maximize value

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. 

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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