sonia rodriguez

34 – Sonia Rodriguez – Hindsight in the PI World

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In this episode of Trial Lawyer Nation, Michael Cowen sits down with Cowen | Rodriguez | Peacock partner, Sonia Rodriguez, for another installment of TLN Table Talk to answer the questions of our listeners. This episode focuses on advice for our up-and-coming personal injury attorneys on the things we know now and wishes we knew earlier in our careers.

Starting right off in the broad sense of the industry, we start with a question about what advice would we give to a lawyer who is in the first 2 years of practice. Learning the hard way, Sonia states why it is critical for a successful personal injury law practice to understand the difference between a PI practice and a typical business practice when you are talking to bankers and lenders. The discussions you’ll have with bankers and lenders about lines of credit and assets in regards to your practice can sound like a foreign language to certain bankers, so you really need to find a bank that knows the PI practice and knows that many times the assets you have are going to be intangible, and are more likely to be in your file cabinet or on your server. Michael also points out how the banking regulations have also tightened up in recent years where it has become harder for PI lawyers to borrow against their case list. To this point, Sonia suggests once you have a few years under your belt, you should start saving/hoarding your money so you can borrow against your own investments and savings when you want to. They both agree once you hit your first big case, you don’t want to start living like that has become your new lifestyle every year or every month and you need to live below your means for a long time. Michael recalls avoiding the temptation to go buy the expensive Mercedes and shares how his first house was only $67,000, which was in stark contrast to other lawyers who went out and bought big houses and could barely pay their credit cards or make it month to month. It was with this foresight and now shared knowledge, that Michael reveals his early financial habits have led him to build the successful practice he has today.

Providing additional advice for PI lawyers just starting out, Michael weighs the pros and cons of gaining experience by starting in a district attorney’s office (hint – it’s not advised…and for good reason). He goes on to suggest several much better ways to gain experience and learn from other attorney’s experience, this podcast being one of them, which will prove to be more advantageous in building a solid foundation for a personal injury practice. Thinking from the other end of the spectrum, Sonia also offers advice regarding business relationships and how they are bound to change over time and shares the key factors you need to consider before entering into a partnership, regardless of the current or past relationships status. A lesson the majority of seasoned attorneys would likely agree with, hindsight being 20/20. Michael, being one of them, recounts one of the things he knows now that he wishes he knew earlier, and how he wishes he had spent a seemingly small amount of money early on to hire a lawyer to draft his agreements with other lawyers. Being lawyers, he says, “we think we can do it ourselves,” and in the process, we end up overlooking the holes in an agreement and only looking at it through rose-colored glasses as if nothing will ever change in the relationship. Michael reveals, in his own hindsight, the amount of money he’s paid out on legal fees to draft things for him now, has turned out to be less than 1% of what he’s paying people that he wouldn’t have had to pay had he had those agreements in place. LESS THAN 1%!

Sonia transitions by discussing the amount of stress brought on day-to-day in this industry. Our bodies were never designed to handle these amounts of mental or physical stress that can come with a heavy litigation practice, she says, and on the plaintiff’s side, it can also be very easy to become emotionally invested in our client’s cases. As a trial lawyer, you need to find a mechanism for an outlet, such as exercise, meditation (if it works for you), or even journaling, in order to maintain your mental health. Michael adds that you need to find a balance in order to internalize and feel your client’s pain without it taking you over. The Harvard Business Review published a great article about the stress and anxiety of being a perfectionist, as we tend to do in this line of work which also lays out several options for mental self-care.

Michael continues to state, as he has on many episodes of this show, to get out there and try more cases. There is never a shortage of cases to be tried in any firm. And no one will remember the cases you lose as you gain experience or even years into your practice for that matter. He goes on to say that you do not suffer a reputational hit for losing a trial and how he has actually lost more cases than some people have ever tried, but still has tons of referrals coming in because attorneys remember the ones he’s won.

Throughout the rest of this episode, Michael and Sonia discuss topics like: the power of saying “NO,” the importance of reputation; how to use a cost/benefit analysis to determine the right cases to take on; their opinions on paying for online profiles with various legal organizations, what to do in discovery when you think the other side is hiding something from you; how to (and more so, how not to) attract leads online; tricks to leveraging social media and pitfalls to avoid when using it; and many others along the way.

These Table Talk episodes could not happen without the interaction and questions submitted by our listeners. We are eternally grateful and encourage you to continue to send us your thoughts, ideas, and questions as we love sharing our experiences with them.

25 – Sonia Rodriguez – Defeating Defense Medical Experts

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In this episode of Trial Lawyer Nation, Michael Cowen sits down with Cowen | Rodriguez | Peacock partner, Sonia Rodriguez, for another installment of TLN Table Talk to answer the questions of our listeners. This episode focuses on defense medical “experts,” or as Michael calls them, “paid opinion witnesses.”

Michael calls this spade a spade right from the get-go, in that the title of “defense medical experts” is a sham. Many times, he says, they are called “independent experts” when they are neither independent nor an expert, not to mention the fact that they are hand-picked by defense lawyers who pay them for their testimony. Michael believes it is a huge fraud being perpetrated on our clients, on the jury, and on the court system. He says, typically “we know what their report is going to say once we hear their name,” further exemplifying this flaw in the system.

So, Michael asks, “what do we do to expose this and show the jurors the truth?” Sonia believes it is critical we expose the relationships experts have with the lawyers who hired them, how often they’ve been used by that firm or the defense industry, as well as how much money they make from that business. She also uncovers what percentage of their business is spent on reviewing files for defense lawyers vs. practicing medicine, in some cases. All of which can go a long way in revealing these witnesses for what they really are, which is “paid opinion witnesses.” Michael also explains how he doesn’t like to even use the word “expert,” which gives them the mantle of that title. He goes on to discuss the harsh reality and his distain for medical professionals who misuse their degrees to go against the very oath they have taken to “do no harm,” while we represent legitimately injured clients, and they do it for money! They both agree how uncovering the financial ties and bias of these witnesses also says a lot about them because they could likely be making much more money by seeing patients, but instead are reviewing cases for a defense lawyer. Michael also talks through a real example of what he’s run into on how these medical witnesses come to find themselves making money in this way and how their path toward testifying can ironically parallel his client’s paths.

Michael and Sonia share a plethora of examples regarding their tactics on utilizing depositions, both past and present, to build their cases, ranging from networking with other attorneys and medical professionals to leveraging amazon.com in the middle of a deposition. Sonia explains how you cannot go into a deposition with a broad brush, but rather be laser-focused and able to drill down on even a single word, in some cases, to make your entire case. And to sum things up, Michael talks through the very polarizing two ends of the spectrum his preparations take him with defense medical experts, where they are likely to either be way “off the deep end” and obviously working as a paid witness, or he will focus his energies on essentially turning them to help his case. The strategies they both describe are pure methodical genius.

The conversation shifts to talk specifically about the tone and demeanor both Michael and Sonia use when deposing paid medical witnesses. They both agree the tone and demeaner you use in a paid medical witness deposition is extremely important, as it will likely be replayed for the jury at some point and jurors will also be watching to see how you handle yourself in this situation, the same way they do in the courtroom. We, as plaintiff attorneys, also need to be cognizant of how we are approaching the deposition so it leads the jury to come to their own conclusions regarding the credibility of the paid medical witness and their testimony. It also becomes reflective for the jury to feel the danger themselves of allowing these paid medical witnesses to get away with using their titles as a form of “expertness” in exchange for being paid by the defense. In other words, if we just “rip into them” it will likely backfire on us and not work at all in our favor. Not to mention, Sonia adds, that today’s juries are tired of the theatrics and enthusiastic approach of some lawyers, where the days of yelling and pounding your fist on the table are now long gone.

All in all, this Table Talk with Michael and Sonia was thorough and filled with an enormous number of real examples from their experiences over the years. As a trial lawyer, you will likely run into paid medical witnesses in trials often, and this table talk could be the one thing that prepares you most for success.

21 – Sonia Rodriguez – Winning (or Losing) a Case in Deposition

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With overwhelmingly positive feedback from our listeners, TLN Table Talk is back again! This time featuring fellow partner at Cowen | Rodriguez | Peacock, Sonia Rodriguez, for a discussion mainly focused on how to win (or lose) a case in a deposition.

Michael is quick to note that many cases tend to settle before going to trial, making depositions an integral part of the process. Oftentimes it comes down to knowing the documents better than the defense attorneys while also knowing the right documents to order, which in many cases the defense may not have. It can also come down to a witness’s ability to know and articulate the truth in a deposition, which is frequently a direct reflection on those who have helped to prepare the witness (defense or plaintiff).

So how do Michael and Sonia prepare for depositions? Sonia explains her strategy of always looking back on the jury charge to see what exactly she is trying to gain from a witness, scour the defense record from production to find nuggets of useful information, dig into the footnotes, fine print, and back of pages to find what others might miss. She has also found social media to be useful to learn as much as you can on the person being deposed including who their friends and other contacts are, companies they’ve worked for, and digging in to find info on company manuals or other ways to authenticate them as an authority coming from a witness. Michael, on the other hand, points out the importance of networking and collaborating with other plaintiff’s lawyers as “we’re good at getting things and sharing information” such as prior admissions, reports, or testimony. There’s likely nothing more embarrassing for a witness, especially paid ones than to be cross-examined with contradictory testimony they gave in the past. Sonia, who recently had a deposition with a defense doctor, shares how his past testimony was the exact opposite of what he was testifying to in her case, which obviously played to her favor.

When it comes to the right length of a deposition, Sonia shares her wish to someday be able to take a short depo, but currently has her attention to detail and thoroughness to “blame” for the style of her depositions, one which sometimes drives opposing counsel mad. She tends to feel unsatisfied leaving a depo if she hasn’t covered a lot of ground, knowing the jury will likely not hear most of it. She has also found that many times when she’s taking a deposition, she’s not just doing a trial depo of a witness, but also trying to prepare in advance for a summary judgment response and how they can also be helpful to lay the groundwork for what she might need from another witness. In contrast, Michael prides himself on short but thorough depositions stating how it really depends on the witness and subject matter. He also admits the danger of taking shorter depositions in relation to “having a beginner’s mind” vs. the “curse of knowledge” where you might already know something, the defense already knows it, and the defense witness knows it, but the jury does not, and could lead to talking over the jury with jargon they might not understand. Both agree 100% no matter how you approach a deposition, you need to be actively engaged in listening to the responses and not just running down questions on an outline where you would likely miss the truly important parts of what the witness is saying, or not saying, which could make your case.

The conversation shifts to a lively debate heard in many firms of weighing the idea of “going for the kill” in the deposition vs. saving things for trial when you know the witness will be there in person. With different experiences from both Sonia and Michael prior to them partnering, each brings a unique perspective to the table from their mentors as well as from their personal experiences. Of course, they agree these tactics both have their place, but Michael also brings up the point how oftentimes with expert witnesses, if they don’t know something at a deposition, they tend to come to trial more prepared with a response.

Michael and Sonia jam pack the second half of their discussion with everything from preparing their own clients for deposition, videotaping depositions, deposing the other side’s experts, guiding medical experts to slow down their testimony while not losing the jury with industry terminology, and exceptions to all of the above.

Trial Lawyer Nation plans to do more “Table Talks” in the future, as this podcast has always been about inclusive learning for all in our industry, which includes learning from each other! Please keep submitting your questions, comments, and topic suggestions to podcast@triallawyernation.com; and be sure to like, share, and subscribe to get the latest from the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast!

Find out more about Michael Cowen here.

Find out more about Sonia Rodriguez here.

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