overworked commercial drivers.  The more I know about semis, tractor-trailers and their companies, the greater my passion to pursue justice for the harms and losses they cause.  Trucking experience is critical.  Do not call a car crash lawyer to handle your trucking case.  Our firm specializes in Tractor Trailer and Commercial Vehicle crash cases and has the knowledge, experience, and resources to achieve full justice for you and your family.”

RESOURCES

Be the CEO of Your Law Firm

Authored by Alexandra Lozano 
Mentioned by Joe Camerlengo

34 – Sonia Rodriguez – Hindsight in the PI World

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In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with Cowen | Rodriguez | Peacock partner, Sonia Rodriguez, for another installment of TLN Table Talk to answer the questions of our listeners. This episode focuses on advice for our up-and-coming personal injury attorneys on the things we know now and wishes we knew earlier in our careers.

Starting right off in the broad sense of the industry, we start with a question about what advice would we give to a lawyer who is in the first 2 years of practice. Learning the hard way, Sonia states why it is critical for a successful personal injury law practice to understand the difference between a PI practice and a typical business practice when you are talking to bankers and lenders. The discussions you’ll have with bankers and lenders about lines of credit and assets in regards to your practice can sound like a foreign language to certain bankers, so you really need to find a bank that knows the PI practice and knows that many times the assets you have are going to be intangible, and are more likely to be in your file cabinet or on your server. Michael also points out how the banking regulations have also tightened up in recent years where it has become harder for PI lawyers to borrow against their case list. To this point, Sonia suggests once you have a few years under your belt, you should start saving/hoarding your money so you can borrow against your own investments and savings when you want to. They both agree once you hit your first big case, you don’t want to start living like that has become your new lifestyle every year or every month and you need to live below your means for a long time. Michael recalls avoiding the temptation to go buy the expensive Mercedes and shares how his first house was only $67,000, which was in stark contrast to other lawyers who went out and bought big houses and could barely pay their credit cards or make it month to month. It was with this foresight and now shared knowledge, that Michael reveals his early financial habits have led him to build the successful practice he has today.

Providing additional advice for PI lawyers just starting out, Michael weighs the pros and cons of gaining experience by starting in a district attorney’s office (hint – it’s not advised…and for good reason). He goes on to suggest several much better ways to gain experience and learn from other attorney’s experience, this podcast being one of them, which will prove to be more advantageous in building a solid foundation for a personal injury practice. Thinking from the other end of the spectrum, Sonia also offers advice regarding business relationships and how they are bound to change over time and shares the key factors you need to consider before entering into a partnership, regardless of the current or past relationships status. A lesson the majority of seasoned attorneys would likely agree with, hindsight being 20/20. Michael, being one of them, recounts one of the things he knows now that he wishes he knew earlier, and how he wishes he had spent a seemingly small amount of money early on to hire a lawyer to draft his agreements with other lawyers. Being lawyers, he says, “we think we can do it ourselves,” and in the process, we end up overlooking the holes in an agreement and only looking at it through rose-colored glasses as if nothing will ever change in the relationship. Michael reveals, in his own hindsight, the amount of money he’s paid out on legal fees to draft things for him now, has turned out to be less than 1% of what he’s paying people that he wouldn’t have had to pay had he had those agreements in place. LESS THAN 1%!

Sonia transitions by discussing the amount of stress brought on day-to-day in this industry. Our bodies were never designed to handle these amounts of mental or physical stress that can come with a heavy litigation practice, she says, and on the plaintiff’s side, it can also be very easy to become emotionally invested in our client’s cases. As a trial lawyer, you need to find a mechanism for an outlet, such as exercise, meditation (if it works for you), or even journaling, in order to maintain your mental health. Michael adds that you need to find a balance in order to internalize and feel your client’s pain without it taking you over. The Harvard Business Review published a great article about the stress and anxiety of being a perfectionist, as we tend to do in this line of work which also lays out several options for mental self-care.

Michael continues to state, as he has on many episodes of this show, to get out there and try more cases. There is never a shortage of cases to be tried in any firm. And no one will remember the cases you lose as you gain experience or even years into your practice for that matter. He goes on to say that you do not suffer a reputational hit for losing a trial and how he has actually lost more cases than some people have ever tried, but still has tons of referrals coming in because attorneys remember the ones he’s won.

Throughout the rest of this episode, Michael and Sonia discuss topics like: the power of saying “NO,” the importance of reputation; how to use a cost/benefit analysis to determine the right cases to take on; their opinions on paying for online profiles with various legal organizations, what to do in discovery when you think the other side is hiding something from you; how to (and more so, how not to) attract leads online; tricks to leveraging social media and pitfalls to avoid when using it; and many others along the way.

These Table Talk podcasts could not happen without the interaction and questions submitted by our listeners. We are eternally grateful and encourage you to continue to send us your thoughts, ideas, and questions as we love sharing our experiences with them.

“Please note the TLN19 discount code mentioned in this show has now expired.”

20 – Alexander Begum – A Practice Built by The Law Giant

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In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with founding shareholder of the Begum Law Group LLC, Alexander Begum, who has offices in San Antonio, Brownsville, Laredo and McAllen. Alex admits early on in his conversation with Michael that he didn’t originally know he wanted to be a lawyer. He didn’t have any immediate connections to the law field, and friends and family members initially forced him to study for his MBA as a fallback. A blessing in disguise, this actually helped him to bring a business perspective to the field of law.

From early on, Alex found himself valuable by leveraging his business and finance education. He turned down a $75k/yr position at a defense firm, has his sights on something better, only to take 4 years to break the $100k mark. He first started with just about any case he could bring in the door from child custody to divorce to criminal and corporate, but eventually transitioned to personal injury when he got a big “break” from an owner of a managing agency who saw him in the courtroom as a defense lawyer who won a settlement against the plaintiff through a counterclaim. They liked what they saw so much they essentially fired another firm they had been working with and sent all their car wreck defense cases to his office. Listening to him tell the story is reminiscent of something from the movies with a van full of case files, in varying stages of pre-lit and litigation, being dropped at their front doorstep. Jumping right into the cases, it didn’t take long for him to see the limitless potential in the personal injury world. After having been exposed to several practice areas of law and through the process of elimination, Alex landed on plaintiff personal injury. The fact that his father was an immigrant further solidified his decision to fight for the small guy, beat all odds and led him into representing people who had been victimized in some way.

The conversation fast-forwards and switches to a more “tactical” view of trial strategy involving the practice of NOT including medical bills in a trial. The studies that Michael and Alex have both reviewed are striking, but the actual implementation of this in Alex’s practice has proven to be successful with 6 and 7-figure verdicts on cases – some of which have $4k of medical bills! The explanation from Alex on why he thinks this practice works is extremely insightful, to say the least, and shows that litigation without medical bills may become the standard practice by necessity. Michael points out that, ironically, he believes the industry is going to end up with bigger recoveries. They also talk through the effects the different strategies have on juries in awarding damages and how one of the tactics can anchor down the numbers, whereas the other can allow jurors to think about the true impact of what’s been taken from a client and their family.

Alex shares some of his insights on how he balances the administration of running his firm and keeping cases on track with trying cases himself. He shares everything from the software they use to his endless checklists, which Michael is able to draw a parallel to form a brief past in aviation where pilots are known for going through their checklists regardless of how many times they’ve flown the airplane – all in the name of quality control.

Michael asks Alex about the journey of advertising, which they both agree is “painful.” But, Alex goes on to talk about the evolution of advertising in the legal industry and the importance of dominating a niche market with examples like “The Jewish Lawyer,” “The Hammer,” or in his own case, “The Law Giant.” He talks about a significant focus group he conducted that helped him realize the overwhelming weight given toward recalling a branded nickname/persona more than any other factor in an attorney’s practice. In Alex’s view, things like trial experience, verdict history, or even the name of the attorney play very little into the public’s perspective of who to call. Some of the examples he gives of niche type tactics are tried and true when it comes to advertising on everything from billboards down to business cards.

Michael wraps up the podcast by asking on behalf of all the aspiring PI lawyers listening, “How did you get to where you are?” Alex’s reply is priceless and timeless all at once: “It’s funny how the harder I work, the luckier I become.”

Background on Alexander Begum

Alexander Begum is a founding shareholder of the Begum Law Group LLC, with offices in San Antonio, Brownsville, Laredo, and McAllen. Mr. Begum completed his undergraduate studies at Trinity University in San Antonio earning a double major in marketing and finance. Thereafter, he attended Harvard University in Boston where he studied finance and legal writing. Following the completion of his undergraduate studies, Alex acquired a Juris Doctor and a Masters of Business Administration with a concentration in finance from Texas Tech University.

After graduating from law school, Alex did not cease in his quest for learning and improving his skills. In 2010 Mr. Begum was chosen to be among the elite few who are accepted into the Trial Lawyers College. This intense program is intended to push each individual student toward a greater understanding of themselves and others. Every attorney that graduates from the Trial Lawyers College walks away knowing they have improved not only their skills as attorneys but have improved their “personhood” as well. Attending such a program is not an easy task. Alexander Begum made the choice to be away from his home, family and law practice to devote the time to attend and graduate from the Trial Lawyers College. He willingly made this sacrifice for a singular purpose. He wanted to be better able to help his clients and serve his community.

For more information on Alex Begum, visit https://www.texaslegalgroup.com/Attorneys/Alexander-Begum.shtml

 

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