team

94 – Delisi Friday – Building Your Leadership Dream Team

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his Director of Marketing and Business Development, Delisi Friday, to discuss how they built their leadership team.

The episode begins with a look at how the leadership team started. Michael shares how it started like many of his business decisions, based on a concept from Patrick Lencioni. He started by having regular meetings with his partners, but quickly noticed the flaws in that system – 3 lawyers were making decisions for everybody at the firm, without any input from the non-lawyer leaders who had “boots on the ground.” He found that decisions were being made with old or incomplete information and decided to include Delisi and Teresa (the firm operations manager) on the team.

“Lawyers don’t have a monopoly on good ideas.” – Michael Cowen

Delisi shares why she loves being on the leadership team. Not only does she provide a valuable and unique perspective in the decision making process, but being privy to the firm’s finances and operations has helped her do her own job better. Michael also adds that many team members feel more comfortable going to Delisi or Teresa with problems than they would feel going to him or the other partners.

“It’s uncomfortable to come to the person who signs your paycheck and tell them something that’s not favorable.” – Delisi Friday

Michael then goes into detail on how they formed the team and what they did. He explains that the foundation for any good leadership team (and a common theme in this episode) is trust. Building that trust has taken time, but he noticed that trust grew rapidly once the leadership team spent two days answering just five questions about the business. This is where their core values were decided, which form the basis for every decision made. If something doesn’t fit in those core values, everybody on the leadership team feels comfortable calling that out and vocalizing their disagreement.

“The debate needs to happen, and it takes a lot of trust to say, ‘Michael Cowen, I don’t think that’s a good idea and here’s why.’” – Michael Cowen

After a brief discussion on how they measure success in different areas of the firm and how they use those metrics in lieu of a prepared agenda for their weekly meetings, Michael and Delisi continue to talk about trust, conflict, and decision making in their leadership team.

Michael shares why it’s important for leadership team members to know if he says something critical about them, it’s coming from a good place rather than trying to put them down – and this vulnerability-based trust is really hard to develop. Delisi agrees and reveals she can take things personally and has had learn to be in the right mindset going into these meetings. And while most of their decisions are a consensus, not all are, giving the recent example of a vaccine mandate at the firm, which they decided against after a lengthy and heated debate. The most important thing, Michael says, is that everybody feels heard and the team is respectful of one another.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see in a business, and I also think it makes us a healthy business.” – Delisi Friday

After sharing how to look for disagreement in facial expressions and body language when it’s not being vocalized, with Delisi sharing an interesting comparison of this and voir dire, Michael opens up about how it isn’t unnatural for him to have uncomfortable conversations. But as he’s gotten better at having them at work, he’s also grown more comfortable having them with his family at home.

“It’s a skill that we have to develop, like anything else. And it’s a skill that really pays dividends.” – Michael Cowen

One of the most uncomfortable conversations for him was that of the firm’s finances, which he now shares the details of with his entire leadership team. At first, Michael shares, he was worried that they would panic and leave because of the ups and downs that happen in a contingency fee-based practiced- but nobody was criticizing, and nobody quit.

Recognizing the emotion involved in sharing your business’s finances with other team members, Delisi asks Michael if he felt relieved to share that burden with others. Michael says he did, and he encourages other firm owners listening to do the same, especially if there’s a team making business decisions involved. And while there have been some challenging times, especially during COVID, Delisi agrees that it’s important for her to have that information when she’s involved in making business decisions.

So, how big does a firm need to be to consider having a leadership team? Delisi believes that no firm is too small – even if that means the team is only 2-3 people. Whether you meet with your CPA or even just a trusted mentor once a quarter, the important thing is to have somebody helping you make decisions, set goals, hold you accountable, and reach them.

After once again recommending the book “The Advantage” by Patrick Lencioni (seriously, buy it), Michael ends the show on a sentimental note and encourages everyone listening to put in the effort to making their work family the best family it can be.

“We spend more time with our work families than with our own families. Let’s try to make it the happiest, healthiest family we can.” – Michael Cowen

This podcast also covers why your core values can’t be aspirational, how to look for disagreement when it’s not vocalized, how to assess a team’s performance, and much more.

88 – Malorie Peacock – The 10 Commandments of Case Management

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his law partner Malorie Peacock, for a deep dive into their firm’s “10 Commandments of Case Management.” In addition to this, the two also discuss how they developed these standards for working up a case, how involving their team was essential to the long-term success of their plans, and how they intend to track progress moving forward.

Michael and Malorie begin the episode by jumping right into Commandment #1: setting up the initial client meeting. They discuss why meeting with the client in the beginning of a case is so crucial for building the attorney-client relationship, obtaining critical information to get the case on file, and making the client feel comfortable. They explain why the standard they landed on was to have the initial client meeting scheduled within 7 days of the case being assigned to a litigation team.

Moving on to Commandment #2, “the attorney will file suit within 60 days of the initial client meeting.” Michael begins by asking Malorie why he got talked into 60 days as opposed to his original thought of “within a week of having the file assigned.”

“I keep going back to the fact that these are minimum standards, so they’re something that we want to be able to apply in every single case, if possible.” – Malorie Peacock

Following up on this point, Malorie explains how one issue discussed on this topic was that the attorneys must meet with the client before filing the lawsuit; reiterating the importance of the initial client meeting and not only having it, but “getting it right.” The 60-day window allows for deeper research and investigation, as well as time to discuss with experts.

Continuing to the next Commandment (#3), the team discusses their standards for discovery; primarily written discovery and the involved mandatory disclosures. The standard ended up being to submit written discovery within 30 days of the date that discovery is allowed, depending on the rules and jurisdiction.

“We wanted to make sure that we weren’t encouraging people to just use forms; that we were still giving people time to think about it.” – Malorie Peacock

After a brief discussion, the team move on to Commandment #4, setting depositions. In this segment, Michael and Malorie explain that deposition dates should be scheduled within 45 days of when depositions are allowed to begin: again, depending on the rules and jurisdictions. “It’s making sure that we’re moving that ball forward to get the deposition scheduled,” Malorie says when discussing being aggressive with scheduling, adding onto this by stating, “delay is the friend of the defense … not the plaintiff.”

Commandment #5 establishes the team’s minimum standard of one file review per month. Michael then recites the detailed list of questions contained in these reviews, which, although they may seem extensive, are incredibly important to ensuring an effective file review.

Some monthly file review questions include:

  • Have we served all the defendants?
  • Do we need experts? If so, who have we hired or need to hire?
  • What should we do in the next 30 days to move this case closer to resolution?

Moving on from internal reviews and updates on a case, the team then discusses Commandment #6: client contact. These calls serve the dual-purpose of keeping the client informed as to the status of the case and what (if anything) has changed, as well as to check in with the client on a personal level.

“[Client contact] isn’t just talking to the client […] it’s a set of specific questions and information that need to be relayed to the client, and that the client needs to relay to us.” – Malorie Peacock

Commandment #7 is simply getting a scheduling order or, depending on the jurisdiction, a trial date; the deadline for this being 120 days from the time that the first defendant files an answer. “We do have some exceptions for this one based on what the court will allow and what the rules of civil procedure in that jurisdiction permit you to do.” The two continue this topic by going into detail on the exceptions they foresee regarding this commandment.

The next Commandment (#8) involves implementing a strategy to set appropriate settlement values for cases: “an attorney must present their case to the weekly roundtable before sending a demand or engaging in settlement negotiations.”

Malorie happily steps forward to discuss this commandment, citing it as “one of [my] favorite things we’ve implemented this year.” Malorie explains how during these roundtables, Cowen Rodriguez Peacock lawyers present their case(s) with the purpose of discussing the case and valuation with the team, with the goal of gaining insight and learning from those with more experience.

Michael moves on to one of the self-confessed “least popular” yet still important Commandment (#9): attorneys must submit a report 90 days before the expert deadline and 90 days before trial, to be filled out and submitted to Michael. The importance of this commandment can be summarized by this short but sweet quote from Michael on the subject.

“Less than 90 days, you don’t have time to fix things.” – Michael Cowen

Michael and Malorie continue the discussion of their firm’s commandments with #10: any case that might go to trial, the attorney must set a pre-trial meeting with Michael at least 60 days before the discovery deadline.

“I want to be able to brainstorm with people, come up with exhibit ideas, come up with testimony ideas, but I need to do it at least 60 days before the discovery deadline because [invariably] I come up with ideas that require us to find additional witnesses, documents, visuals, those kinds of things. You need [those items] created, found, and disclosed to the other side in time to use them for trial.” – Michael Cowen

The episode closes with Michael and Malorie adding that an important factor that cannot be overlooked when discussing the standards presented in this episode is the inclusion of the team’s input during the creation of said standards.

“We turned down people’s ideas, we accepted people’s ideas, but we all had a long, lively conversation about it. At the end, I think everybody agreed with every single standard on the list because they felt heard out, and now they understand the perspective of it.” – Malorie Peacock

This episode also discusses the star rating, the fine line between too much detail and not enough, pre-trial checklists, and more.

 

82 – Malorie Peacock – Working Through Others: Building a High-Performing Team

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his partner Malorie Peacock to discuss the art of managing your team and “working through others.” They cover effective delegation, hiring for experience vs. hiring for attitude, and how lawyers can be leaders to their teams.

Michael and Malorie kick off the episode with a look at delegating tasks to your team effectively, which is easier said than done when the team member has to do the work to your standards. Malorie starts by sharing her thought process when she wants to delegate a task. She first asks herself if this is something she could expect someone else to do in a way she approves of. If it is, she gives clear instructions and deadlines for when the task should be completed. Lastly, she makes a point to be available and open to answering any questions the team member may have about the task.

Michael then brings up a common pitfall for attorneys attempting to delegate tasks – if it’s not done right, he tends to just fix the errors instead of explaining the issues to the team member. Malorie cautions against doing this and outlines the perfect strategy for situations where the work needs to be fixed ASAP, but the team member needs to be taught the correct way for next time.

The conversation then transitions to a look at hiring and training – specifically for a paralegal position. Malorie shares how both of her paralegals started with the firm as receptionists with no legal experience. They were both trained up to the paralegal role which required a lot of work up front, but the benefit to this was they didn’t have any “bad habits.” Michael agrees that he prefers to train someone up from within, so they learn to do the job the way he wants them to, but not every lawyer agrees with this approach. They continue to discuss the pros and cons of hiring someone with experience vs. without experience, to which Malorie concludes it’s really about their ability to perform their main role of assisting the attorney.

After an insightful look at what the attorney can do to ensure their assistant is successful, they begin to discuss what lawyers can do to be leaders to their teams. Malorie reflects on the true meaning of being a leader and insists it all goes back to trust. Your team should trust you enough to tell you when they messed up, or when they need help with something.

Michael continues this line of thought with the necessity of having uncomfortable conversations about issues BEFORE they become a crisis. He recently had the opportunity to meet with Texas A&M football coach Jimbo Fisher, who is notoriously tough on his players. When Michael asked how he holds his players to such high standards, Jimbo highlighted the need for clear expectations, consistency, and for the team to believe that you hold them to those high expectations because you genuinely care about them. In order to have those necessary uncomfortable conversations, you need buy-in and trust from your team members, so they know you’re coaching them up and not putting them down.

Michael and Malorie then discuss how they communicate with their staff to lift them up. They share a variety of techniques that have worked for them, including not creating emergencies, overcommunicating, being willing to do parts of the paralegal’s job, and numerous strategies to show employee appreciation. One thing Michael has always done and will continue to do is invest in his staff’s education. He does this through weekly internal trainings and paying for his staff attend legal seminars like the annual ATAA symposium. Even the act of spending money on their hotels shows them they are valued and appreciated, and “if you buy-in, we’ll have your back.”

This leads Michael and Malorie to discuss the importance of having your team’s back. This doesn’t mean that you sweep issues under the rug- but it does mean you don’t bad mouth your team members to other people, especially to people outside of your team.

They end the episode with a discussion about managing anger and frustration, something many attorneys struggle with. Michael and Malorie both agree when someone does something wrong and it makes you upset, you need to wait until you’ve calmed down to have a conversation with them about it. Malorie finds it helpful to vent to a trusted person about what happened to let off steam, while Michael likes to take his own time to cool off. It comes down to what works best for you, so you can have a productive conversation without bringing the whole team down.

Attorney leadership, while easier said than done, is vital to the success of any law firm. This is why Michael and his firm will be dedicating the second half of 2021 to developing their attorneys into strong leaders. If this topic interests you, stay tuned for a follow-up episode later this year!

This podcast also covers why the “perfect assistant” doesn’t exist, praising your team members, why you need to avoid unrealistic expectations, Michael’s favorite strategies for building employee buy-in, and so much more.

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