professor

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

62 – John Campbell – The Empirical Jury: Big Data with Big Results

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael is joined by attorney, law professor, and founder of Empirical Jury, John Campbell. They sit down for a conversation about big data for trial lawyers, what John’s company “Empirical Jury” does, legal “urban legends” and their validity (or lack thereof), the most interesting findings he has discovered working on specific cases, and an in-depth look at the effects of COVID-19 on jury attitudes.

The episode starts off with Michael asking John how he got into the field of jury research. John describes his path of starting out as a teacher and deciding to go back to school to become a lawyer. He then joined Denver Law School as a professor studying tort reform in an academic setting, founded the Denver Empirical Justice Institute, and discovered his passion for big data. There, he studied civil justice issues and how jurors behave, but wondered if he could apply scientific methods and big data to law based on an individual case. Basically, he wanted to know what would happen if he had 400 people look at a case instead of the traditional 10-15 people you get with a focus group.

Thus, Empirical Jury was born. John describes the process as working like a “gig economy.” He will share an ad along the lines of, “be a mock juror and get paid to do it,” and is able to recruit hundreds of workers in one day. The work is all done online in their own time, and costs much less per juror than a traditional focus group. With numbers like that, Michael asks what everyone must be thinking – how representative can your jury pool be? Are the respondents all underemployed young people? John says it’s more representative than you’d think. He explains how many people take online surveys for fun, like playing Sudoku. His participants range between 18-80 years old, very conservative to very liberal, and typically earn up to $150,000 a year.

Michael then inquires about the many “urban legends” of law applied to jurors, specifically are any of them true? The short answer is no, but John dives into some surprising details. The moral of the story is to avoid stereotyping based on factors like race or gender, but to instead focus heavily on their responses to bias questions. A juror who believes the burden of proof is too low for the plaintiff’s lawyer being placed on the jury can have detrimental effects on the outcome of the case.

John goes on to share some of his most interesting findings. The first addresses the idea that if you ask for more, you get more. He has found this to be true based on the anchoring principle, with an interesting caveat – the amount you ask for directly affects liability. Typically, the liability climbs the more you ask for until you hit “the cliff.” He shares a shocking example of this in practice and concludes with, “You’re your own damage cap.”

The conversation shifts to the highly debated topic of COVID-19 and its effects on jury attitudes. John has conducted extensive research on this topic, including a survey of 1,500 jurors asking questions about COVID-19 and trial options. He lists a number of shocking statistics and concludes that to seat a jury today you would have to account for a loss of 50% of jurors before asking a single voir dire question not related to COVID-19. Knowing this information, another vital question remains – do the remaining 50% of jurors skew towards the defense or the plaintiff? John explains how the answer is more complicated than most people think, but goes on to share some in-depth findings which have huge implications for the future of jury trials.

John continues by describing another study he conducted where he asked 1,200 jurors how they would prefer to participate in a jury, including a variety of in-person and virtual options. The respondents had a surprising favorite – the option to watch the case via video recording from home, on their own time. While this may sound far-fetched, John describes a series of strategies which could be used to make this a success.

With virtual trials becoming a new possibility, many plaintiff’s lawyers are wondering if a jury can award a big damage verdict without attending the trial in person. With an absence of body language or eye contact, will damages decrease? John doesn’t think so. He cites multiple studies he has conducted in the past where he’s been able to predict huge verdicts within 10% of the actual verdict. He believes if you show jurors real evidence such as day in the life videos, jurors take that seriously and award damages accordingly. He compares this to watching a movie and crying, to which Michael adds, “You just have to change the presentation.” Michael and John both agree that lawyers may have to go to trial this year whether they want to or not, and they reflect on the best strategies lawyers who face this should take.

Another concern commonly noted by plaintiff’s lawyers faced with the possibility of a trial in the era of COVID-19 is if jurors are forced to attend court in person, do they blame the plaintiff because they filed the lawsuit? While some early research indicated they may, John has not found this to be true. His research showed jurors blame the plaintiff and the defense in equal numbers, but the most common answer was, “I don’t blame anyone. I understand this has to happen.” John summarizes the COVID-19 effect on jurors by stating, “While there are some effects on who will show up for jury duty, what we don’t see is a blame for the plaintiff’s attorney.”

This podcast also covers the role of traditional focus groups, using instincts in trial, jury consultant costs, the Fusion Effect, jury attitudes towards medical malpractice cases, how to test if online jurors are paying attention and if their responses should be accepted, what the defense already does with big data, and so much more.

If you’d like to work with John Campbell on a case or would like to learn more about Empirical Jury, you can visit their website at www.empiricaljury.com or email John directly at john@empiricaljury.com.

Click here to view the COVID-19 research PDF John mentions on the show.

 

Bio:

John Campbell, JD is a trial and appellate lawyer turned law professor turned jury researcher.

John trained as a trial lawyer under John Simon, a member of the Inner Circle of Advocates, and then went on to become a successful consumer attorney.  John’s verdicts and settlements exceed $350 million.  John has also handled appeals in the Eighth, Second, Tenth, and Fourth Circuit, as well as the United States Supreme Court and a variety of state courts.  Most recently, John served as lead counsel in a series of class actions against municipalities, including Ferguson, Missouri, who engaged in policing for profit.  The cases led to the eradication of many predatory fees targeted at minorities and the working poor.   John remains a member of Campbell Law LLC.

For eight years John served as a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.  While there, he founded the Civil Justice Research Initiative, dedicated to better understanding jury behavior through rigorous empirical research.  He continues to run CJRI at the University of Denver and teaches as an adjunct professor.

John’s academic work led to demand for him to study individual cases for plaintiff attorneys.  He ultimately founded Empirical Jury.  In only a few years, Empirical Jury has emerged as a cutting-edge firm that uses big data and scientific approaches to equip attorneys to obtain the best result possible for clients.  Empirical Jury has been involved in verdicts in excess of $550 million and is routinely called on to analyze some of the most complex consequential cases in the country.

During the Covid-19 era, Empirical Jury is also leading the way on understanding the Covid Effect through careful data gathering and analysis.  To date, Empirical Jury has surveyed over 1,200 jurors on topics relating to Covid-19, virtual trials, and jury duty.

 

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