National Lawyers Association

34 – Sonia Rodriguez – Hindsight in the PI World

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In this episode of Trial Lawyer Nation, Michael Cowen sits down with Cowen | Rodriguez | Peacock partner, Sonia Rodriguez, for another installment of TLN Table Talk to answer the questions of our listeners. This episode focuses on advice for our up-and-coming personal injury attorneys on the things we know now and wishes we knew earlier in our careers.

Starting right off in the broad sense of the industry, we start with a question about what advice would we give to a lawyer who is in the first 2 years of practice. Learning the hard way, Sonia states why it is critical for a successful personal injury law practice to understand the difference between a PI practice and a typical business practice when you are talking to bankers and lenders. The discussions you’ll have with bankers and lenders about lines of credit and assets in regards to your practice can sound like a foreign language to certain bankers, so you really need to find a bank that knows the PI practice and knows that many times the assets you have are going to be intangible, and are more likely to be in your file cabinet or on your server. Michael also points out how the banking regulations have also tightened up in recent years where it has become harder for PI lawyers to borrow against their case list. To this point, Sonia suggests once you have a few years under your belt, you should start saving/hoarding your money so you can borrow against your own investments and savings when you want to. They both agree once you hit your first big case, you don’t want to start living like that has become your new lifestyle every year or every month and you need to live below your means for a long time. Michael recalls avoiding the temptation to go buy the expensive Mercedes and shares how his first house was only $67,000, which was in stark contrast to other lawyers who went out and bought big houses and could barely pay their credit cards or make it month to month. It was with this foresight and now shared knowledge, that Michael reveals his early financial habits have led him to build the successful practice he has today.

Providing additional advice for PI lawyers just starting out, Michael weighs the pros and cons of gaining experience by starting in a district attorney’s office (hint – it’s not advised…and for good reason). He goes on to suggest several much better ways to gain experience and learn from other attorney’s experience, this podcast being one of them, which will prove to be more advantageous in building a solid foundation for a personal injury practice. Thinking from the other end of the spectrum, Sonia also offers advice regarding business relationships and how they are bound to change over time and shares the key factors you need to consider before entering into a partnership, regardless of the current or past relationships status. A lesson the majority of seasoned attorneys would likely agree with, hindsight being 20/20. Michael, being one of them, recounts one of the things he knows now that he wishes he knew earlier, and how he wishes he had spent a seemingly small amount of money early on to hire a lawyer to draft his agreements with other lawyers. Being lawyers, he says, “we think we can do it ourselves,” and in the process, we end up overlooking the holes in an agreement and only looking at it through rose-colored glasses as if nothing will ever change in the relationship. Michael reveals, in his own hindsight, the amount of money he’s paid out on legal fees to draft things for him now, has turned out to be less than 1% of what he’s paying people that he wouldn’t have had to pay had he had those agreements in place. LESS THAN 1%!

Sonia transitions by discussing the amount of stress brought on day-to-day in this industry. Our bodies were never designed to handle these amounts of mental or physical stress that can come with a heavy litigation practice, she says, and on the plaintiff’s side, it can also be very easy to become emotionally invested in our client’s cases. As a trial lawyer, you need to find a mechanism for an outlet, such as exercise, meditation (if it works for you), or even journaling, in order to maintain your mental health. Michael adds that you need to find a balance in order to internalize and feel your client’s pain without it taking you over. The Harvard Business Review published a great article about the stress and anxiety of being a perfectionist, as we tend to do in this line of work which also lays out several options for mental self-care.

Michael continues to state, as he has on many episodes of this show, to get out there and try more cases. There is never a shortage of cases to be tried in any firm. And no one will remember the cases you lose as you gain experience or even years into your practice for that matter. He goes on to say that you do not suffer a reputational hit for losing a trial and how he has actually lost more cases than some people have ever tried, but still has tons of referrals coming in because attorneys remember the ones he’s won.

Throughout the rest of this episode, Michael and Sonia discuss topics like: the power of saying “NO,” the importance of reputation; how to use a cost/benefit analysis to determine the right cases to take on; their opinions on paying for online profiles with various legal organizations, what to do in discovery when you think the other side is hiding something from you; how to (and more so, how not to) attract leads online; tricks to leveraging social media and pitfalls to avoid when using it; and many others along the way.

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

32 – Jim Adler – Building a Firm on Reputation

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In this episode of Trial Lawyer Nation, Michael Cowen sits down with prominent Texas attorney, Jim Adler, AKA “The Texas Hammer,” for a discussion on building a law practice on a solid reputation.

Running an efficient law firm that has allowed him the ability to spend quality time with his large family (4 kids and 9 grandkids) didn’t happen overnight. Having started his practice doing everything by himself, learning to delegate and understanding the business and marketing side of running a firm are two areas where Adler has focused on the most to build the successful law firm he has today.

Adler recalls back in “those days,” when he was starting out, thinking that it would have been ridiculous to believe he would ever make $100,000. When he started, he was struggling to support his family and manage to do everything himself. He initially started advertising in the “green sheets” and got a little business. But it was when he started using a company called “Lawyers Marketing Services,” that he saw more success. He was told to “try it, you’ll like it,” and went into TV advertising which quickly had his phone ringing off the hook. Of course, it didn’t come without its fair share of social pressures not to advertise to the public back then, due to the stigma that other attorneys attached to the tactic. Adler has also found himself bearing the brunt of parodies on TV, even being referenced on Beavis & Butthead as “Joe Adler.” To which Michael points out, “you know you’ve made it when a national tv show is referencing you.”

Now going on his 5th generation of TV viewers, The Texas Hammer has found himself up against finding the attention of younger people who don’t want to pay for TV, AKA “cord cutters.” These are the individuals who are watching entertainment on their Slingbox, Roku, PlayStation, Netflix, and YouTube, which makes it especially hard to reach them. People don’t have “TV” anymore, so you have to find them elsewhere, which is why Adler has a saying in his firm, “if we’re not changing, we’re dying.” It is this mindset and desire to continue to learn and adapt (more on that later in the episode), which continues to keep his name and brand so strong.

The conversation then turns to when Adler became partners with a well-known U.S. District Judge, Robert O’Connor, who wanted to get back into practice. Judge O’Connor knew that Adler was wasting his time doing divorces, bankruptcy, and real estate and this was “the age of the specialization.” Taking that advice and focusing on personal injury cases has grown his firm to a staggering 30 attorneys and roughly 300 staff! Michael and Adler both agree that having so many people working for the firm is a lot of moving parts. But as Michael points out, it can be “a lot harder to run a business than to be a lawyer.”

Adler goes on to describe the way his firm has created a departmentalized system to take care of clients every step of the way. His intake department has specialists that only take new client calls and are separated from an operator who accepts all calls. His case management department with case managers who are assigned to each case and are supervised by a lawyer essentially works like a mini law practice within his law firm. The packaging department with specialists in preparing settlements and gathering all the hospital records, are all just the tip of the iceberg when you look at the organization he’s built.

In fact, evolution has been long and everchanging with the times. Adler recalls how all of these departments work well, but he received feedback that clients hated being passed around. Since then he has utilized his case managers to tee up the transition better and give the client a clear sense of what each step in their case is going to be. He goes on to describe their closing department, as well as their administrative departments and accounting departments, a strong litigation department, and an internet department, which ties into the firm’s marketing efforts. Over time, the evolution from having one secretary and an assistant, to set up all the different departments, developed through the use of statistics and formulas. From assessing how many cases a case manager could handle, to how many calls can an intake person handle, to how many cases can a lawyer try and/or settle, all of his operations were fine-tuned through statistical analysis. Adler describes himself to be a big believer in customer service and tries to promote their “service marketing” agenda to everyone throughout the firm in order to provide “over the top service” to their clients. He points out that if a lawyer does a good job for a client, he or she will likely be referred, 7 new people. Whereas the “bad-mouthers” are likely to tell 100 people if they didn’t have a good experience, regardless of the end result of their case.

Michael becomes curious about whether Adler had to figure these things out on his own or if he brought in any kind of consultants. Adler shares how he has read tons of books on business, such as The CEO Nextdoor by Elena L. Botelho and Kim R. Powell, Good to Great by Jim Collins, FOCUS by Daniel Goleman, as well as many other business publications like The Wallstreet Journal and Forbes Magazine. Thinking back to law school, Adler also recalls that they teach you how to be a good lawyer, but they don’t teach you how to become a good business owner. Adler has learned a lot from talking to people who were trying to sell him something, talking to other lawyers about how they do things, and going to TTLA meetings. Michael points out his own evolution from the mentality of being “a great lawyer and people should just line up at our firm’s door” to opening his mind to see other successful practices like Adler’s, and how they keep clients happy and run their firm in general. He also notes that although he doesn’t do TV advertising, he still spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on marketing to his referral partners.

Both Adler and Michael reflect on the importance of treating people with respect and dignity, even down to the importance of returning a phone call. The 45 seconds you take to let someone know you received their call and you are looking into their question or concern, can have a dramatic impact on the attorney/client relationship, even if just to tell them that you are in trial and will get back to them as soon as possible. Adler also goes a step further to ask for referrals when a case concludes and to remind their clients of all the different cases they handle.

The conversation certainly would have been remiss if Michael hadn’t brought up the obvious question – How did you come up with the name “The Texas Hammer?” Adler explains that it was Hayden Bramleigh, from the lawyer marketing service, who first suggested to him that he needed a trademark, similar to how every big brand has a trademark. Moreover, “The Texas Hammer” went through some evolution of its own through various focus groups and seeing how people around the country responded to the name being associated with other lawyers in different states. Admittedly, although some people might not know Adler’s name, they can still associate him with “The Texas Hammer” which is still an effective marketing tactic for him. Adler also points out that it’s been a long road, fighting battles with others who don’t agree with legal advertising, which oddly enough, he points out, tend to be other lawyers and not the end consumer.

The conversation with Adler goes on to talk about his strategies on developing lawyers in his firm, the tests they give to new lawyers joining their firm, transparency in reporting to the firm on settlements and new cases, professional training they’ve developed, the resources they use for case management, getting over the fear of public speaking, and so much more. The organization that Adler has built over the years is nothing less than astounding and we are so appreciative of the time he spent with us on this episode.

 

BACKGROUND ON JIM ADLER

Famously known as “The Texas Hammer,” injury lawyer Jim Adler has been hammering for victims for over 40 years, championing “the little guy” against big corporations and big insurance companies which would deny their legal rights.

That mission is why he launched his own law firm in 1973 with a one-man office in downtown Houston. Today, Jim Adler & Associates has offices in Houston’s Uptown/Galleria area, Channelview, Dallas, and San Antonio, with two dozen attorneys and more than 250 legal support staff. They share Jim Adler’s mission of helping injured Texans get the money they deserve from those who were at fault.

 

Family Man, Giving Back

You may know Jim Adler only from his media appearances and tough-talking TV ads. But he’s more than that. He’s also a family man who loves children and devotes much time and his firm’s resources to children’s charity causes.

In 2009, former Houston Mayor Bill White appointed Jim Adler to the Board of Directors of the Joint City/County Commission on Children, recognizing his lifelong devotion to helping children.

“I believe we all should give back to our communities,” said Adler, a Dallas native who speaks fluent Spanish. “I believe in helping people and doing good works.”

In fact, unlike his fierce TV image, Jim Adler is “a people person. I enjoy being around people from all walks of life. I love the joy of life – of just being alive.”

He’s also even more active than his busy legal work suggests.

“I love to sweat,” says the avid tennis player, snow skier, jogger and golfer. “I love sports of all kinds, and I work out five or six days a week — 30 minutes of cardio and 30 minutes of weightlifting. I’m also really big on nutrition and watching what I eat.”

Boosted by this commitment to health, he has no plans to retire — even now that son Bill Adler has joined the firm as an attorney.

 

Son at His Side

“Having my son at my side at the firm is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Jim Adler says. “He’ll ensure that all the work I’ve put in over the years and the family’s tradition of serving underdogs will continue.”

That family includes Jim Adler’s wife of 38 years, their four children and their five grandchildren.

Bill Adler was raised in Houston, but Jim Adler was raised in Dallas. He went to Austin to earn his undergraduate degree from the University of Texas, followed by his law degree from the UT School of Law.

He then served in the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy and was appointed a judge for the Office of Civilian Health and Medical Programs United Services (OCHAMPUS), adjudicating health and medical disputes for Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine personnel. He then launched his law practice in Houston, home of his principal office today.

Jim Adler was admitted to practice law by the Supreme Court of Texas and is licensed to practice in the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Fifth Circuit and U.S. District Courts for the Southern, Eastern, Northern and Western Districts of Texas.

He is a member of the State Bar of Texas, Houston Bar Association, Texas Bar Foundation, Dallas Trial Lawyers Association, Dallas Bar Association, American Bar Association, and American Trial Lawyers Association.

He’s also a director of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and the Houston Trial Lawyers Association.

As a passionate advocate for injury victims, Jim Adler has handled lawsuits involving auto accidents, trucking accidents, offshore accidents, Jones Act cases, refinery accidents, construction injuries, burn injuries, brain injuries, on-the-job accidents, slip-and-fall cases, railroad accidents, electrical accidents and many other types of personal injury.

Getting payments for victims can be a battle. But Jim Adler became a lawyer to fight those battles.

“I always had a desire to help underdogs, the little guy, against big corporations and big insurance companies, and to level the playing field for accident victims,” he says.

 

Charitable Works

Jim Adler’s good works also include many charitable causes. He’s contributed to the American Cancer Society, Armed Forces Relief Trust, Association for Community Television, Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Disorders, Arthritis Foundation, American Heart Association, American Health Assistance Foundation, Special Olympics, Child Advocates of Fort Bend County, The Center for Hearing & Speech, Covenant House, Easter Seals Society and Galena Park Choir Boosters.

Still more of his causes include the Habitat for Humanity, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Federation of Greater Houston, Guild for the Blind, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, March of Dimes, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Multiple Sclerosis Society, Primera Rosa De Saron, Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Texas Bar Foundation, Texas Children’s Hospital, US Olympic Committee, University of Texas Law School Foundation and UTMB Burn Care Research.

“I wish there were more hours in the day,” says Jim Adler. “I always want to do more.”

“Basically I believe in doing good works. Seeing families whose child was injured by an 18-wheeler or a defective drug puts me in a fighting mode. My good works then are about helping them recover financially. Those good works are my life’s mission.”

Thus, after decades of fighting for justice, Jim Adler is still on the case, helping those who need it the most. As thousands of injured Texans have learned when he fought for their legal rights, there’s only one “Texas Hammer.”

26 – Jack Zinda – Success by Design

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In this episode of Trial Lawyer Nation, Michael Cowen sits down with an accomplished trial attorney, Jack Zinda, for an inside look at his bustling personal injury law practice. Built from the ground up in a county where seemingly no one wanted to start a law office because the juries are so conservative, Jack has built his practice up to include 3 offices with 63 people on his team, 23 of which are lawyers.

Jack’s humble beginnings working in his father’s restaurant washing dishes and waiting tables, contributed to him becoming a great trial lawyer by teaching him to learn how to talk to people, which he says was “great training.” Michael admits that he actually looks for “waiting tables” on the resumes of his potential lawyers as he understands that such experience comes with being able to deal with people, even when they are being unreasonable, among other reasons.

As they dig in deeper to Jack’s practice, he directly correlates the growth of business to an exercise he did after reading the book “The E Myth” where he laid out a plan for where he wanted his firm to be in the future and worked backward from there in order to develop a plan of action. He also made sure to account for his core values and not giving up practicing law seeing as one of his top motivators for getting into Personal Injury law was to help people, and he never wanted to lose that. Michael and Jack also talk through their views regarding the use of consultants and how egos sometimes get in the way of success in this industry. Jack makes it extremely clear that “none of what [he’s] done is original” and that he’s simply taken what he has learned from others and built upon it to become successful. It also, from Jack’s perspective, comes down to the systems that get put in place and following them consistently; an example being that each lawyer in his firm is highly encouraged to attend two networking events per week in order to continue to build relationships.

As Jack reflects on the continued growth of his practice over the years, one of the most important decisions he discovered was who he hired to work at his firm. To prove his point, he describes the scenario where if you hire the most brilliant and amazing people to work for you in every aspect of your business and you have poor systems in place, chances are that you will likely still be successful. Whereas, even if you have the most robust and well-oiled systems in place, if you hire people who are unmotivated and don’t want to work hard, you are likely to fail. He goes on to say that even experience can be overrated when looking to hire someone. At the core, when looking to add people to your organization, people need to be hungry and driven, they need to be smart and organized, and they need to be hard working. Michael and Jack also talk through their hiring processes to get the “right people” into their firm. Surprisingly, the interview has very little to do with it and sometimes… neither does a candidate’s aspirations of working with your firm!

The conversation shifts to internal systems where Jack has gone so far as to hire a developer to create their case management system to his specifications. And not only has he found it to be a great way to customize his practice to run the way he wants it to but also works as a great training tool for everyone in his firm, even the most seasoned attorneys. Jack points out that even the simplest of things go into the firm’s checklists and procedures such as “read the local rules,” which, as easy as that might sound, he points out that it can be vital when working in as many jurisdictions as his firm does. Jack has also raised the bar on training and development within his firm by creating a position that solely focuses on it. Listening to Jack’s description of how he came up with and implemented this position is likely to deliver shock and awe to anyone who runs a firm, as it did for Michael during this podcast.

Michael wraps up the podcast with the question that is likely on everyone’s mind – How much of a “life” do you get to have, running a firm of this size and as successful as yours? Jack boils it down to really deciding what success means to you, first and foremost. What do you want to get out of the practice (note the sentiment of beginning with the end in mind)?  Jack explains that he sets hard and fast rules on family time and personal time and has become VERY intentional about it, down to the alarm on his phone that goes off at 6 pm that reminds him to “go home.” Michael points out that there is also a difference between being in the room with your kids and being present with your kids. Jack goes on to describe how he turns off his phone when he gets home and puts it in a drawer, making it harder for him to somehow “find” it back in his hands, IE: working when he shouldn’t. “Willpower is overrated. I think you’ve got to set yourself up for success by setting the atmosphere to do what you want to do in order to be successful,” which is certainly a great mantra for us all to take away from this conversation with Jack.

 

John C. (Jack) Zinda is the founder and senior trial lawyer at Zinda Law Group.

Jack has served as lead attorney on a wide range of complex catastrophic injury cases across the United States, including:

  • Fire death cases
  • Gas explosions
  • Wrongful deaths
  • Governmental torts, including wrongful death cases caused by law enforcement
  • Federal tort claims act cases
  • Traumatic brain injury cases
  • Commercial litigation
  • Motor vehicle collisions
  • Premises liability
  • Interstate 18-wheeler collisions
  • Product liability

As a trial attorney, Jack takes tremendous pride in giving a voice to individuals and families who need help battling Fortune 500 companies and large insurance conglomerates. His firm balances aggression with a strategy to maximize the outcome for clients, and every case is handled with a focus on getting ready for trial. He also knows the importance of communicating with his clients and ensures that they are part of the process. He is dedicated to always putting the needs of his clients first.

A native Texan, Jack graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business and political science from Southwestern University, where he distinguished himself as president of the Interfraternal Council and as a member of the Student Congress, the Student Judiciary, Phi Delta Theta, and the Pirates basketball team.

Jack went on to earn his Juris Doctorate from the prestigious Baylor University School of Law, which is perennially ranked as one of the top law schools for trial advocacy in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. While there, he was one of the finalists in the Bob and Karen Wortham Practice Court Competition.

Over the years, Jack has earned a reputation as a thought leader in the legal industry, and he has been featured as a speaker for numerous groups across the country, including the Brain Injury Association of Texas, the Williamson County Bar Association, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Jack has also benefited his professional community through leadership positions in a variety of legal organizations. He has served as president of the Capital Area Trial Lawyers Association, as a member of the board of directors of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, and as a member of the American Association for Justice, the Texas Bar Association, the Austin Bar Association, and WCBA. He is also involved with a number of consumer advocacy organizations.

25 – Sonia Rodriguez – Defeating Defense Medical Experts

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In this episode of Trial Lawyer Nation, Michael Cowen sits down with Cowen | Rodriguez | Peacock partner, Sonia Rodriguez, for another installment of TLN Table Talk to answer the questions of our listeners. This episode focuses on defense medical “experts,” or as Michael calls them, “paid opinion witnesses.”

Michael calls this spade a spade right from the get-go, in that the title of “defense medical experts” is a sham. Many times, he says, they are called “independent experts” when they are neither independent nor an expert, not to mention the fact that they are hand-picked by defense lawyers who pay them for their testimony. Michael believes it is a huge fraud being perpetrated on our clients, on the jury, and on the court system. He says, typically “we know what their report is going to say once we hear their name,” further exemplifying this flaw in the system.

So, Michael asks, “what do we do to expose this and show the jurors the truth?” Sonia believes it is critical we expose the relationships experts have with the lawyers who hired them, how often they’ve been used by that firm or the defense industry, as well as how much money they make from that business. She also uncovers what percentage of their business is spent on reviewing files for defense lawyers vs. practicing medicine, in some cases. All of which can go a long way in revealing these witnesses for what they really are, which is “paid opinion witnesses.” Michael also explains how he doesn’t like to even use the word “expert,” which gives them the mantle of that title. He goes on to discuss the harsh reality and his distain for medical professionals who misuse their degrees to go against the very oath they have taken to “do no harm,” while we represent legitimately injured clients, and they do it for money! They both agree how uncovering the financial ties and bias of these witnesses also says a lot about them because they could likely be making much more money by seeing patients, but instead are reviewing cases for a defense lawyer. Michael also talks through a real example of what he’s run into on how these medical witnesses come to find themselves making money in this way and how their path toward testifying can ironically parallel his client’s paths.

Michael and Sonia share a plethora of examples regarding their tactics on utilizing depositions, both past and present, to build their cases, ranging from networking with other attorneys and medical professionals to leveraging amazon.com in the middle of a deposition. Sonia explains how you cannot go into a deposition with a broad brush, but rather be laser-focused and able to drill down on even a single word, in some cases, to make your entire case. And to sum things up, Michael talks through the very polarizing two ends of the spectrum his preparations take him with defense medical experts, where they are likely to either be way “off the deep end” and obviously working as a paid witness, or he will focus his energies on essentially turning them to help his case. The strategies they both describe are pure methodical genius.

The conversation shifts to talk specifically about the tone and demeanor both Michael and Sonia use when deposing paid medical witnesses. They both agree the tone and demeaner you use in a paid medical witness deposition is extremely important, as it will likely be replayed for the jury at some point and jurors will also be watching to see how you handle yourself in this situation, the same way they do in the courtroom. We, as plaintiff attorneys, also need to be cognizant of how we are approaching the deposition so it leads the jury to come to their own conclusions regarding the credibility of the paid medical witness and their testimony. It also becomes reflective for the jury to feel the danger themselves of allowing these paid medical witnesses to get away with using their titles as a form of “expertness” in exchange for being paid by the defense. In other words, if we just “rip into them” it will likely backfire on us and not work at all in our favor. Not to mention, Sonia adds, that today’s juries are tired of the theatrics and enthusiastic approach of some lawyers, where the days of yelling and pounding your fist on the table are now long gone.

All in all, this Table Talk with Michael and Sonia was thorough and filled with an enormous number of real examples from their experiences over the years. As a trial lawyer, you will likely run into paid medical witnesses in trials often, and this table talk could be the one thing that prepares you most for success.

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