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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.

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

89 – Michael M. Guerra – From Guts to Glory

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with McAllen, TX trial attorney, Michael M. Guerra, to discuss his multiple 7 and 8-figure verdicts & settlements, recent “monster” settlement in a “legally tough case,” and advice on how to achieve verdicts like these in your cases.

Cowen and Guerra begin the episode by discussing Guerra’s background and how he got into doing plaintiff’s work. Guerra begins by explaining that he had an Allstate defense firm job waiting for him after law school and was “quickly terminated,” citing that his heart was not in it. Seeing as he was married right before starting law school, had a baby on the way and a mortgage to pay, he quickly took a job as a court-appointed lawyer; a position leading him to over 100 jury verdicts.

In 1995, Guerra was appointed Guardian Ad Litem in a death case in Plainview, TX, where he would meet Mikal Watts. This meeting would ultimately lead to Guerra opening Watts’s McAllen office, where we would work alongside Watts before going off on his own.

“Pushing trials and then just going in there and watching good defense lawyers do what they did. I learned a lot [from them].” – Michael M. Guerra

Guerra then goes into a harrowing story of a case he took on just after going off on his own; a case involving the death of his friend’s father, a high-ranking Sergeant Major in the Army who was killed after his RV exploded when he lit his morning cigarette. The explosion was due to a gas leak in the RV trailer.

Guerra began the case by enlisting the help of several experts; namely Mike Schultz (Illinois) to look at the trailer and Tim Dunn (Georgia) to investigate the gas system. Shortly after beginning the case, a call from a Sheriff’s deputy would change everything for Mike. “He [said], ‘Hey, Guerra, I’ve got to tell you. When we got into the trailer…we found the [gas] burner in the ON position.’” Understanding that the Sergeant Major had most likely left the stove on by accident, Mike’s original thought of a defect or leak causing the explosion was called into question. He couldn’t believe it.

Continuing past this unfortunate revelation, Mike began researching the trailer and oven manufacturers and came upon an interesting, and ultimately crucial, piece of information: the company sold the exact same trailer in Australia with one key difference, their stoves contained a “flame failure device.” This device, which automatically shuts off the gas once the flame goes out, was absent from American models of this trailer; a safety feature that would’ve cost the company only 99 cents per burner to install.

That case consumed me for 10 months, [as] we got it set for trial.” – Michael M. Guerra

The case was settled a week into trial for an amazing result and, more importantly, saw the trailer manufacturer agree to include the “flame failure device” safety feature in all future models.

The two then move on to discussing Guerra’s latest case out of the Port of Brownsville; a case involving “ship breaking,” the process of dismantling a ship to reuse parts or extract materials, a flash fire, and 2 men who suffered significant burns (one who was burned on over 80% of his body and passed away).

After discussing details of the case including the ship owner filing a Limitation of Liability Act, getting removed to federal court, and then returning to state court, the two begin to discuss Guerra’s invaluable 2-day, 36-person mock trial, which gave him the confidence to ask for huge numbers ($250-$300 million) in voir dire; a task that, Guerra confessed, scared him.

“It took a lot, for me personally, to [ask] for that kind of money; knowing people would throw hand grenades at me.” – Michael M. Guerra

When everything was said and done, calmed and confident from his meditations, prayers, and with some last-minute motivation from a Nick Rowley CD in his car on the morning of trial, Guerra couldn’t wait to get started. The jury was selected on Friday, presenting evidence was scheduled to begin on Monday, yet they would not have a chance to begin, as the case was settled on Saturday evening.

Cowen then shifts the conversation to what Guerra did to pressure the defense in the case. Guerra responds, “most jurisdictions from coast to coast have laws that create a duty for insurance carriers to use good faith when settling cases. In Texas, we call it the Stower’s Doctrine, which says that if an insurance company refuses to settle a case, that reasonably should have been settled within policy limits, the insurer can sue that carrier and they can be on the hook for the entire amount of verdict even above their policy limits.”

“It’s an everchanging, very dynamic area of law, in my opinion” – Michael M. Guerra

Guerra closes the discussion by talking about how he hired several different policy lawyers, including coverage lawyers specializing in reading insurance contracts, to help draft a demand to the carrier. “That really paid off in the end,” he says as he reflects on the impact of hiring those lawyers, including a quick note on the defense commenting on how expertly done the demands had been.

This podcast episode also covers the importance of working with and learning from great lawyers, advice for handling “monster” cases, why you should give your cell phone number to everyone, and much more.

Guest Bio

Michael M. Guerra was born and raised in McAllen, Texas. He received a Bachelor of Science degree from Texas A&M University in College Station and a law degree from Texas Southern University in Houston. While at A&M, he was a member of the Corps of Cadets. In law school, Mr. Guerra was an American Jurisprudence Award recipient in Constitutional law. Mr. Guerra has been licensed to practice law since 1993. He is certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in Personal Injury Trial Law and has served as a member of the Exam Commission. Mr. Guerra began his career by successfully trying dozens of criminal trials to jury verdict. He transitioned his practice to representing plaintiffs in civil litigation, including representing hundreds of landowners in an aquifer contamination case and representing the Plaintiffs in America’s first Ford Explorer – Firestone tire case to reach a jury. Since then, his efforts have been instrumental in compelling safety improvements in product manufacturing and premises management. Over his almost 30 year career, Mr. Guerra has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in recoveries for his deserving clients. His efforts have achieved astonishing results, including a $33 million injury verdict which was the record verdict in Texas for a case of its type, as well as multiple settlements of more than $20 million.

Mr. Guerra has been featured as a speaker in numerous civil litigation seminars and his articles have been featured in national publications. His cases have been profiled by, or he has been quoted by numerous major news organizations such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and Fox News.

Mr. Guerra is a fellow in the International Academy of Trial Lawyers and a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA,) as well as the Attorney Information Exchange Group (AIEG). He has been named Texas Monthly – Texas Super Lawyer in multiple and consecutive years and he was named to The National Trial Lawyers – Top 100 Trial lawyers. Mr. Guerra is on the Advisory Board of the Texas Agriculture Lifetime Leadership (TALL) program and is on the Advisory Board of the McAllen Pregnancy Center. He is also a member of the President’s Board of Visitors for the Cadet Corps at Texas A&M University. Mr. Guerra was selected as the 2018 Ronald D. Secrest Outstanding Trial Lawyer Award recipient by The Texas Bar Foundation. The award recognizes a trial lawyer who, in his or her practice, has demonstrated high ethical and moral standards and has demonstrated exceptional professional conduct, thus enhancing the image of the trial lawyer.

Michael Guerra is married to Mindy Guerra and has three children.

 

10 – Marion Munley – Building Equity in the Legal Industry from the Inside Out

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In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen welcomes board-certified and award-winning personal injury lawyer, Marion Munley of Munley Law. Marion describes the long family history of strong female influencers who impacted the direction she took in becoming a trial attorney, as well as the inspiration she has drawn from them when giving back in a male-dominated industry.

Marion looks back at some of her more prominent cases in the trucking industry and recalls the lessons learned from research and expert testimony. The sheer volume of interstate highways that converge in her geographic location uniquely, and unfortunately, provide ample trucking cases which have only made her expertise in this focused field more honored. As the Chair-Elect of the AAJ (American Association for Justice) Trucking Litigation Group, Marion’s public speaking engagements have been vast in the trucking litigation arena.

Marion and Michael also explore some polarizing differences in approach when obtaining new cases or referrals and how egos, verdicts, and humbleness do not all fit into the same trial attorney personalities. Marion describes her approach to this and where it’s taken her over the course of her career. Hint, hint, her solid credentials tend to speak volumes, which they both agree are always to be added to in any successful practice.

Marion’s advice to lawyers moving into personal injury law is shared and she speaks directly to the importance of mentorship, training, and opportunities needed to be displayed to the next generation of trial attorneys. In fact, based on a study shared by the ABA, Marion sites that “we know that more women have to be groomed and mentored to become the first chair as there are women out there that are VERY capable and would be great trial lawyers who are just not getting the opportunity, and that all begins with just mentoring and trying to help young lawyers navigate what to do with their careers”… which is not often an easy task. It is clear and evident that Marion’s passion for mentorship comes from a desire to further add and build more equity into the industry.

Background on Marion Munley

Marion Munley is a senior partner in the Scranton law firm Munley Law. A champion of victims’ rights, Marion devotes her practice to representing individuals and families in personal injury litigation, with a special focus on cases involving a commercial truck and tractor-trailer accidents. Marion completed her undergraduate degree from the University of Scranton and earned her J.D. from Temple University School of Law.

Marion is an active member of the American Association for Justice and currently serves on the AAJ Board of Governors. She is Chair of the AAJ Women Trial Lawyers Caucus and the first female Chair-Elect of the AAJ Trucking Litigation Group.  Marion also serves on the Board of Trustees for the National College of Advocacy.  She is a member of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice where she serves on the Board of Governors and on its executive committee.

Munley is the second woman in Pennsylvania to become Board Certified as a Civil Trial Advocate by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. Among her other professional affiliations is the American Board of Trial Advocates and the International Society of Barristers.  She has been named to the Best Lawyers in America list by Best Lawyers since 2012. Marion has been selected to the list of Pennsylvania Super Lawyers for the last 15 years and has been consistently recognized as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Pennsylvania by Super Lawyers Magazine.

Marion frequently travels throughout the United States to lecture on trucking litigation, and recently published an article in Trial Magazine on retrieving electronic data from a crash.

Throughout her career, Marion has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to mentoring other women lawyers. In 2016, the Pennsylvania Bar Association honored Marion with the Lynette Norton Award in recognition of her excellence in the law and her dedication to mentoring other women lawyers.

Click here for more information on Marion Munley

https://munley.com/our-attorneys/marion-munley/

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