intuition

91 – Sara Williams – Beyond Discomfort: Pushing Through & Seizing Opportunities

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with award-winning trial attorney, professor, and trial coach, Sara Williams, to discuss Sara’s history and transition into plaintiff law, the importance of pushing through discomfort, her recent monster case, and much more.

The episode begins with Sara talking about her “army brat” upbringing, including living in various places such as Germany and Holland, before attending law school in Birmingham, Alabama at Cumberland School of Law. She practiced insurance defense for the first 7 years of her career (including a trucking defense practice) until she “could not do it anymore,” resulting in her move to plaintiff law with Alexander Shunnarah Trial Attorneys.

Michael then inquires further about what made Sara want to be a plaintiff lawyer. To this, Sara responds, “When I was in law school I wanted to be a plaintiff’s lawyer, but, at that time, plaintiff firms in our market weren’t really hiring directly out of law school.” Sara then goes into the story of her last big case as a defense lawyer, a wrongful death case involving the drowning of a 9-year-old. Less than a year after winning the case, she would leave defense law.

It didn’t sit well with me… it was the first time I ever won a trial, went home and did not celebrate it.” – Sara Williams

After discussing Michael’s disbelief at Sara labeling herself an introvert, the conversation shifts to the differences between what is needed to be a successful plaintiff lawyer as opposed to a defense lawyer. “What I do now is so much harder,” Sara responds, before referencing the view on the defense side in retrospect, “[…] the bar was not as high, I feel, now that I’ve done it on both sides.” She goes on to say that she’s done so much more to develop and hone her skills as a plaintiff lawyer than she ever did as a defense attorney.

The two then go into several of the methods Sara has found the most useful to develop her trial skills, which include:

“When we’re in the right state of mind … that’s when we can really tap into the emotions, the empathy, the vulnerability, and best communicate that to a jury.” – Sara Williams

The conversation then shifts to Sara’s work as a professor and trial coach with Trial Advocacy. She explains her love for teaching students, especially those like her when she was starting out: quiet, shy, and introverted. “When they realize and cross over from good to great, and they own themselves, and they’re just being who they are; that really motives me.” She goes on to say that coaching also keeps her skills sharp when she’s not in trial herself.

After covering topics ranging from Sara’s partnership with Alexander Shunnarah, to the importance of making connections at conferences and really utilizing your time in those environments, the topic shifts to Sara’s recent $12 million verdict.

Sara then outlines the details of the case, in which a bus driver in Birmingham, AL fainted while driving, causing the bus to turn over and fall into a ravine. She goes on to talk about the primary plaintiff, a woman whose injuries resulted in the amputation of her leg above the knee, and how she tried to gain control of the bus after noticing the driver had fainted, which ultimately resulted in the handicap ramp falling onto her leg when the bus turned over. This woman was one of 17 plaintiffs in the case.

“When [our primary plaintiff] limped up, I will never forget it, there were people in our panel laughing at her […] we knew we had an uphill battle in terms of developing the emotion of the case.”– Sara Williams

Sara continues by discussing the facts of the case, including the drivers history with fainting spells, and what they did to get the jury mad at the defense. “We knew [from] depositions that they had no system for tracking prior medical conditions of their drivers … since that time, they had NOT developed any!” Sara admits she assumed they had not implemented this system, noting that though she was taught to never ask a question if you don’t know the answer, her intuition led her to ask. Sara believes this was a pivotal turning point for the jury in the case.

“I don’t know what it is,” Michael says in agreeance with Sara’s decision to follow her intuition, “I don’t know if it’s God or magic – but you get in a space when you’re in the moment at trial, and you feel it … 9 times out of 10, you get gold when you do it.”

The episode concludes with the pair discussing what’s next for Sara. She explains that she’s at a point in her life where she’s focused on her legacy and the impression she’s going to leave on the world besides the number of cases tried. She goes on to discuss the challenges that women in the legal industry face and how she aims to be a mentor and inspiration for them to seize the opportunities they’re given without fear.

This episode also covers taking care of yourself and maintaining a healthy mindset, being a confident leader in the courtroom, Sara’s inspirational social media presence, and how the loss of connection in the digital age can affect us in the courtroom.

Guest Bio

Sara Williams currently practices at Alexander Shunnarah Trial Attorneys headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, where she handles primarily trucking litigation and wrongful death litigation. Sara has collected over $30 million in verdicts and settlements on behalf of her clients, including a $12 million dollar verdict against the Birmingham Max Bus system in 2017.

In 2017 at the age of 37 Sara took over as managing attorney of the firm. During her tenure the firm more than doubled in size. Alexander Shunnarah Trial Attorneys now has offices in 9 states. In 2021 Sara made the decision to step away from the managing role to focus on her campaign to increase the visibility of women trial lawyers and return to litigation.

Sara is an adjunct professor of Trial Advocacy at Cumberland School of Law where she teaches Advanced Skills in Trial Advocacy-Civil and Depositions and Technology. She also serves as a coach for Cumberland School of Law’s nationally ranked mock trial teams. She is a 2003 graduate of Florida State University and a 2006 graduate of Cumberland School of Law.

Contact Sara:
E-mail: swilliams@asilpc.com
Phone: 205-983-8140
Website: www.sarawilliamsesq.com

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.

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