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65 – Malorie Peacock – Lessons from a Virtual Seminar: Successful Applications in a Courtroom and Online

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael talks with his law partner Malorie Peacock to discuss his recent virtual seminar, Cowen’s Big Rig Boot Camp. They draw parallels between the seminar and the courtroom, including utilizing camera angles through Zoom, energy management, and how to use slides and graphics effectively. Michael also shares a sneak peek inside his upcoming Trial Guides book on trucking law.

The episode begins with a brief overview of what Cowen’s Big Rig Boot Camp looked like in 2020. While it remained a 6-hour trucking seminar, it was done entirely virtually. Michael describes the multitude of tactics he used to keep the audience engaged, which included celebrity appearances and surprising attendees with actor and comedian David Koechner live.

He notes one of the biggest engagement factors was the use of multiple camera angles and a professional AV crew. Through this, he was able to stand for the presentation and use hand gestures naturally. Malorie and Michael draw parallels between this and a Zoom hearing or trial and agree they’d like to find a way to stand while conducting Zoom hearings. Michael goes as far as to say he’d like to set up a Zoom “studio” in the office in the future, and says he would even hire a professional AV crew again if he had a very big hearing or a virtual trial.

Malorie comments on how surprised she was that utilizing multiple camera angles made such a big difference in the presentation engagement. Michael agrees, and explains how he first heard of this concept from Mark Lanier who utilizes a 3-camera setup for his depositions. When showing depo footage in trial, Lanier will only show the same camera angle for 7 seconds. (This is how they do it in the news media to keep the audience engaged.) If virtual trials move forward, these concepts will all need to be considered to effectively produce a dynamic virtual experience which holds the jurors’ attention.

Malorie then asks Michael a question which must be on everyone’s mind, how did you keep your energy up for 6 ½ straight hours of speaking to a camera without a live audience? Michael notes how similar this was to presenting in a courtroom – you can be absolutely exhausted, but as soon as you step in the room, “you’re on.” He also explains how you can’t be high energy the entire time without coming off frantic and stressing your audience out. The key is to have a range of highs and lows, which serves to conserve your energy and make the highs more impactful.

This type of energy management has taken Michael years to master, and he shares an insightful story from a trial 15 years ago where he learned an important lesson – even if you can’t say everything you want to, you need to slow down and make it about the listener.

Michael goes on to explain his mindset change through the teachings of Carl Bettinger in the book “Twelve Heroes, One Voice.” He used to think it was his job to win the case, but now he knows that’s the jury’s job. And by incorporating this mindset, it’s abundantly clear that the jury deeply understanding the case is much more important than you saying everything you want to say. Malorie then describes her own journey through this, when she was told she speaks very loudly when she’s telling a story she’s passionate about. She realized this comes off as abrasive when the jury isn’t there with her yet and has worked to consciously change this.

Another strategy Michael used to manage his energy during the presentation was the strategic use of PowerPoint slides. He incorporated a variety of both “busy” slides filled with information and simple slides with just a topic or phrase. While presenting the information dense slides, he could be lower energy. But when there was a simple slide, he knew he had to be high energy to carry that portion of the presentation.

This leads Michael and Malorie to discuss the larger applicability of these tactics in the courtroom. When presenting in trial, Michael utilizes completely blank slides in his PowerPoints when he wants the jury to be focused on him. While they both agree more visuals will be necessary in a virtual trial, they recognize the need to incorporate film professionals to make those visuals effective.

On the topic of visuals, they shift to the role of graphics in the courtroom. Michael and Malorie agree that often a simpler graphic is much more effective than an intricate, expensive graphic from a courtroom exhibit company. Michael sums this up perfectly by stating, “If we have to explain the graphic, then we’re losing them.” He’s enjoyed working with his firm’s own graphic artist, and also recommends looking at Upwork and hiring an artist on a contract basis. Malorie adds you can even create some very effective graphics yourself in PowerPoint without spending a dime. This all boils down to the fact that you can’t win a complex case, and while intricate and expensive graphics certainly have their place in the courtroom, they are often overused and frankly a waste of money.

Malorie then shifts the conversation to a discussion of Michael’s upcoming book on trucking law, which Michael previewed during the virtual seminar. One of the major aspects of his research focused on electronic logs for truck drivers, and how they cheat on them. Michael explains how even though truck drivers are allowed to work up to 70 hours a week already, they spend so much time on unpaid activities (deliveries, loading, inspections, etc) they need to cheat in order to make a decent living. Trucking companies have been recommended to pay by the hour or a salary, but they almost always choose to pay their drivers by the mile because it’s better for the company economically.

Michael then describes numerous ways these drivers cheat their logs, including driving on “personal conveyance” time, creating a “phantom driver,” and more which are so intricate they need to be heard to be believed.

Michael and Malorie wrap up the episode with some terrifying facts. Michael spent some time researching drug testing protocols for truck drivers, where he was very disappointed by the current system. Through a plethora of methods, drivers successfully cheat on urine tests and stay on the road. One study indicated as many as 310,000 truck drivers on the road today would fail a hair follicle drug test if given one, to which Malorie replies, “What if that number was commercial airline pilots? People don’t think that way, but they should. These things are huge.”

This podcast also covers Sari de la Motte’s teachings, courtroom models and exhibits, how to catch a truck driver who cheated on their electronic logs, raising the minimum insurance limits for trucking companies, and so much more.

If you’d like to attend Cowen’s Big Rig Boot Camp in 2021 in person or virtually, visit www.BigRigBootCamp.com for live updates.

63 – Sonia Rodriguez – “You Got Me”: Discrediting Defense Paid Opinion Witnesses

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his law partner Sonia Rodriguez for an overview of deconstructing defense-paid opinion witnesses. They highlight many of their favorite strategies to use when dealing with a witness who won’t answer your questions, their favorite unexpected “gifts” from witnesses, and the importance of why someone becomes a defense-paid opinion witness in the first place. This episode is full of shocking real-life examples you don’t want to miss.

Michael begins the episode by highlighting the defense strategy to hire someone to discredit their client. He asks Sonia, “What do you do to deal with this?” Sonia describes the first action she takes, which is reviewing what organizations they show they are affiliated with on their CV (curriculum vitae). Most professional organizations have ethical guidelines which these witnesses must abide by. She’s found success in displaying these guidelines to the witness during the deposition and using them to prevent the witness from stating biased information.

Michael then describes the common narrative these witnesses all portray which every plaintiff attorney listening is sure to relate to. Any injury from the crash goes away in 6-12 weeks, but any injury from 10 years ago is most certainly the cause of everything today, even if they haven’t been to a doctor for it in 9 years. Sonia has combatted this in medical witnesses by focusing heavily on the client’s description of pain. Most doctors will admit that the patient’s description of pain is a very important part of the diagnosis. She uses this information to put the witness in a position of saying, “the records aren’t adequate,” which does not play well with the jury.

The conversation then shifts to the difficult but highly effective strategy of turning the defense paid opinion witness into your witness. Sonia explains why this is so difficult to do successfully, but has maneuvered these difficulties by focusing her depos on what she knows she can get from them. She shares an example of this where she was able to build up the witness’s credibility, then use it to get some simple, clear concessions.

On the other hand, Michael says his primary goal in every defense paid opinion witness depo is to make them his witness. Instead of fighting with them in an area where he does not have credibility, he spends his time researching the witness, reading prior depositions, and trying to find what they will give you based off those prior experiences.

Michael elaborates further on the importance of reading past testimonies by sharing a shocking example with a biomechanical engineer who claimed his client could not possibly have a herniated disc from the crash. Before trial, Michael read several of his previous depositions and went through all of the literature the witness cited in the case. He then shares an example of how he used those prior depos to discredit the witness, how his voir dire helped him do this while also relating to the jury, and why reading the literature can help your case.

Sonia wholeheartedly agrees and gives her real world experience using the literature to your advantage. She shares an example where a neurosurgeon used a study about the prevalence of herniated discs to claim her client’s pain wasn’t caused by the crash. After reading the article, Sonia found that it only referred to a specific type of herniated disc, which was not the type her client had. After revealing this, all the witness could say was, “You got me.”

Another all too familiar roadblock is the witness who just won’t answer your questions. While Sonia and Michael both agree this will always be a barrier, they both share insightful techniques on how you can overcome this. Sonia does this by always recording the testimony, so she can show the jury the witness was refusing to cooperate or concede to basic things. Michael then offers another strategy he employs with uncooperative witnesses – using basic, fair questions in a true or false format. While you may still need to ask the same question 10 times to get a response, you can always cut out the first 9 asks. The key to this is to never appear mad or frustrated because it doesn’t present well to the jury. Sonia agrees with this strategy and points out how well-suited it is for a Zoom deposition.

On a lighter note, Michael and Sonia share their favorite unexpected “gifts” they’ve received from paid opinion witnesses. Sonia details her experience of utilizing past testimony to prove an orthopedic surgeon was simply touting lies for money and highlights the importance of sharing information with other members of the plaintiff’s bar. Michael’s favorite “gift” was an ex-sheriff providing testimony on a drunk driving case, who made an incredibly racist statement in his deposition. The judge insisted the case not be made about race, which Michael had no issuing agreeing to. But when Michael asked the sheriff the same question at trial (assuming the witness had been prepped not to make the same mistake), he made the SAME racist statement he made in the deposition.

While these unexpected “gifts” are a huge blessing, they’re hard to come by on most cases. Sonia and Michael conclude the conversation by exploring why people become paid opinion witnesses in the first place. He accurately states, “This isn’t why people want to become doctors or engineers.” Michael explains how many of them either just weren’t good at their jobs or experienced an injury that rendered them unable to perform surgery.

This podcast also covers using before and after witnesses, focusing on the symptoms instead of the diagnosis, whether or not to “go in for the kill” in a deposition, verifying the qualifications of a witness, and so much more.

61 – Malorie Peacock – Elite Litigation: Strategies to Maximize the Value of Every Case

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael is joined by his law partner Malorie Peacock for a discussion of strategies they use to maximize the value of every case. They cover steps to take when you first get a case, storyboarding, gathering evidence, conducting a targeted discovery, the benefits of spending 3+ uninterrupted hours on a case, and so much more.

Michael and Malorie start off the episode with a conversation about what you should do when you first get a case to end up with the maximum value. They both agree you need to conduct a thorough investigation right away. Michael describes how he used to believe if he spent money on a case, he had to get a settlement out of it and get his money back. He would spend $20,000 to investigate and find out it was a tough liability theory but still file the lawsuit, do a ton of work, and spend even more money just to end up with a reduced settlement value and an unhappy client. He has since learned to write off these cases so he can spend his time and money on a case with potential for a better outcome. Malorie then explains how you can research the case yourself if you really don’t want to spend money early on, but Michael and Malorie both agree it’s best to hire an expert as soon as possible.

The discussion shifts to the topic of storyboarding early on in a case. Malorie explains how you plan out exactly how you want things to unfold, but you don’t need all the information right away to plan for a deposition. She describes her highly effective outlining strategy of placing information into “buckets” based on what she needs to talk to each of the witnesses about, constantly asking herself, “What do I really need? What makes this impactful for a jury or not?”

Michael then urges listeners not to appear nitpicky to the jury by bringing up non-causal violations. He shares an example of a different lawyer’s case with a truck driver who did not know any English. While truck drivers are required to speak enough English to understand road signs, the crash had nothing to do with this. That is, until they dug deeper and discovered a massive, shocking flaw in the trucking company’s training procedures.

While many of these strategies can be effective in making the case about the company and maximizing case value, Malorie emphasizes how you can’t ignore what happened in the crash. If it’s the worst company in the world but they had nothing to do with the crash, it doesn’t matter. Michael argues you should always try to make it a systems failure, but if you investigate and there is no credible story, you need to change course. They then discuss other places to look for systems failures which are often overlooked, including the company’s post-crash conduct. Finding these creative case stories and being willing to change course if you find a better story are key to maximizing case value.

Malorie brings up that there are lots of places to gather evidence, many of which are often overlooked. Michael urges listeners to go out to the crash site and walk around, look for cameras, and talk to people whenever possible. He also sees Freedom of Information Act requests as a valuable asset in any case involving an industry with regulations. You can see more than just past crashes, audits, and violations. He explains how sometimes you will see a trucking company who earned the highest score in a safety audit because they promised to fix the issues they had, which they never fixed. Malorie accurately replies, “That sounds like gross negligence.” They both discuss other types of companies who break promises often, and how showcasing this can be a valuable tool in showing the jury this company didn’t just make one mistake, they purposefully lied and tried to cover it up.

Michael and Malorie then discuss how they conduct a targeted and specific discovery. Michael shares how forms can be useful, but adds that you need to look at the issues in your case and adjust those forms accordingly. He describes his strategy of conducting a root cause analysis to dig deep into the reasons a crash may have occurred, a strategy which is incredibly useful for any plaintiff’s attorney. Michael and Malorie then agree on the importance of reviewing depo notes immediately after the depo is concluded and share a useful practice tip to make this process more efficient. After reviewing depo notes, Malorie highlights that many attorneys are hesitant to send a request for production for just one document. She disagrees with this thought process and has found doing this shows opposing counsel you know what you are doing and can even put you in favor with the judge.

Malorie then asks Michael to elaborate on a strategy they use at their firm based off the book “The 4 Disciplines of Execution”, where you block out a 3-hour window of time each week to brainstorm on a case. Michael explains how this time does not include depo prep, discovery, or other “defensive” items, but is meant to be spent “playing offense.” Attorneys are directed to do something to purposely move the case towards resolution and increase the value of that resolution. Michael then emphasizes the importance of these being three uninterrupted hours, because “It takes time for things to gel.” If you spend 30 minutes, 6 times in one week on the case, you have to refresh your memory of all the documents and details, and never dive deep into the critical thinking this activity is meant to promote. This is why Malorie spends the first part of her time reviewing every important document in the case, and inevitably this process leads her to ask questions and explore the answers. She urges listeners to not be intimidated by this process, and notes you don’t need to have a specific goal in mind besides to understand the case better and seek answers to the question, “What is this case about?”

Another strategy they use at their firm is “Workdays.” This is where they gather 3-6 people, including both attorneys and non-attorneys, to spend an entire day working through one case together. Malorie emphasizes the importance of everybody participating and being committed to spending this time on the case at hand. This doesn’t work if people come and go or try to discuss a different case. Michael adds that you don’t need an 8-attorney firm to do this. He’s found success in scheduling once-a-month lunches with peers and implementing a similar strategy.

Malorie has also found utilizing focus groups early-on in the case to be critical in understanding juror perceptions about the immediate facts of a case. Michael agrees this strategy can provide valuable insight into the direction you should take a case story, what questions you need to answer and how your client and experts appear to jurors. They then discuss a time they hosted a focus group where only three people attended, which shockingly ended up being one of the most useful focus groups of the entire case.

To wrap up the episode, Malorie notes “You’re not maximizing the value of a case by wasting time on it.” Michael urges listeners to look at each case individually and carefully, then triage it. Some cases are just not great, whether it be because of tough liability, a great recovery, or a client who presents poorly. Malorie aptly concludes by saying, “Maximizing value doesn’t mean getting $20 million on every case… It’s about allocating your time and resources carefully.”

59 – Malorie Peacock – Discover Your “Why”: Committing to Organizational Health

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his law partner Malorie Peacock. They discuss their recent “deep dive” 2-day management retreat, the organizational health of your law firm, Zoom jury trials, and implications of the shut down on future business.

The episode begins with a review of their firm’s recent 2-day management retreat, which was a “deep dive” into their firm’s core values, focus, and goals based off the book “The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business” by Patrick Lencioni. The retreat starts off with a seemingly simple question: Why does our law firm exist? Michael admits he was worried everyone would think the idea was “hokey,” but Malorie insists she was surprised at how complex the question really was. Michael, Malorie, and the rest of their management team spent significant time reflecting on this and decided their firm’s purpose is to “provide a ‘Special Forces’ level of representation to people who are hurt.” Michael recognizes this as an extremely high aspirational standard (which is why he hesitated at first to share) and sees this as their goal for the firm.

After deciding the firm’s purpose, their team was tasked with choosing the firm’s core values. Both Michael and Malorie emphasize the importance of choosing values you will embrace and commit to. As an example, Michael highlights the common PI lawyer core value of safety. He asks, “What do you do when you get a 5 million dollar offer without a safety change, or 1 million dollars with a safety change?” If the firm’s core value is safety, they should take the lower offer. Malorie echoes this sentiment and adds that PI lawyers face a lot of backlash from society, so they tend to overcompensate by expressing an unrealistic emphasis on safety over getting justice for their clients. The key is choosing values that truly represent your firm and its goals.

On the note of goal setting, Michael explains the importance of choosing one large goal and sticking to it. Citing Gary W. Keller’s book “The One Thing,” Michael reflects on past experiences of having lots of great ideas, but something would always come up and they would be forgotten. By choosing the one area which adds the most “bang” to your law firm, you can truly focus on that area and strive towards your goal every day. This strategy requires buy-in and personal work from every attorney at your firm, but when achieved is very effective.

Michael and Malorie then reflect on the implications of states re-opening and how it affects their ability to conduct legal work remotely. Malorie has already had opposing counsel insist on doing things in person again, but worries about what she’ll do down the line if the court forces her high-risk client to have an in-person deposition. Michael shares these concerns, stating “eventually I’ll be ordered to do something I’m not comfortable doing.”

As they switch to the topic of Zoom jury trials, Michael is quick to share his hesitance towards the idea. His concerns include a lack of nonverbal communication, distractions, a loss of group dynamics, and the inability to obtain a representative jury pool by excluding citizens without adequate internet or access to childcare. He does add that online focus groups have shown the numbers aren’t very different from in-person jury trials, but he would like to see more research before committing to one. Malorie also notes an interesting difference between an in-person trial and a virtual trial. In a virtual trial you have to sit in the same place for the entirety of the case, which means you can’t have witnesses act things out, do demonstrations, or have multiple ways of showing people information. This makes it more difficult to keep the attention of the jury. Michael and Malorie end this discussion by agreeing if this goes on for years, they will eventually have to adapt. And Michael ends by agreeing to try a jury trial case via Zoom with a podcast fan, an offer you’ll have to tune in to hear all of the details.

They finish off this episode with a conversation about future business implications because of this shut down. Malorie has noticed more people on the roads recently and only anticipates a 3-4 month lull in new cases, but believes it will pick back up quickly. Michael agrees and adds that people are getting stir crazy, and driving more recklessly than before, stating “gear up and get ready.” With that being said, Michael and Malorie encourage scrutiny when deciding what cases to invest in right now. Malorie believes small insurance companies may be less willing to pay out claims, and Michael is being very cautious with cases involving a risk retention group or a self-insured company. Many are currently teetering on insolvency and may not be able to pay out claims.

This podcast also covers answering legal questions for friends, “Zoom fatigue,” time management, return-to-office prep, and more.

 

 

 

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.

 

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