law school

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

41 – Malorie Peacock – Resources, Doctor Referrals, and Process-based Focus

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with Cowen | Rodriguez | Peacock partner, Malorie Peacock, for another TLN Table Talk to answer the questions of our listeners. This episode focuses on resources for trial lawyers, doctor referrals, and the process behind highlighting what’s most important to your case.

The first question brought to the table is about what the best resources for newer lawyers starting out in the personal injury trial lawyer world. Michael notes his favorite books today would likely not be his favorites for someone just starting out. Having said that, he recommends starting with books like the AAJ Deposition book by Phillip Miller and Paul Scoptur, pointing to the reality in which 90% of cases are likely going to settle and this book focuses on taking good depositions, increasing the likelihood of a higher value settlement for your clients. He also recommends David Ball’s book, Damages 3, which breaks down how to argue a case in a logical and coherent format, avoiding holes in your story, as well as Rules of the Road by Rick Friedman and Patrick Malone, that focuses on simplifying cases. As a follow up to reading all these great books which are meant to help simplify cases, Malorie poses the question of why it is important for lawyers just out of law school (where everything is so complex)  to make the transition to presenting to a jury where you have to make things simple, and why it is so difficult. Michael explores this idea and feels that it takes a lot more work to make things simple, and the complexity is what we hide behind to mask our own insecurities. They both agree that complexity and confusion are great defense tools and by presenting a bunch of confusing ideas to a jury could end up playing right into the defense’s hands. To top off the discussion about resources, Michael adds several other courses, trial colleges, information exchange groups, and other programs that are offered and can help lay the foundation for up and coming trial attorneys and also suggests choosing an area to really focus on, since no one can really know everything about everything.

Beyond books and seminars, Malorie brings up the idea of going to trials and second chairing trials as another great way to gain real life learning experiences. Michael also describes his approach to pairing up attorneys with each other based on where they are in their career to gain practical experience in the courtroom. It’s also noted, in cases where your might be trying them on your own, it can still be beneficial to bring in other attorneys who have done what you are about to do, to strategize and help you prepare. Malorie talks about a specific instance of this coming up for her, where she plans to help a friend through voir dire in their upcoming case. Michael also reminisces about several times back in his early days, enticing friends to come over and practice voir dire and openings with pizza and beer in exchange for their feedback. Although, these weren’t professionals or experts, this practice did help him get more comfortable with talking to people while getting useful feedback.

Another question from our listeners is about lawyers referring people to doctors and the perceived issue that the people getting referred are not actually injured but are being sent to a doctor who will work up some medical documentation to make them look like they’ve sustained an injury in order to make more money for the lawyer. Michael describes his personal experience with this issue in that, he faces it head on and is upfront about it, thereby avoiding any awkwardness or perceived deviance on his part. For him, it basically boils down to having a client in pain, who asks for advice on what doctor to go see. They’re not sure what doctor to go see. They don’t know any specialists in this area. What should I do? Most people would say, tell them to go see a doctor and give them a name. In other words, if you own it, you’re not ashamed of it, and you haven’t done anything wrong and just talk about it, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. He also points out that he’s never lost a case on this issue. Malorie also notes, whatever you make a big deal about to a jury, is likely going to be what they think needs to be a big deal, and by confronting it in a matter of fact type way, people take your cues that it is not something to harp on but rather, just being human to one another.

The next question from our listeners is why is it so important for lawyers to make the case about the company and not the low-level employee, and how do you do that? Malorie digs right in, talking through how there are really two main reasons why the company is the bigger villain in a case: 1. The company is where the deep pocket is, and 2. Oftentimes, the individual that did something wrong is likeable. It becomes much “easier for people to dislike a company than it is to dislike an individual who made a mistake,” Malorie explains. Furthermore, “when a company puts an individual in a position where it’s inevitable that they’re going to make those mistakes, and it’s inevitable that they’re going to hurt someone, then it really is the company’s fault.” Michael expands on this idea with an example of a defendant driver, who is usually making a mistake over a period of seconds. Whereas companies that don’t have good safety programs and often make choices, not mistakes, over a period of months or years. So, “it’s just harder to forgive them, whereas it’s easy to forgive someone for making a mistake, for taking your eye off the road for a second, for being distracted for a minute, for driving a little too fast. It’s harder to forgive someone for knowing that you need to have a company safety program and you just don’t do it.” Malorie continues to explore the many types of negligence that can be aimed at companies in how they treat their employees (IE: negligent training, negligent supervision, negligent monitoring, negligent entrustment, etc.). They continue to explore the “how” to make the case about the company, which brings up some truly fascinating ideas and tactics.

Michael and Malorie continue to explore several other topics throughout this episode like testing theories and hypotheses, root cause analysis, reassessing your case throughout the process, and the curse of knowledge. They also explore the processes of walking people through your case one step at a time so that on their own, it inevitably leads to the conclusion of who the good guy is, who the bad guy is, what’s right, and what’s wrong. It takes a lot of work to get there, but Michael and Malorie agree, it’s so worth it.

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

Scroll to top Secured By miniOrange