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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.

 

 

 

57 – Sonia Rodriguez – The Digital Frontier: Technology, Roadblocks & Creative Solutions

In this Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his law partner Sonia Rodriguez. They discuss pushing cases during COVID-19, educating the defense and clients on Zoom, the increased need for technology in law firms, finding creative solutions, the effect of the pandemic on jury attitudes, and strategies to safely return to the office.

The discussion begins on the topic of pushing cases and overcoming defense delay tactics during COVID-19. Sonia emphasizes the need to continue to move cases, even if you’re met with objections from the defense, saying “The wheels of justice don’t come to a complete halt.” Sonia suggests offering a clear, transparent proposal for technology to the defense prior to depositions. Fellow Cowen Rodriguez Peacock attorney Jacob Leibowitz has created guides for Zoom for Depositions and Zoom for Mediations which have been helpful in easing uncertainty surrounding this new technology. Michael has also found success in offering practice sessions to the defense counsel, noting that this works well when people are acting in good faith.

Unfortunately, not all defense attorneys are acting in good faith with their objections to this technology and will try to drag the case out. In these situations, Sonia encourages attorneys to file a Motion to Compel Deposition. She has found success in this because courts in Texas have been utilizing the technology themselves. This makes it hard for defense attorneys to suggest depositions by Zoom aren’t appropriate when the hearing may very likely be held by Zoom. Sonia and Michael agree that it’s in every firm’s best interest to keep their cases moving during COVID-19 and to find creative solutions to problems which may arise.

The conversation shifts to a discussion of preparing clients for Zoom depositions. Sonia insists the process isn’t much different, other than a loss of “relationship feel” between the client and the attorney during deposition prep. The important factor in this is ensuring you create a comfort level for your client that makes them feel prepared.

Sonia and Michael agree the biggest roadblock they’ve faced regarding client preparation is a lack of available technology for the client. Many clients do not have a laptop, Wi-Fi, or a room where they can sit privately and quietly for a 3-4-hour deposition. Their firm has mitigated this issue by sending tablets to clients who need them and emphasizing technology training during deposition prep. They note that this strategy does not always work, and some depositions will inevitably need to be delayed until we can meet in person again. The underlying goal is to keep 95% of your cases moving.

Michael and Sonia move the conversation to the overall increased level of understanding regarding video conferencing technology like Zoom. Sonia describes her experience with sharing exhibits through Zoom, and her trial and error of doing so. She’s noticed how advanced the knowledge of this technology is for many court reporters and mediators and has learned through their advice as well. She then shares a story of when she served a witness with a Zoom deposition subpoena. She expected a lengthy process of explaining the technology to the witness, who shockingly replied that she was well-versed in Zoom through her children’s virtual school courses. Michael notes that he doesn’t know how enforceable a Zoom deposition subpoena would be, but again emphasizes the goal to move 95% of cases and save the rest for when we return to normal. Sonia echoes this by explaining the duty we have to our clients to move cases and represent them earnestly. While we cannot guarantee their trial date will go through, we can guarantee we are continuing to work on their case.

Michael makes the point that we all only have a given amount of energy to spend in the day. While it’s easy to get caught up in things outside of your control, it’s crucial to not let this suck up your energy. He emphasizes the importance of spending your energy on what you can control right now- moving your cases. Sonia agrees and adds that as trial lawyers, we are wired to be creative and tackle the unexpected in our cases and in the courtroom. She shares a brilliant example of this comparing today’s landscape with an elmo projector.

There has been much speculation around how COVID-19 will affect jurors’ perceptions in the long run. In Sonia’s opinion, this will depend on the economic situation once juries come back. If people have been out of work and cannot afford to be there because of their economic situation, this will not be good for the plaintiff’s side. She believes if the economy can stabilize, jurors may feel a heightened sense of civic duty and comradery around rallying on a jury. Michael has hesitations about trying a case where the jurors feel endangered by being present, but has a positive outlook on the long term effects, stating “Americans have an incredibly short memory.” He notes the worries of juror perception after events like 9/11 and the 2008 financial collapse, which had no long-term negative effect.

Sonia and Michael conclude with a discussion of how and when firms will begin to gather in a physical office space again. Sonia says our top priority needs to be to keep our clients and our families safe. Michael shares his hesitation to open too quickly by saying, “We sue companies for putting profits above people” and we should hold ourselves to this same standard.

This podcast also covers ethical concerns with virtual depositions, when to provide hard copies of exhibits in virtual depositions, bench trials via Zoom, overcoming technical issues, and much more.

55 – Jacob Leibowitz – Overcoming COVID-19: Working Remote & Staying Afloat

In this special Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael discusses COVID-19 with fellow trial lawyer Jacob Leibowitz. This episode focuses on adapting your firm to function in an ever-changing crisis situation, including insights on safety, remote work, technology, cash flow, and employee morale.

The show begins with a discussion on using technology to keep cases moving. Jacob emphasizes the importance of continuing to have depositions utilizing video conferencing technology. Their firm has chosen to use Zoom for depositions, mediations, and client meetings, and they have been successful with it. They discuss the pros and cons of Zoom, highlighting many useful features including video recording, “breakout rooms,” options to increase audio quality, and a way to share exhibits that Jacob argues is even better than the in-person method. The challenges of this technology for depositions, and in many states across the U.S., is the person who swears in the witness needs to be in the same room to make the oath sufficient. Jacob shares how the Supreme Court of Texas has assisted with this. The use of online notaries is also discussed and both Michael and Jacob implore the listeners to reach out in their respective state to determine if this can be a solution.

Originally, Jacob believed mediations via video conferencing would be extremely complicated, but he has been pleasantly surprised by the ease of using breakout rooms in Zoom. While some mediators have resisted, Michael is confident they will come around soon, telling them “Either you’re not getting paid or you’re going to do it this way.” Jacob echoes this thought by stating, “It’s here right now, and we have to adapt to it.” They apply this same reasoning to defense counsel who may have objections. Michael strongly believes if the defense doesn’t bill, they don’t make money, and they don’t survive. Jacob thinks it is the plaintiff lawyer’s responsibility to push the case, educate all parties involved on how to use the technology, and has been kind enough to create a Zoom Deposition Guide to share with everyone. This guide can be shared with defense counsel, mediators, and anyone else hesitant with this process. (A Zoom video tutorial for clients has also been created and can be found here)

The conversation shifts to remote work and how their firm of over 30 employees in different office locations has navigated the transition of physical office space to a virtual office space. The process began with Michael deciding to purchase company laptops for staff who did not have one. This was necessary because his IT company would only allow access to the server through a private VPN on a company-owned computer for security reasons. They discuss other challenges of remote work during a quarantine, including working with kids at home, server capacity, and cloud migration. Jacob then shares valuable advice for other firms to mitigate these challenges by advising “You just need to go full force into this, because you’re going to end up learning a whole lot, and you need to.” The reality is no one knows how long social distancing and a nationwide quarantine will last, so lawyers need to adjust accordingly.

On a serious note, Michael recognizes that regardless of technological innovations, the COVID-19 pandemic will disrupt firms’ cash flow. He shares his experience with a market panic and how he has been proactive in protecting the firm’s finances through pulling out money ahead of time and watching his finances very carefully. He also cautions other firms against laying employees off too soon, citing the proposed stimulus bill (which has now passed) would provide loan forgiveness to small businesses who use the money for payroll. He also understands that sometimes, you have to do whatever is right for your firm to stay afloat during these challenging times.

With all these sudden and extreme changes, employee morale can fall to the wayside. Jacob asks Michael what many listeners must be wondering – How do you keep employee morale up during this process? Michael simply states: “We’re overcommunicating.” His firm has focused on having consistent and frequent video conference calls to communicate on daily tasks, collaborates on larger projects, and even gather socially for a Friday evening virtual happy hour. He explains how important it was to tell his staff they could financially handle a 3-4 month quarantine and not have layoffs, and ensure staff of his focus on keeping everyone safe, be it their health or job security. Jacob compliments Michael on his efforts so far and adds that he feels morale has actually increased since the beginning of this crisis, noting that employees can see the massive amount of effort and reassurance given so far. Michael also believes “overcommunicating” applies to clients and referral attorneys and has made an effort to touch base with everyone in his network. This has led to his firm continuing to receive case referrals because they are being proactive.

Lastly, Jacob and Michael discuss their main takeaways during COVID-19. Jacob sees this time as an opportunity to gain skills to better your practice, spend more time with your family, and push your abilities as an attorney. Michael agrees and adds that it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself physically and mentally. He also emphasizes the importance of patience and thankfulness during these difficult times. Michael ends on a powerful note: “We all need to step up and be leaders – leaders for our firms, leaders for our clients, and leaders for our communities.”

This podcast also covers virtual court hearings, telemedicine, self-insured retentions, Microsoft Teams, why clients are liking the face time with attorneys using Zoom, virtual document signing (www.notarize.com), and the efficiency of technology.

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