leadership

96 – Malorie Peacock – Building Your Profitable Law Firm

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with one of his favorite guests, his law partner Malorie Peacock, for an episode about the decisions they’ve made over the years to build and run a profitable law firm. 

“It’s a podcast about actually making money from practicing law.” – Michael Cowen

Michael and Malorie begin the episode with a look at where they started in 2014. Back then, the practice was general personal injury with a lot of small car wreck cases. That year was the first time they decided to stop taking non-commercial cases without a large insurance policy – a scary decision at first but has since proven to be very successful in branding Michael as a “big case lawyer” with referral partners. And because of this scary decision, Michael began meticulously tracking specific numbers to make sure the new strategy was working.  

Michael shares the main numbers he tracks and analyzes with his leadership team annually – the average case fee and the median case fee. He then breaks it down further by case type, referral source, lawyer assigned to, and more.  

Tracking each of these has shown that even though the firm is only accepting 1/3 of the cases they did before, the firm has grown significantly since 2014. This has helped fuel decisions from what kinds of cases they accept, to marketing, and when to hire more staff. 

“I didn’t dare to dream that we’d end up with the median or average fees we’re at now.” – Michael Cowen

Michael then reminds listeners that he’s been doing this for 20 years and being this picky about what cases he accepts is NOT something he could have done successfully when he first started. 

“If it doesn’t work, you can make other decisions. You don’t have to die on this hill.” – Malorie Peacock

He and Malorie then dive further into their “counterintuitive” approach to growth – to accept LESS cases but make MORE money – and the big and small decisions that were made to get them where they are today.  

The first big decision was that they would not accept any car crash case that did not involve a commercial vehicle or 18-wheeler, unless there was a “large” insurance policy, adding that the definition of “large” has been re-evaluated and changed many times since the decision was first made.  

Malorie then digs deeper into why re-evaluating your rules for case acceptance every year is so vital. Michael explains that you need to see if it’s working, and if it is working, decide if you should lean further in that direction or not.  

Another decision made was if it “doesn’t have wheels” and isn’t worth at least $1 million, they usually won’t take it. Michael shares why this one has been hard to stick to, but he and Malorie discuss why they need to be this picky, citing the lack of systems in place for these cases as well as the amount of research and work that needs to be put in to get the maximum value for the case.  

Malorie and Michael continue discussing some of the changes they’ve made, and some changes they decided not to make, and how they evaluate each item up for discussion. For example, they frequently discuss eliminating cases with low property damage, but for now have settled that they’ll take a low property damage case if it meets other criteria. This insightful and holistic approach is a must-hear for any listener who is looking to re-evaluate their approach to case acceptance. 

“You can’t fight a war on 3 fronts…If you have to fight on all 3 of those issues, it’s really tough to get a jury to go along with you on all 3 and still give you a lot of money.” – Michael Cowen

This leads Michael and Malorie to discuss the sunk cost fallacy once again, where you hesitate to pull out of a case once you’ve put money into it. Michael shares how he used to spend most of his time working on cases that didn’t make him any money, and how learning to let those cases go and withdraw when necessary has made him a much happier person and has actually caused his firm to make MORE money in the long run. These include cases where the client lied to you, or even cases where the facts just aren’t what you’d hoped they would be. 

Michael then shares a heartfelt story about his uncle, and how his death made Michael realize the importance of enjoying your life while you’re still here. Malorie adds that at the end of the day, a personal injury law firm is not a non-profit, and if you’re not making money, then you’re not doing it right.  

“We get one ride on this earth, and I want to choose to be happy and enjoy my time.” – Michael Cowen

They continue to discuss some of the smaller decisions made along the way, including the implementation of in-depth systems. Not only does this help the case resolve faster, but it also helps the lawyer focus less on meeting deadlines and more on in-depth research and complex legal work that can really maximize the value of the case. 

“Cases are not wine. They do not age well.” – Michael Cowen

Michael and Malorie begin to wrap up the episode with a look at docket size, which has lowered dramatically at their firm in the last 7 years. This has allowed them the time to implement those in-depth systems and end up getting 150-200% of the money they received 7 years ago on the same wreck with the same injuries.  

If you don’t have control over your docket, but you do have control over what you work on, Malorie recommends utilizing the 5-star case system. This system ranks your cases based on your projected fee and your win probability, and the goal should be to spend as much time as possible on the 5-star cases and as little time as possible on the 1-star cases.  

“Limiting docket size at the firm… counterintuitively… has made everybody happier, but also has made everybody more money.” – Malorie Peacock

The pair concludes the episode by emphasizing that the criteria and decisions discussed in this episode need to be discussed at least once every year, which they will be doing the week this podcast airs, and that the decisions you make need to work for your firm and your life.  

This podcast episode also covers saying “no” to cases, the Pareto principle, why Michael still accepts other personal injury cases, getting out of cases with “toxic” clients, the logic behind “from crash to cash in 12 months”, why you need to be ready for trial the first time you’re called, and so much more. 

94 – Delisi Friday – Building Your Leadership Dream Team

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his Director of Marketing and Business Development, Delisi Friday, to discuss how they built their leadership team.

The episode begins with a look at how the leadership team started. Michael shares how it started like many of his business decisions, based on a concept from Patrick Lencioni. He started by having regular meetings with his partners, but quickly noticed the flaws in that system – 3 lawyers were making decisions for everybody at the firm, without any input from the non-lawyer leaders who had “boots on the ground.” He found that decisions were being made with old or incomplete information and decided to include Delisi and Teresa (the firm operations manager) on the team.

“Lawyers don’t have a monopoly on good ideas.” – Michael Cowen

Delisi shares why she loves being on the leadership team. Not only does she provide a valuable and unique perspective in the decision making process, but being privy to the firm’s finances and operations has helped her do her own job better. Michael also adds that many team members feel more comfortable going to Delisi or Teresa with problems than they would feel going to him or the other partners.

“It’s uncomfortable to come to the person who signs your paycheck and tell them something that’s not favorable.” – Delisi Friday

Michael then goes into detail on how they formed the team and what they did. He explains that the foundation for any good leadership team (and a common theme in this episode) is trust. Building that trust has taken time, but he noticed that trust grew rapidly once the leadership team spent two days answering just five questions about the business. This is where their core values were decided, which form the basis for every decision made. If something doesn’t fit in those core values, everybody on the leadership team feels comfortable calling that out and vocalizing their disagreement.

“The debate needs to happen, and it takes a lot of trust to say, ‘Michael Cowen, I don’t think that’s a good idea and here’s why.’” – Michael Cowen

After a brief discussion on how they measure success in different areas of the firm and how they use those metrics in lieu of a prepared agenda for their weekly meetings, Michael and Delisi continue to talk about trust, conflict, and decision making in their leadership team.

Michael shares why it’s important for leadership team members to know if he says something critical about them, it’s coming from a good place rather than trying to put them down – and this vulnerability-based trust is really hard to develop. Delisi agrees and reveals she can take things personally and has had learn to be in the right mindset going into these meetings. And while most of their decisions are a consensus, not all are, giving the recent example of a vaccine mandate at the firm, which they decided against after a lengthy and heated debate. The most important thing, Michael says, is that everybody feels heard and the team is respectful of one another.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see in a business, and I also think it makes us a healthy business.” – Delisi Friday

After sharing how to look for disagreement in facial expressions and body language when it’s not being vocalized, with Delisi sharing an interesting comparison of this and voir dire, Michael opens up about how it isn’t unnatural for him to have uncomfortable conversations. But as he’s gotten better at having them at work, he’s also grown more comfortable having them with his family at home.

“It’s a skill that we have to develop, like anything else. And it’s a skill that really pays dividends.” – Michael Cowen

One of the most uncomfortable conversations for him was that of the firm’s finances, which he now shares the details of with his entire leadership team. At first, Michael shares, he was worried that they would panic and leave because of the ups and downs that happen in a contingency fee-based practiced- but nobody was criticizing, and nobody quit.

Recognizing the emotion involved in sharing your business’s finances with other team members, Delisi asks Michael if he felt relieved to share that burden with others. Michael says he did, and he encourages other firm owners listening to do the same, especially if there’s a team making business decisions involved. And while there have been some challenging times, especially during COVID, Delisi agrees that it’s important for her to have that information when she’s involved in making business decisions.

So, how big does a firm need to be to consider having a leadership team? Delisi believes that no firm is too small – even if that means the team is only 2-3 people. Whether you meet with your CPA or even just a trusted mentor once a quarter, the important thing is to have somebody helping you make decisions, set goals, hold you accountable, and reach them.

After once again recommending the book “The Advantage” by Patrick Lencioni (seriously, buy it), Michael ends the show on a sentimental note and encourages everyone listening to put in the effort to making their work family the best family it can be.

“We spend more time with our work families than with our own families. Let’s try to make it the happiest, healthiest family we can.” – Michael Cowen

This podcast also covers why your core values can’t be aspirational, how to look for disagreement when it’s not vocalized, how to assess a team’s performance, and much more.

82 – Malorie Peacock – Working Through Others: Building a High-Performing Team

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his partner Malorie Peacock to discuss the art of managing your team and “working through others.” They cover effective delegation, hiring for experience vs. hiring for attitude, and how lawyers can be leaders to their teams.

Michael and Malorie kick off the episode with a look at delegating tasks to your team effectively, which is easier said than done when the team member has to do the work to your standards. Malorie starts by sharing her thought process when she wants to delegate a task. She first asks herself if this is something she could expect someone else to do in a way she approves of. If it is, she gives clear instructions and deadlines for when the task should be completed. Lastly, she makes a point to be available and open to answering any questions the team member may have about the task.

Michael then brings up a common pitfall for attorneys attempting to delegate tasks – if it’s not done right, he tends to just fix the errors instead of explaining the issues to the team member. Malorie cautions against doing this and outlines the perfect strategy for situations where the work needs to be fixed ASAP, but the team member needs to be taught the correct way for next time.

The conversation then transitions to a look at hiring and training – specifically for a paralegal position. Malorie shares how both of her paralegals started with the firm as receptionists with no legal experience. They were both trained up to the paralegal role which required a lot of work up front, but the benefit to this was they didn’t have any “bad habits.” Michael agrees that he prefers to train someone up from within, so they learn to do the job the way he wants them to, but not every lawyer agrees with this approach. They continue to discuss the pros and cons of hiring someone with experience vs. without experience, to which Malorie concludes it’s really about their ability to perform their main role of assisting the attorney.

After an insightful look at what the attorney can do to ensure their assistant is successful, they begin to discuss what lawyers can do to be leaders to their teams. Malorie reflects on the true meaning of being a leader and insists it all goes back to trust. Your team should trust you enough to tell you when they messed up, or when they need help with something.

Michael continues this line of thought with the necessity of having uncomfortable conversations about issues BEFORE they become a crisis. He recently had the opportunity to meet with Texas A&M football coach Jimbo Fisher, who is notoriously tough on his players. When Michael asked how he holds his players to such high standards, Jimbo highlighted the need for clear expectations, consistency, and for the team to believe that you hold them to those high expectations because you genuinely care about them. In order to have those necessary uncomfortable conversations, you need buy-in and trust from your team members, so they know you’re coaching them up and not putting them down.

Michael and Malorie then discuss how they communicate with their staff to lift them up. They share a variety of techniques that have worked for them, including not creating emergencies, overcommunicating, being willing to do parts of the paralegal’s job, and numerous strategies to show employee appreciation. One thing Michael has always done and will continue to do is invest in his staff’s education. He does this through weekly internal trainings and paying for his staff attend legal seminars like the annual ATAA symposium. Even the act of spending money on their hotels shows them they are valued and appreciated, and “if you buy-in, we’ll have your back.”

This leads Michael and Malorie to discuss the importance of having your team’s back. This doesn’t mean that you sweep issues under the rug- but it does mean you don’t bad mouth your team members to other people, especially to people outside of your team.

They end the episode with a discussion about managing anger and frustration, something many attorneys struggle with. Michael and Malorie both agree when someone does something wrong and it makes you upset, you need to wait until you’ve calmed down to have a conversation with them about it. Malorie finds it helpful to vent to a trusted person about what happened to let off steam, while Michael likes to take his own time to cool off. It comes down to what works best for you, so you can have a productive conversation without bringing the whole team down.

Attorney leadership, while easier said than done, is vital to the success of any law firm. This is why Michael and his firm will be dedicating the second half of 2021 to developing their attorneys into strong leaders. If this topic interests you, stay tuned for a follow-up episode later this year!

This podcast also covers why the “perfect assistant” doesn’t exist, praising your team members, why you need to avoid unrealistic expectations, Michael’s favorite strategies for building employee buy-in, and so much more.

36 – David Ball – Finding the Alignment – Understanding What Jurors Want

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with a special guest, Dr. David Ball. David is a trial consultant, speaker, and one of the “fathers” of the book “The Reptile in the MIST.” His name and his books have been mentioned on numerous episodes not only Michael Cowen, but many of our Trial Lawyer Nation guests. With several books of David’s to choose from, Michael can’t help but note how “David Ball on Damages 3” has been very useful in helping him craft opening statements and serving as an outline for many trials. He also highly recommends all trial lawyers have this book within arms-reach of their desk (more on this later in the episode). And for those trial lawyers who don’t know David personally, it is important to also note he has probably done more good for trial lawyers than anyone else in the industry.

Having started down his path many years ago, David’s mission of trying to help trial attorneys make complicated things clear, originally came from his background in theatre, where much of what he had learned in theatre has been extremely useful for trial lawyers. In fact, working with a more classical repertoire theatre with works from Shakespeare, he wondered how he could make those plays crystal clear for the audience who is listening to it and how it might relate to the legal industry. His conclusion? “I realized lawyers have 2 problems: 1. They’re boring as hell and 2. They’re not very clear about what they’re talking about.” Today David describes what he does as helping to strategize cases to maximize the principles of what we’ve learned in the neurosciences and apply it to how people really make conclusions, how decisions are made, how we know things, and how logic has very little to do with any of it. Essentially, working as a bridge between the neurosciences and the courtroom.

So, how do we get jurors to see things the way we want them to? Logic doesn’t deal with the law school version of tell them your case, they’ll understand your case, and if you’re in the right, they’ll give your client a just verdict. Justice has nothing to do with how people make decisions. How do we translate that into things you’re allowed to do in trial and in a way that will motivate jurors to do what we want them to do? David says, people don’t make their decisions on the basis of “justice,” but rather justice is simply the result of something you think you want. He goes on to explain why trial lawyers need to look at what they’ve got and then put this “stew” together into something someone REALLY wants, for it to end the way we want it to. The whole process of trial, as David describes it, is an alignment.

David continues to describe this alignment by combining solid research along with all the things he’s learned in theatre about what real storytelling is. The fundamental thing about The Reptile, he describes, is by getting the jurors to want themselves to be safe and live in a safe world, that becomes their want. He also points out that in order to get their want, he also needs to get his client’s “want,” which is money. Michael adds to this by stating the only power the jury has in the courtroom is to give or deny money in the case. David goes on to say that if the attorney is presenting their case well, jurors will understand if they give a good verdict it will make their world safer, but also giving a bad verdict will make their world a more dangerous place than it is now. In other words, once the jurors walk into the courtroom, they will be walking out with either a safer world or a more dangerous world, but it will never be the same way as when they walked in. Furthermore, David explains when you ask a client why they are doing the case, not only will they say it’s because they need the money (compensation) but they also want to make sure this won’t happen to anyone else. To expand on his point, David shares an example from his early years watching the trial of a case involving a wealthy woman in North Carolina, who was rear-ended and clearly didn’t need the compensation from the case. The answer the woman gave him when he asked her why she was going through with the case, even though it was painful, is priceless. And it helps us understand why even the smallest cases are important in making the world a safer place. David also talks about the points he describes to the jurors regarding their potential complicities in what they allow the defense to get away with and the affects it will have on others who face the same situations in the future.

Which leads Michael to pose the question, “how do we figure out what the jurors want?” David goes through a laundry list of things we know about what jurors want, including through focus groups and the neurosciences what motivates us to want something. Boiled down to its core, David explains this with a great example of teenage boys as jurors, which will shock you and make complete sense. And he wraps up with describing the fundamental drives that keep us alive, as well as the impact of disrespect and humiliation.

The topic shifts at one point to talk about when the other side brings in what they call an “independent medical examiner,” three lies in one person’s title, David jokes (sort of). Rather than disagreeing with their conclusion, David proposes you show what they did wrong in their methodology, to show they purposely arrived at the wrong conclusion. He goes on to show how the right types of questions posed to your own experts can further point out the flaws in their conclusions without the need to call the defense’s independent expert a liar. Michael also adds how it can be very effective to discuss the idea of a defense’s witness as “independent,” when they’ve been picked and paid for by the defense, in helping the jury not feel like their intelligence is being disrespected. David continues to talk about the difference between describing the defense as someone who may lie in order to protect themselves vs. someone who is disrespecting the jury by insulting their intelligence and the impact this can have on a jury. He goes on to point out how it is analogous to the difference between a doctor lying to a patient, where the patient might be being disrespected but the juror is not vs. a doctor getting on the witness stand and deliberately misleads the jury, and as such, disrespecting them.

One of the things David describes as loving about what he’s been able to do, is when he started writing his first theatre for trial book, there was nothing. Nobody was doing anything in the way of teaching major overall strategy and there were certainly no books on damages or doing it. He’d like to think that the Damages book helped give rise to this whole other industry. In one hand he should hate it, he created all his own competitors, and on the other hand it is the greatest feeling in the world for him.

David also suggests for every attorney to page through their Damages 3 book on a consistent basis to examine it through the lens of the case you’re working on currently, in order to see things you never saw before. He suggests this, mainly because so much information is lost after seminars and reading other books, because the only things you likely retain are the things which pertain to the case you’re working on right now.

Michael and David move on to the topic of the principles of persuasion and how David has brought his theatre experience into the courtroom. Revisiting the idea of “real storytelling,” David talks through the actual history of storytelling and how it has evolved over time. He points out why you have to make people want to hear the next part of the story, AKA “narrative thrust,” using “dramatic tension” to create tension between this moment and the next moment, and the next moment could be an hour away or two minutes away. Crafting what David describes as “forwards” where everyone sees the anticipated moment in the story and wants to hear it for themselves. He also points out these forwards are very case specific, very particular to the story, and it is a relatively sophisticated thing to do for people who are not natural born storytellers, but you can learn to do it. And he describes why the context in storytelling and where you put pieces of information in the story matter significantly to shaping the story.

Michael and David touch briefly on social media and a trial lawyer’s first amendment right, where it is important to note David believes if you are a trial lawyer, you have accepted a fiduciary responsibility to your client which trumps your ability to have free speech. He also believes society has become so divisive these days on social media and now face to face, where we now have the challenge of bringing both sides together to fight for an even greater cause. David uses the example of 2 people fighting, but when someone comes in and tries to do harm to them, they will both unite because they are both in danger and need each other to save themselves. The heart of such a scenario, is the aim of every trial lawyer when working with diverse juries.

Digging deeper into David’s theatre background, Michael talks about how he has yet to see a trial lawyer facing a potentially multi-million-dollar trial rehearse as much as a community theatre where 30 people may be in the audience. David shares how being a trial lawyer is the only area of public performance where they don’t rehearse. He goes on to suggest you cannot fully rehearse on your own and, a full rehearsal, means a dress rehearsal. In the same way you cannot have football practice without eventually having a scrimmage with another side. When you are on the stage, you have a million other things on your mind, you’re being “Hamlet.” When you’re a lawyer, you’ve got your peers, the judge, and the jury all watching you. It distracts your attention from where it needs to be, so you seem very nervous. You cannot be a leader of human beings when you’re very nervous. And the best lawyers are leaders of human beings.

The podcast ends with a discussion on charisma in the courtroom as well as David’s important work in the criminal defense industry. And after spending this episode with David, it’s clear to see why so many trial lawyers look to him as a powerhouse in the industry.

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

 

BACKGROUND

David Ball, who wrote trial advocacy’s best-selling strategy bookDavid Ball on Damagesis a litigation researcher and strategist with North Carolina’s Malekpour & Ball Consulting (JuryWatch, Inc.). He is the nation’s most influential jury consultant, communications expert, and advocacy teacher. His training is in science, engineering, and small-group communications, and he is a 30-year veteran of the professional theater.

Dr. Ball and his partner, lawyer/consultant Artemis Malekpour (artemis@consultmmb.com), consult on civil and criminal cases across the country. They are routinely credited with turning the most difficult cases into significant victories. They are the nation’s only trial consultants qualified to safely and comprehensively guide attorneys with Reptilian, David Ball on Damages, and David Ball on Criminal Defense methods and strategy. Their hundreds of brainstorming sessions – “WorkDays” – have become the gold standard for case-strategy development.

In addition to David Ball on Damages, Dr. Ball’s other landmark advocacy books include Theater Tips & Strategies for Jury Trials, Reptile (with Don Keenan), Theater for Trial (with Joshua Karton), Reptile in the MIST, and David Ball on Criminal Defense.

Dr. Ball has taught law students at North Carolina, Wake Forest, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Roger

Williams, Loyola, and Campbell schools of law, and at Duke Law as Senior Lecturer. He’s an award-winning teacher for the North Carolina Advocates for Justice and the American Association for Justice’s National College of Advocacy. He has long been among the nation’s most in-demand of CLE speakers. His favorite job was taxi driver in the 1970s in Stamford, CT, and his Daddy was a Catskill Mountains bootlegger during Prohibition.

 

Dr. Ball is also a pioneer in adapting film and theater methods into trial techniques. His theater/film students have won Oscars, Obies, Tonies, and Emmies; his scripts have been staged at professional theaters off-Broadway, throughout North America, and overseas. He helped to lead the Guthrie Theater, as well as Carnegie-Mellon University’s renowned theater conservatory and, as Chair, Duke University’s Drama Department. His best-selling film and theater training book, Backwards and Forwards, has been the field’s standard every year since 1984, and is now in uses by trail lawyers as well. His crossover books, Theater Tips and Strategies for Jury Trials along with the new Theater for Trial, are the standards for the use of film and theater techniques in litigation.

Dr. Ball also wrote the cult classic film Hard Rock Zombies, though he made up for it by writing Swamp Outlaw, a novel about Civil War Era Lumbee hero Henry Berry Lowery, now under option for a motion picture. (TV viewers: Dr. Ball and Dr. Bull deny each other’s existence.)

 

RESOURCES

Reptile: The 2009 Manual of the Plaintiff’s Revolution

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