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99 – Sonia Rodriguez – The Pursuit of Happiness: Building the Attorney-Client Alliance

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael is joined by his law partner Sonia Rodriguez to discuss a topic sure to resonate with every plaintiff lawyer listening; What can we do to keep our clients happy?

The pair begins the episode with a look at why we want to keep our clients happy. While some of the benefits seem obvious, such as not having a grievance filed against you, getting positive reviews online, and gaining future business through their referrals, Michael and Sonia discuss this in more detail. Michael shares why you want your client to take your advice. And for them to do that, they need to trust you. Sonia agrees and adds that lawyers have a fairly low reputation in the eye of the general public. Clients come to you with this in the back of their minds, so it’s crucial to be upfront, honest, and transparent.

“If you have a client that trusts you, you can go forward with the case strategy as a team.” – Sonia Rodriguez

This leads them to discuss what makes clients unhappy with their lawyer. Sonia explains how the client is initially unhappy when they don’t know how the lawyer is getting paid. To alleviate this strain, Sonia makes a point to have a very frank conversation about the contingency fee and how it works during her first meeting with the client. In this conversation, she also makes it clear that case expenses are separate from the fee. Repeating this throughout the life of the case and making it nonchalant goes very far in building trust with the client.

Michael agrees and adds how crucial it is to fix your own relationship with money to have these conversations. He used to cut his fees all the time, without the client even asking. Sonia shares something that helps with her mindset – that the attorney’s fee isn’t all going into her pocket. It also pays paralegals, investigators, employee health care, etc. It comes down to valuing yourself and your services.

Michael and Sonia’s next topic of conversation is one of the most commonly filed grievances against lawyers – a lack of communication with the client about what’s going on with their case. To nip this issue in the bud, they’ve developed a system which requires a meaningful client contact at least once every 30 days (discussed in more detail in this fan-favorite episode with Malorie Peacock). In this phone call, typically conducted by the paralegal, the client is asked a series of meaningful questions and provided with an update on their case. It not only keeps the client informed, but it also helps the firm know when the client is struggling to keep up with his or her medical appointments. This helps move the case forward, adds value to the case, and helps ensure the client is happy.

After briefly discussing the commonly held belief that the attorney only cares about the money and how to combat it, Sonia asserts a powerful point; attorneys should not put themselves in the position of needing to make the client happy. With a personal injury claim can come a lot of anxiety and depression, and sometimes you can never make a client truly happy. If that is your goal, then you are setting yourself up for failure.

This leads them to talk about managing expectations with clients. Michael and Sonia both agree that bringing up any issues with the case early leads to a happier client in the end. Sonia frames it as not having a “crystal ball.” She will not tell a client early on what she thinks the case is worth. Instead, she tells the client what she “imagines the insurance company wants to pay them.” This is a great way to point out any issues in the case, while diffusing any potential rift between herself and the client and uniting them against the insurance company on the other side.

Michael adds that if the client thinks you need the money, they will doubt you when you advise them to settle. He then shares the powerful explanation that he gives to clients in this situation, where he makes it clear that he is able to take on the risk of going to trial but shares the downsides of doing so for the client.

While there can be a real, scary financial risk for young lawyers with a lot of money invested into a case, Michael shares his personal experience of losing his first $100,000 and his shocking reaction looking back on that experience. At the end of the day, choosing to settle on your advice or not is the client’s decision, and when you make that clear from the start, you don’t need to lose sleep over it.

“It hurts, but when you survive it… it’s a very liberating thing.” – Michael Cowen

Having to be the bearer of bad news comes with the territory of being a lawyer. Michael and Sonia’s next talking point explores the different ways they handle delivering this bad news without damaging the attorney-client relationship. Sonia shares why telling them in person immediately or, if possible, in advance goes a long way to salvaging and potentially even strengthening your trust with the client. She then shares a recent example where her client refused to answer a question in a deposition. Sonia pulled her aside and explained the risks. When the client chose to move forward, she understood a motion to compel could be filed; but it was a decision the client made, and Sonia supported her.

The pair wraps up the episode with Michael sharing a philosophy he learned from his New Mexico office partner, Alex Begum. At the end of the day, personal injury clients don’t usually know if the lawyer is doing a good job or not; but what they do know is how they feel when they interact with your office. Things like offering them a beverage, giving them a gift package, and not making them wait for a long time when they come to see you go a long way. And while the strategies mentioned in this episode won’t make everything perfect all the time, implementing them at your firm will help maximize client happiness over time.

“When you make people feel more respected dealing with your office than anywhere else in their lives, then they will like you.” – Michael Cowen

This podcast episode also covers why online reviews are so important and when you should ask a client for a review, why client happiness is more important in personal injury than most other practices, how to show a client you care about them and not just the money, and much more.

 

14 – Steven Gursten – Remarkable Customer Service = Extraordinary Law Practice (and Life)

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In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael Cowen sits down with Michigan trial lawyer and owner of Michigan Auto Law, along with 3 other law firms, Steven Gursten. As an early adopter of internet legal marketing, Steven has built his firm to become extremely successful in Michigan and is recognized as having the TOP verdict in the state 8 out of the last 12 years, as well as success throughout the country.

Steven recalls in the first 10 years of his practice making it a goal to be a great trial lawyer and have attorneys all over the state refer him cases. To get there, he still recommends lawyers set aside 30 minutes to an hour every day to read and study some area of law. IE: Mondays would be opening statements, Tuesdays might be cross examining, Wednesdays – closings, Thursdays – medicine, and Fridays he wanted to become an expert on the Michigan no-fault law. Even now, Steven utilizes the massive amounts of information he’s accumulated, learned from, and still references. Similarly, Michael recalls and shares a story about learning through the process of proofreading a book another attorney in his office was writing and both agree the continuation of learning after passing the bar is extremely important.

Fast forwarding from 4 attorneys in his first practice to now having 20 attorneys across 4 diverse practices, Michael and Steven discuss the two very different disciplines of running a law firm vs. trying cases, both of which they do very successfully. He also goes into detail on some of the systems he has put in place as a solid foundation, in order to handle the hundreds of cases coming through his different practices, and how much he has embraced different technologies throughout the years. Steven also brings up a great point that in today’s online society, good lawyers will now more than ever be rewarded and bad lawyers will be punished because of Google reviews, Avvo, and other similar review sites, which makes customer service even more important. Meanwhile, those same systems are the ones which help great law firms stay on top of their cases and communicate with their clients to avoid the potential pitfalls easily avoided through systematic communication. Topics such as discussing what not to post on social media or making sure the client is going to their doctors’ appointments can have hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of impact on a case when communication is stagnant. Steven goes on to say that the same type of communication can also have a huge impact when it comes to keeping referring attorneys in the loop on shared cases, citing a recent case he referred to Michael in which he was extremely impressed with the follow up.

The conversation shifts when Michael asks Steven how he’s able to have the other 19 attorneys in his office use all of the systems he has in place. Without hesitation, Steven points to the culture of his firm which has guided everyone in the same direction, keeping them on the same page, regarding the inner workings of the practices. He is also quick to point out that establishing this type of culture starts with the ownership of a firm, and regardless of tenure no attorney should ever be above talking with their clients, which is something he tries to instill in each of his attorneys. Steven also shares some of the small things they do to build the culture, such as whenever they receive a great review, they send it out to everyone in the firm to further demonstrate its importance to the firm as a whole and praise those who are walking the talk.

So many great insights on running a successful firm (too many to list in this brief description) come from Steven and Michael throughout this episode, even down to the psychological testing Steven does with everyone in his firm which helps shed light on their ability to deliver a quality customer experience. Steven also shares several thoughts for those who are trying to build their practices, which any attorney can leverage to not only work in their practice but also on their practice.

The conversation transitions to traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) to which Steven again delivers a mountain’s worth of information in rapid succession. Steven is gracious enough to lay out not only the basics of how TBI cases are identified but also the more intricate and subtle ways clients who’ve suffered from a TBI are not only identified but also misunderstood, as Michael asks him questions to bridge the gap between customer service and delicate TBI cases. Steven’s view of customer service is engrained so deeply in him that even during this part of his conversation with Michael, he can’t help but note its importance when working with those who have suffered a TBI.  Things like displaying a positive image online in order to be seen as approachable, being cognizant of the tremendous diplomacy it takes to work with clients who have had a TBI, and doing everything in your power to genuinely make things as easy as possible on the them. Perhaps THAT is why he doesn’t encounter many of the problems or issues other attorneys do.

Background on Steven Gursten
Steven Gursten is recognized as one of the nation’s top attorneys handling serious auto accident injury and wrongful death cases, and No-Fault insurance litigation. He is head of Michigan Auto Law, the state’s largest law firm handling car, truck and motorcycle accident cases for more than 50 years.

Steven has recovered top-reported verdicts and settlements for car and truck accidents for multiple years, including a $34 million truck accident settlement in 2014 with Ohio co-counsel.   In this capacity, Steve was named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly “Lawyer of the Year,” after recovering one of the largest truck accident settlements in Michigan history, as well four other top-reported trial verdicts in previous years.

Steven frequently lectures at legal seminars throughout the country on trial advocacy, trucking litigation, and traumatic brain injury cases.  He is the annual moderator and speaker at the “Advanced Motor Vehicle Litigation Seminar,” offered through 360 Advocacy.   He is the current President of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and a Past Chair of the American Association for Justice (AAJ) Trucking Litigation Group.  Steven is also the chair-elect of the AAJ Traumatic Brain Injury Litigation Group.

In addition, he serves on the executive boards of the Melvin M. Belli Society and represents the state of Michigan in the Taos Trial Lawyers Society, an invitation-only group of distinguished trial attorneys from around the country.

For more info on Steven Gursten visit:
https://www.michiganautolaw.com/firm_profile/attorney-steven-gursten/

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