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96 – Malorie Peacock – Building Your Profitable Law Firm

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with one of his favorite guests, his law partner Malorie Peacock, for an episode about the decisions they’ve made over the years to build and run a profitable law firm. 

“It’s a podcast about actually making money from practicing law.” – Michael Cowen

Michael and Malorie begin the episode with a look at where they started in 2014. Back then, the practice was general personal injury with a lot of small car wreck cases. That year was the first time they decided to stop taking non-commercial cases without a large insurance policy – a scary decision at first but has since proven to be very successful in branding Michael as a “big case lawyer” with referral partners. And because of this scary decision, Michael began meticulously tracking specific numbers to make sure the new strategy was working.  

Michael shares the main numbers he tracks and analyzes with his leadership team annually – the average case fee and the median case fee. He then breaks it down further by case type, referral source, lawyer assigned to, and more.  

Tracking each of these has shown that even though the firm is only accepting 1/3 of the cases they did before, the firm has grown significantly since 2014. This has helped fuel decisions from what kinds of cases they accept, to marketing, and when to hire more staff. 

“I didn’t dare to dream that we’d end up with the median or average fees we’re at now.” – Michael Cowen

Michael then reminds listeners that he’s been doing this for 20 years and being this picky about what cases he accepts is NOT something he could have done successfully when he first started. 

“If it doesn’t work, you can make other decisions. You don’t have to die on this hill.” – Malorie Peacock

He and Malorie then dive further into their “counterintuitive” approach to growth – to accept LESS cases but make MORE money – and the big and small decisions that were made to get them where they are today.  

The first big decision was that they would not accept any car crash case that did not involve a commercial vehicle or 18-wheeler, unless there was a “large” insurance policy, adding that the definition of “large” has been re-evaluated and changed many times since the decision was first made.  

Malorie then digs deeper into why re-evaluating your rules for case acceptance every year is so vital. Michael explains that you need to see if it’s working, and if it is working, decide if you should lean further in that direction or not.  

Another decision made was if it “doesn’t have wheels” and isn’t worth at least $1 million, they usually won’t take it. Michael shares why this one has been hard to stick to, but he and Malorie discuss why they need to be this picky, citing the lack of systems in place for these cases as well as the amount of research and work that needs to be put in to get the maximum value for the case.  

Malorie and Michael continue discussing some of the changes they’ve made, and some changes they decided not to make, and how they evaluate each item up for discussion. For example, they frequently discuss eliminating cases with low property damage, but for now have settled that they’ll take a low property damage case if it meets other criteria. This insightful and holistic approach is a must-hear for any listener who is looking to re-evaluate their approach to case acceptance. 

“You can’t fight a war on 3 fronts…If you have to fight on all 3 of those issues, it’s really tough to get a jury to go along with you on all 3 and still give you a lot of money.” – Michael Cowen

This leads Michael and Malorie to discuss the sunk cost fallacy once again, where you hesitate to pull out of a case once you’ve put money into it. Michael shares how he used to spend most of his time working on cases that didn’t make him any money, and how learning to let those cases go and withdraw when necessary has made him a much happier person and has actually caused his firm to make MORE money in the long run. These include cases where the client lied to you, or even cases where the facts just aren’t what you’d hoped they would be. 

Michael then shares a heartfelt story about his uncle, and how his death made Michael realize the importance of enjoying your life while you’re still here. Malorie adds that at the end of the day, a personal injury law firm is not a non-profit, and if you’re not making money, then you’re not doing it right.  

“We get one ride on this earth, and I want to choose to be happy and enjoy my time.” – Michael Cowen

They continue to discuss some of the smaller decisions made along the way, including the implementation of in-depth systems. Not only does this help the case resolve faster, but it also helps the lawyer focus less on meeting deadlines and more on in-depth research and complex legal work that can really maximize the value of the case. 

“Cases are not wine. They do not age well.” – Michael Cowen

Michael and Malorie begin to wrap up the episode with a look at docket size, which has lowered dramatically at their firm in the last 7 years. This has allowed them the time to implement those in-depth systems and end up getting 150-200% of the money they received 7 years ago on the same wreck with the same injuries.  

If you don’t have control over your docket, but you do have control over what you work on, Malorie recommends utilizing the 5-star case system. This system ranks your cases based on your projected fee and your win probability, and the goal should be to spend as much time as possible on the 5-star cases and as little time as possible on the 1-star cases.  

“Limiting docket size at the firm… counterintuitively… has made everybody happier, but also has made everybody more money.” – Malorie Peacock

The pair concludes the episode by emphasizing that the criteria and decisions discussed in this episode need to be discussed at least once every year, which they will be doing the week this podcast airs, and that the decisions you make need to work for your firm and your life.  

This podcast episode also covers saying “no” to cases, the Pareto principle, why Michael still accepts other personal injury cases, getting out of cases with “toxic” clients, the logic behind “from crash to cash in 12 months”, why you need to be ready for trial the first time you’re called, and so much more. 

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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