saying no

97 – Chris Finney – Maximizing Value In Your Life & Law Practice

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael speaks with St. Louis trial attorney Chris Finney, to discuss his recent $750,000 jury verdict on a non-catastrophic injury case, the different voir dire techniques he used, his path towards personal development, and so much more.

The episode begins with Chris sharing his story about how he became a trial lawyer. Being the son of a plaintiff’s lawyer, Chris knew becoming a lawyer was something he would do. After law school he took a job working at the prosecutor’s office, but left when he was offered a job paying much more money at a defense firm. His time working on the defense side was limited and he quickly realized he was destined to be a plaintiff’s lawyer.

“We can get him out of this mess in like 5 seconds. Just call the plaintiff’s lawyer, ask him what he wants, and we’ll give it to him … and I didn’t get the best response.” – Chris Finney

Michael transitions the conversation and brings up the topic of development, asking Chris what he has done to excel in his career. Chris shares everything from regionals with Trial Lawyers College, Trial By Human, ethos with Rick Friedman, working with Sari de la Motte, Trial School, attending Trial Guides seminars, and reaching a comfort level with who he is when he tries cases. This brings up the topic of therapy, with Chris sharing how many of the lawyers he would meet at CLEs were divorced. Being happily married and a father to 5 kids, Chris knew he had to find a way to make it all work. Michael agrees and points out that being a trial lawyer means you have to trust a jury, realize the amount of influence you have on the success of a case, understand you cannot control everything, speak with clients and their families when they have been through something traumatic, and all of this can take a real toll on you. “You don’t have to sacrifice your entire life to do this and be good at it,” Chris adds, “you have to find some kind of balance.”

“There’s no better investment than investing in yourself.” – Michael Cowen

Part of the journey in development is also realizing you will not win them all. Which is why the conversation then turns to this topic, one repeatedly mentioned on the show. Chris shares that he has realized, “No one is going to remember your losses.” To which Michael likens this to professional football players. If Tom Brady is described as one of the best quarterbacks of our time, no one is going to expect him to win every single game, so why should lawyers expect the same of themselves? You give it your all and don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t always go your way.

“It’s either too complicated or the jurors are very bored. Brevity and being concise about what’s important, has really helped us a lot.” – Chris Finney

The conversation then shifts to the topic of simplicity with Chris and Michael both agreeing on the importance of this in trial. “Any case is a simple case, it just takes a lot of work to get there,” Michael shares. The trust to do this and the trust in your teammates for it to be a success takes work and as Chris points out it’s done “in your personal exploration.”

Running a successful law practice includes having a great team and Chris brings up the importance of letting his staff know that “nothing they do will sink us.” Empowering staff to make decisions instead of running to your office every 5 minutes, allows you to be more productive and focus. Michael adds that in this current employment climate, keeping your staff is more important than ever. To which Chris takes a step further, sharing why it is also important to make sure when the office is gearing up for trial everyone is there and everyone puts in the work. The effort is done as a cohesive team.

The podcast then transitions into a detailed discussion on Chris’s recent jury verdict of $750,000 on a broken arm case. Briefly outlining the case, Chris explains how his client was driving when a vehicle veered into her lane, hit her head on, and her right arm sustained a fracture. His client had surgery and was then released from treatment. Thinking the case would settle for policy limits of $100,000, Chris initiated settlement negotiations before spending money on animations and the doctor deposition. But defense didn’t respond to him until the day before the doctor deposition, which was too late. It was then, with only a $70,000 offer on the table, that Chris decided this case would need to be tried. For Chris, the fact that his client was a great client helped make going to trial an easy decision.

“Jurors take money from people they don’t like and give it to people they do.” – Chris Finney

Starting off with voir dire, Chris goes into “creating a designed alliance,” which he defines as “managing and meeting expectations” and learned from Sari de la Motte (a two-time podcast guest). Chris brings up his learnings from Jason Selk, the renowned performance coach, and his belief in relationships failing because of missed expectations. For Chris one of this goals was to set the expectations with his jury panel and place himself in a powerful teacher mode. Michael then asks about the use of experiential, or issue-based, questions in jury selection. These are 1 or 2 questions (at the most) based on your fears of the case. In this case the two questions Chris wanted to ask involved: 1) seeing a surgeon and having plates or screws put in you, and 2) medical records.

Continuing with jury selection, Michael asks Chris to describe “the box.” Chris suggests everyone go to Sari de la Motte’s Hostage to Hero group on Facebook and listen to her interview with Mark Wham to learn more about this. Chris used “the box” in trial and explained to the jury panel, because liability had been accepted, they would only decide damages that were “fair and reasonable” and that was “inside this box.” Everything else like if there is insurance, who would pay, etcetera, would be up to the judge. After trial one of the jurors approached Chris and said when those topics came up he reminded his fellow jurists, “that is not our role we have to stay inside the box.” Elated, Michael responds, “I’m definitely going to use that!”

“There is an element of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.” – Chris Finney

With the jurors only being out for 15 minutes, not asking for a single exhibit, Chris clearly did a great job putting on his case for the jury. He adds how in the last 5 years he has noticed jurors are more comfortable talking about their relationships and have no issue with non-economic pain and suffering; in fact, they see a tremendous value in it. Michael adds his belief that the isolation we’ve had the last 2 years has changed the value we put on relationships. Before recently we may have taken friendships and time spent with others for granted, but now we want those interactions and will make it a point to carve out time for them. Leaving listeners with the question, has our recent experience increased the value we, and others, hold in our personal relationships – and will this increase values in jury verdicts?

The podcast also discusses drawing healthy boundaries, being patient with yourself, the power of saying “no,” waving economic losses, showing up in the right mindset, the importance of breathing, and why eye contact is crucial in connecting with the jurors.

 

84 – John Sloan – Experienced Listening

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with renowned trial lawyer John Sloan. They dig into the vast experience John has acquired in his 40-year career as a trial lawyer, focusing on how he got where he is today, using role reversal techniques to better understand both clients and defendants, and his jury verdict on what he calls his “favorite case ever.”

Michael and John start the episode with a look at where John started and how he became successful. He shares how his boss right out of law school told him to figure everything out for himself, something that was tough at the time (especially when he announced ready for a murder trial just 5 weeks after being sworn in!) but instilled in him a work ethic which has served him well. He continued to learn all he could from other prominent lawyers in town and work countless weekends until he built his skillset up enough to focus on personal injury cases. When it comes down to it, John insists there is no substitute to putting in the hard work of learning both your case and trial skills.

The pair continues this note with some advice for young lawyers who want to get in the courtroom. While John concedes that it’s harder to try cases than when he started, he insists the opportunities are out there if you’re willing to work for them. Michael agrees and adds that young lawyers need to be willing to “pay their dues” by trying some not-so-great cases before getting to try awesome cases. He and John then discuss how they cope with losing at trial, and even highlight a shocking benefit of taking cases to trial even if you lose them.

Michael then moves on to ask John about how he uses role reversal techniques to get to know his clients on a deeper level. It comes down to really taking the time to get to know your client, instead of just asking them questions to elicit facts about the case. It not only makes the attorney-client relationship more meaningful, but it also helps the lawyer be a better advocate for the client. John then elaborates why you don’t need to do a full-day psychodrama to use these techniques. You need to learn the skills first, but you and your staff can use role reversal techniques with your clients in everyday conversations.

Among those techniques is something John calls “listening with a 3rd ear,” which he describes as listening for the story beneath the words being spoken. It’s the emotional content of what you’re hearing from the client, whether it’s actually stated or not. Michael shares when he does this, he makes a point to check in with the client and confirm it’s actually representative of how they’re feeling. John agrees and adds some more interesting strategies for building this connection with your clients.

Michael then shifts gears to the defendant- can you use these role reversal techniques with the people on the other side of the case? John says, “Absolutely.” He explains how he likes to do this introspectively before a deposition. What would they say to their lawyer that they would never say to you? Then, frame the questions you ask around that. Michael tries to approach the defendant (especially the defendant driver) from a place of understanding, which allows the jury to get mad at the defendant company in their own time.

After a brief but insightful conversation about the importance of treating each of your cases as individuals, John and Michael discuss the power of saying no to cases which don’t suit you. John reflects on when he first started his own firm and would take any case just to bring some money in. To this day, that mentality has made saying no to a good case tough for him. But he and Michael agree there comes a point in your career where you need to prioritize your time.

If you’ve listened to Trial Lawyer Nation, you know Michael loves a good trial story; and John’s jury verdict in Tampa, Florida couldn’t be left undiscussed. Between being able to try the case with his nephew, the low-ball offer the defense made right before trial, and the client being one of the most genuine and hard-working people John had ever met, this trial story will resonate with every trial lawyer listening.  John says it was one of those trials where “everything just went right,” and the result is an inspiring way to end the episode.

If you’d like to learn more from John Sloan or contact him about a case, visit his website or give him a call at (800) 730-0099.

This podcast episode also covers why sharing information benefits everybody, the importance of training your staff to use role reversal techniques with clients, how to frame the defendant driver as a victim of the company, disciplining yourself to say no to cases, and so much more.

 

Guest Bio:

As a boy growing up in Henderson, John Sloan thought he might become a preacher some day. However, by the time he began his undergraduate studies at Baylor University, John made up his mind: He was going to be a trial lawyer.

John received his Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Baylor in 1977 and enrolled at Baylor Law School, where he began to hone his trial skills in the school’s renowned Practice Court.

He earned his J.D. in 1980 and returned to East Texas, joining a firm in Henderson.  John immediately began trying cases, including a murder trial just five weeks after he received his law license.

Two-and-a-half years after he started work at the law firm, John decided that he wanted to focus on personal injury cases. He moved to Longview and opened his own practice. He has been trying cases in East Texas and courts across the country ever since.

At the time he established Sloan Law Firm, John says, he wanted to create a law firm that would provide exceptional personal service to its clients.

“I wanted us to not be a mill where people are just numbers and don’t have a lot of contact with the lawyers,” he says. “I wanted to be able to know my clients personally.”

In addition to offering clients a personal touch, John also provides zealous advocacy. He has achieved several significant verdicts and settlements for his clients. His cases generally involve truck and auto accidents, defective products, and oilfield accidents. He also focuses on brain injury cases.

While courtroom victories are satisfying, John finds that his practice provides many other rewards.

“I like the people I get to work with—the clients—and I like the people here in the office. I like the variety. I like the competition, the battle, the mental gymnastics, being able to outwit and outwork my opponents,” John says.

John’s commitment to the trial lawyer profession has extended to the prestigious Trial Lawyers College. John attended the College in 1998 and joined the teaching staff in 2002. He was named to the Board of Directors in 2010 and as President in 2014.

John also engages in community service. For several years, he served on the Board of Directors of Habitat for Humanity. He has also worked with Justice for Children, which provides pro bono legal advocacy for criminally abused children. He has coached kids in just about every sport.

In his personal time, John enjoys being active and has participated in numerous triathlons. His primary interest is his small farm outside Longview, where he grows trees and unwinds from his busy law practice.  He is married to the former Dee Anne Allen from Tyler, Texas, and they have two children, Trey Sloan and Veronika Sloan.

 

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