liability

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.

81 – Mallory Storey Ulmer – Baptism by Fire: When Tenacity Defeats Tenure

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with attorney Mallory Storey Ulmer from the Walton Law Firm in Auburn, Alabama. Mallory is a young lawyer who recently achieved a $15 million settlement for her clients in a not-so-plaintiff-friendly state. She and Michael discuss her path to such early success, the details of how she worked up the case, and her advice for other young lawyers who want to make a big impact on a big case.

They begin the episode with a bit on Mallory’s background. After working as a paralegal for 8 years, she decided to go to law school with the intention of becoming an insurance defense lawyer. While in law school, she received a prestigious internship at a plaintiff firm and fell in love with plaintiff work, stating “once you’re on the right side, you can’t switch over.” She and Michael then discuss the emotional toll of plaintiff work, especially in a state like Alabama that’s “no plaintiff’s paradise,” but agree the satisfaction of representing people who need it most can’t be beat (as long as you have the right mindset).

This leads Michael to ask Mallory what she’s done to develop her skillset. She says that one of the best decisions she made was joining an excellent firm with a great reputation. Walton Law Firm has robust systems, great lawyers, and makes education a top priority. She’s been able to learn from some of the best minds in the legal industry both in her office and through a wide variety of legal seminars.

While these opportunities helped build her knowledge base, she and Michael agree at some point you just have to jump in and start trying some cases (or as Mallory calls it, “baptism by fire.”) Michael also notes the importance of networking with other lawyers, to which Mallory agrees. Because of her networking and impressive resume of cases, she is now being invited to speak more often at legal conventions.

Next, the pair jumps into the nitty gritty of the $15,000,000 case Mallory recently settled. While she can’t share too many details due to a confidentiality agreement, she agrees to share what she can within those boundaries. This case had an incredibly complex liability sequence, which stemmed from a series of car wrecks and resulted in catastrophic injuries to her client. In fact, her client’s crash occurred when the defendant driver was not driving a commercial vehicle, further complicating the regulatory guidelines for the company.

Another difficult aspect of this case concerns the venue: Alabama, which is no “plaintiff’s paradise” and has contributory negligence, similar to North Carolina as discussed in our episode with Karonnie Truzy. In short, this means if the client is ANY part at fault for the wreck (even 1%), they cannot receive any compensation. This causes worry in any case, but in a case of this size, Mallory knew she needed a plan to combat this defense if the case went to trial.

She then describes a genius argument of wanton (willful) conduct which would have taken away the contributory negligence defense. While she was never able to use the argument because the case settled, this is an incredibly impressive strategy she plans to “keep in her pocket” for future use.

After discussing the importance of discovery and depositions in the case, Mallory shares why she decided to frame the case as a “systems failure.” This boils down to the fact that juries don’t like to award a large verdict against one driver; they’d much rather award a large verdict to a company where the driver was a victim as well.

Michael and Malorie then have a brief conversation about why it’s necessary to work with others (even if you don’t agree). This starts with politics and ends with an astute observation from Mallory about how this also applies to defense lawyers.

Moving back to Mallory’s case, Michael asks how Mallory found rules and systems to apply to her case when the defendant was not driving a commercial vehicle at the time of the crash. She decided to fall back on the company’s materials, training, and supervision. Regardless of the type of vehicle the defendant was driving, those standards should still apply.

Michael chimes in that his firm’s strategy for a case like this is “compared to what?” He will look at what other similar companies do and argue that while something may not be a regulation, it is certainly the industry standard. Mallory agrees with this strategy and adds that those publications are perfect for getting excellent sound bites in depositions and appealing to an educated jury pool who may sympathize with business owners but understand companies should care about and know these things.

The episode concludes with Mallory’s tips for other lawyers who get a big case like hers. Her first piece of advice is to posture aggressively from the beginning, meaning to act like you’re taking the case to trial. This is especially true in a case with large damages because there’s too much at stake. She insists that this is scary for defense lawyers who don’t want to try the case. Her second piece of advice is to “prepare, prepare, prepare.” She’s found this shuts out any fear that may creep in. It takes a LOT of time and energy, but it has always worked to her advantage as the defense is never as prepared as she is.

Mallory’s last piece of advice is to know what you don’t know, and don’t be afraid to pull somebody else in if you need help. She urges other young lawyers to not be afraid of “looking stupid,” and be willing to spend the money you need to on experts and co-counsel. “You will most likely earn that back three-fold, and you’ll be glad you did it.” In the end, pulling in people who are experienced to guide you will result in a better fee for you and a better result for your client. Then next time, you can use what you learned, and you may not need to get as many people involved.

If you’d like to get in touch with Mallory to discuss a case, ask her to speak, or to learn more about this case, you can reach her by email at mallory@waltonlaw.net, or by phone at 334-321-3000. She’s happy to talk strategy or help in any way.

This podcast episode also covers the importance of discovery and depositions in Mallory’s case, proposed Texas House Bill 19, why you should try to work with defense attorneys (and what to do when they’re unbearable), Mallory’s approach to jury research, and so much more.

 

Guest Bio:

Mallory Storey Ulmer is an attorney at Walton Law Firm, P.C., in Auburn, Alabama. Prior to joining Walton Law Firm, P.C., Mallory gained experience in whistleblower, fraud, and employment litigation while working at Beasley Allen Law Firm, with some of those cases gaining national attention on merit. Mallory’s current practice is focused on representing victims in personal injury litigation, including the areas of wrongful death, motor vehicle and trucking litigation. She has experience handling cases in the Southeast and Midwest at state and federal court levels. Mallory recently obtained a $15 million settlement in a contested liability case arising from a crash that caused catastrophic injuries to our client.

Mallory is an advocate of the Alabama Head Injury Foundation, which provides resources for members of our communities affected by traumatic brain injuries, and she is passionate about representing people who have been seriously injured and families of those killed as a result of the negligence of others.

Mallory and her husband, Dr. Matthew J. Ulmer, and their daughter, Amory, reside in Auburn. They enjoy traveling, visiting with family, finding good local eateries, and being outdoors.

 

54 – Michael O’Neill – Delivering Justice: From UPS Defense Attorney to Plaintiff Trial Lawyer

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with former defense attorney for UPS and current plaintiff attorney, Michael O’Neill. This show covers an array of topics, including the defense’s advantages in catastrophic injury cases, why O’Neill switched sides of the courtroom (and why it made him such a good plaintiff attorney), what companies can’t defend against, and why referring out cases can make you more money.

The episode kicks off with Cowen asking O’Neill why large companies use the same defense firm for cases around the country. O’Neill says the lawyer needs to know a very specific field, know the company well, and have a consistent defense. O’Neill would receive a call in the middle of the night or on a weekend and would need to travel immediately to the scene of a crash. UPS would refer to this as “boots on the ground.” He emphasizes that marshalling evidence while it’s fresh is pertinent to the success of any case. O’Neill shares a story of a time where he went to the scene and pointed out a detail the police missed which would have hurt their case on liability. He was also there while the police were writing their reports and describes how he could influence what was written. Cowen and O’Neill discuss the defense’s role in shaping the narrative of the case from the start, the role of psychology with the first responders, the defense’s advantage in this, and what plaintiff lawyers CAN (but most DON’T) do to combat this.

Cowen then asks what everyone’s thinking; why did O’Neill switch to the plaintiff’s side? O’Neill replies that the curiosity has always been there. He then describes a scenario, not uncommon to him, where he had a defense verdict on a case he believed “that’s an easy 7-figure case that should have been won and we zeroed them.”

The conversation shifts to what companies CAN’T defend. Both agree on exposing poor training programs as the key to winning “nuclear verdicts” in commercial vehicle and trucking cases. They discuss this and other factors which make the case about the 3 months before, as opposed to the 5 seconds before the crash. O’Neill then brings up a defense trucking podcast by FreightWaves which recently discussed the defense’s fear of “the second lawyer” and the impact of referral attorneys on the insurance industry. As a “second lawyer” himself, Cowen shares a recent example of an insurance company who learned once he became involved all prior negotiations at a much lower number were out the window.

One of the most important details for a successful catastrophic injury lawyer to accomplish is to make the case about the company, not the individual. Cowen shares a story of a case where the CMV driver was high on meth at the time of the accident. The case against the driver was already strong, but when asked by a colleague why he was working so hard on the case Cowen replied, “It doesn’t take much money to teach a meth head a lesson. It needs to be about the company and what it takes to teach the company a lesson.” O’Neill echoes this with another great example of a strong case that he made even stronger by putting in the work.

O’Neill and Cowen then praise trucking trial lawyer Joe Fried and how instrumental he has been on creating the current “abundance mentality” of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys (ATAA). The ATAA abundance mentality encompasses the idea that there are plenty of trucking cases to go around, and we all perform better when we share information and establish good law. “The tide raises good ships,” O’Neill eloquently responds. When comparing this to the defense bar, O’Neill says the difference is night and day. Information on the defense side is kept from one another because there are fewer clients and essentially everyone can be your competition. He goes as far as to say that the way the plaintiff’s bar shares information “terrifies the defense.”

They then move into a discussion on the transition process from defense to plaintiff lawyer. Cowen asks O’Neill what it has been like changing into a role where he works at a firm that now funds cases and isn’t paid by the hour. O’Neill discusses some transitional difficulties, but insists he has been made confident through his experiences as a defense attorney, stating, “You start giving big checks to mediocre lawyers and you start to wonder, why am I not on the other end of this conversation?” Cowen then describes his history of funding cases by sharing his expertise in finance management and smart firm growth.

The conversation concludes with a discussion on package car cases- What makes them different from trucking cases? Why can they be so complicated? O’Neill highlights the necessity for specialized knowledge in this area, stating, “There’s a million ways to skin a cat, but you have to know how to skin the cat.” Because shipping companies usually work with subcontractors as delivery drivers, it can be difficult to make the case about the company. O’Neill shares valuable insight into how he’s overcome this barrier.

This podcast also covers efficient docket size, the order of your depositions, networking, direct to public marketing versus B2B marketing, and much more.

 

ABOUT THE GUEST

A northeastern Pennsylvania native, Attorney Michael O’Neill handles catastrophic injury litigation, including representing those who were in motor vehicle and truck accidents, medical malpractice, product liability, and premises liability. A former senior litigation associate at DLA Piper LLP, and a founder partner at a national litigation boutique law firm, O’Neill has served as first chair trial attorney in over 25 jury trials, or their equivalent, in ten different states. All of these complex litigation matters involved disputes of seven figures or more and resulted in successful verdicts or settlements.

With more than 20 years of complex litigation experience, O’Neill has appeared multiple times on NBC-10 television in Philadelphia, numerous radio broadcasts and national podcasts as a legal expert and to discuss cases he is handling on behalf of catastrophically injured people.

O’Neill is admitted to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Supreme Court of New Jersey, and the Supreme Court of New York, as well as the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Middle District of Pennsylvania, Western District of Pennsylvania, District of New Jersey, and the Northern District of Texas.

O’Neill also has a distinguished military service record as a veteran of the United States Army. He is an honors graduate of the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School and the U.S. Army Aviation and Warfighting Center, was commissioned as a second lieutenant and trained to fly helicopters for the Army and the Pennsylvania National Guard. He remained active in the National Guard until 2005 and is a member of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, one of the oldest recognized organizations in the United States military.

O’Neill earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Scranton and received his Juris Doctor from the Villanova University School of Law in 1998. While at Villanova, he focused on litigation-related curriculum and after graduation taught trial advocacy for seven years as an adjunct professor. A lifelong athlete, he played collegiate football and baseball and was inducted into the Wayne/Pike County Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2018. He also has held a civilian aviation license for more than 30 years.

Michael O’Neill joined the offices of Fellerman & Ciarimboli in Philadelphia on March 1st.. He can be reached by phone at (215)776-5070 or by email at mjo@fclawpc.com.

 

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.

 

49 – Malorie Peacock – Applying 2 Seasons of TLN to Your Law Practice

Trial Lawyer Nation is proud to celebrate 2 years of podcast episodes! In this Table Talk episode, Michael Cowen sits down for a conversation with his law partner Malorie Peacock for a discussion about the last two seasons, their favorite takeaways from guests, as well as how this show has helped them create their 2020 resolutions.

The episode begins with Michael asking Malorie what she’s learned from the show and how she has been able to use and apply this to her cases. She responds with “you have to choose the kind of lawyer that you’re going to be” as a theme which has come up several times throughout the show. Whether it’s how you formulate your case strategy, how you run your business, or the kind of lawyer you are going to be, the first step is to go after this goal.

But this isn’t always easy and can be a struggle, which leads to Michael sharing his struggles and how he has overcome them. The “salesman in me wants to close every deal,” Michael reveals when discussing case selection. He explains how hard it can be when “you see the dockets getting smaller you have trouble not freaking out” and shares why it is so important to remain disciplined and stick with your business plan. And while a smaller case docket may be a business model for his firm, Malorie brings the conversation full circle by pointing out how not every business model should be the same.

The conversation shifts to a discussion on which episodes discuss how to turn “a good case into a great case” where Michael shares his thoughts on how Randi McGinn’s book and her skills as a former journalist help her dig deep into the story of a case. Jude Basile is another guest Michael brings up as he shares how inspiring it was to have spoken with him and understand how Jude was able to find value (and an excellent case result!) in a case involving an addict at an addiction facility when other lawyers may have turned the case away.

Malorie points out some of her favorite episodes have been those of Sari de la Motte and Michael Leizerman who help explain why you need to “do the work on yourself as well as in your cases.” When defense counsel does something on a case to cause you to react and become distracted, Michael shares how Leizerman has helped him understand “the zen” of it all and why it’s important not to let the other side upset you and take your energy away from your case. He also brings up the quote “how can they be right and we still win” and how this simple statement from Joe Fried has been so powerful in his cases. Malorie and Michael also agree on and discuss how this mindset can be helpful in a case with degeneration, in both liability and damages.

Entering the confession spirit as the year ends, Malorie asks Michael what his strategies are for enforcing what he says he is going to do. He reveals the lesson he has learned when taking on cases which do not fit his business model. Describing a serious injury case involving a TBI not fitting his “case on wheels” business model, Michael shares the extra time spent looking up case law and standards versus with a trucking case where he immediately understands about 95% of the rules and sources to cite and can do so very quickly. “It’s efficiency,” Malorie adds.

The topic of efficiency transitions nicely to another theme in the show, which is how the brilliant attorneys who have been on the show “create and enforce systems” within their firm so they can do the work they need to do on their cases. If you don’t do this then you’re constantly putting out fires and distracted from the work you should be doing. This also applies to the reality of “you can’t be a lawyer 24/7” and leads to a meaningful discussion on having a work/life balance and how burn out can not only impact your personal life but also your cases and effectiveness in the office.

The podcast ends with Michael and Malorie discussing their 3 resolutions for 2020, which include Michael sharing his book deal with Trial Guides and his goal to continue writing, and Malorie sharing her idea on how she will be using the firm’s in-house graphic designer to work up her cases, which Michael describes as “brilliant” and “will scare the crap” out of defense attorneys.

An exciting piece of news shared on this episode is Michael’s commitment to hosting a Facebook Live session every month in the “Trial Lawyer Nation – Insider’s Circle” private group . If you haven’t already requested to join this group, we suggest you do so now in order to participate in the first Facebook Live in January 2020. The exact date will be shared on our podcast social media pages and also via email for those who are subscribed to our emails.

Thank you to everyone who has supported our show for the past 2 years. We look forward to sharing even more great shows with all of you in 2020 as we enter Season 3!

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