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106 – Malorie Peacock – The Only Constant: Overcoming Change

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his law partner Malorie Peacock for her first episode since coming back from maternity leave to have a fitting conversation about change. They’ll take a look at different types of changes, including personal, business, law, and intentional ones, and discuss how to embrace them instead of being overwhelmed by them.

Starting with personal change, Michael asks Malorie how she dealt with the change of not working during her 3-month maternity leave. She shares how at first, she was a zombie (which I’m sure all parents listening can relate to), but once she and her husband got into a routine, she found it hard not to check in on her cases. And while she enjoyed her leave, she’s happy to be back doing the job she loves again, and Michael is also glad to have her back.

Michael then shares his experience of taking over the housework while his wife stays in the guest house with Covid. He had a referring attorney call him when he was trying to help his wife and sons, but he had to ask the attorney to call back tomorrow. He was nervous the attorney would take his business somewhere else, but after their discussion the next morning he realized everything would be fine. Malorie poignantly shares that the fear and anxiety we have about change is usually worse than what actually happens.

Continuing with business change, Michael reflects on his law firm growing and the inevitable turnover that comes with growth. He’s found that no matter how much effort you put into making your law firm a good place to work, there are other factors that can cause people to leave. Malorie agrees, adding that it’s just not realistic to expect everyone at the firm to stay forever. And when someone does leave, even those you thought would be with you their entire career, having the right attitude is the key to moving forward effectively.

Michael continues this topic by mentioning the book “No B.S. Ruthless Management of Profits and People,” assuring listeners that the title makes it sound worse than it is. There’s a section of the book which discusses the employee-employer relationship, saying you need to be realistic about that relationship and how people see you. At the end of the day, this is just a job for them.  Malorie agrees and adds that psychologically, it’s a good thing if your employees expect to be treated well. It means they perceive themselves as people who work hard and are committed.

Michael then shares how he copes with drastic changes. He takes a 12-24 hour “mourning” period where he lets himself feel it and vents to someone trusted. After that’s done, his focus moves to how they can make it even better than it was before. Could the systems for that position be improved? Do you need to re-think how you structure the position completely? These are all questions you should be asking yourself for each employee turnover.

Moving on to changes in the law, Michael reflects on when he first became a lawyer, and they took the money out of workers’ compensation cases in the state of Texas. Then came the medical malpractice caps and other tort reform policies. Each time, there were lawyers who refused to change and faced serious financial struggles, and there were lawyers who got creative and found ways to adapt- sometimes resulting in them being better off than before the “bad” change. Malorie wholeheartedly agrees and adds that finding a group of lawyer friends to brainstorm with has been very helpful for her in these situations.

As Michael and Malorie begin to wrap up the episode, Michael praises Malorie for her positivity in the face of change and her ability to be creative and look for solutions. It’s something she partially credits to her natural personality, but she also makes a conscious effort to find something good about the change (even when it’s mostly bad) or take the time to think about all the good things in her life. It helps assure her that the world won’t end, and this positive outlook rubs off on those around her. Michael then shares his journey to having a positive outlook on change, and the two of them exchange a heartfelt moment of exchanges with their children that resonate with each of them.

The episode ends with a reminder to register for Cowen’s Big Rig Boot Camp as soon as possible. In-person seats are already full, but you can get on the waitlist or register virtually here! We’d love to see you there.

This episode also covers why “1” is the most dangerous number of anything, why you should avoid negative people, how to overcome some recent bad case law in Texas, and much more.

 

101 – Laura Pazin Porter – Pushing Forward: The Journey to Partner

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael welcomes newly minted partner at Cowen Rodriguez Peacock, Laura Pazin Porter, to the show for the first time to discuss her path to partner.

They begin the episode with a look at who Laura is and her career leading up to joining Cowen Rodriguez Peacock in 2019. Laura shares that she’s originally from Florida, but moved to McAllen, Texas at a young age and has strong South Texas roots. She first moved to San Antonio to attend St. Mary’s School of Law and has lived there ever since.

After graduating law school, Laura started working for acclaimed plaintiff’s lawyer Tom Rhodes, where she stayed until his passing in 2018. While working with Tom, Laura shares how she learned the importance of attention to detail, keeping the momentum going on your cases, and the value of a team approach. She also had the opportunity to work with previous podcast guest Hans Poppe as well as Randi McGinn, who Laura was lucky enough to get to try a case with. Laura shares how she was immediately drawn to Randi’s interaction with the jurors and thoughtful use of visuals.

Michael then asks Laura about the transition and differences between working with Tom Rhodes and working at Cowen Rodriguez Peacock. Laura explains how the team structure was different there, with lawyers sharing a legal assistant and working together on the docket. Here, Laura has learned how to manage a team with an associate, paralegal, and medical coordinator, and has grown a lot in her leadership skills.

“Being the leader that I would want is really what I try to do when I approach a meeting.” – Laura Pazin Porter

In addition to adapting to a new team structure, Laura has had to learn a new area of the law in trucking and commercial vehicle cases. She believes the education she was provided with Cowen Rodriguez Peacock and an excellent, experienced paralegal aided in this transition. She and Michael then discuss how regular lawyering skills, she had already developed, applied in a new area. Michael adds that he believes there’s nothing harder than medical negligence cases, which Laura had lots of experience in when she first came here. In fact, Michael quotes Laura’s past boss, who once said that trucking cases were “nursing homes on wheels” because of the similarities in paperwork and procedure.

Another area where Michael notes Laura has grown is in her ability to make decisions confidently, and he asks if there was anything he and his firm did to help with that. Laura once again emphasizes the education, tools, and skills that the firm provided her. This increased her confidence in herself and made her more confident in her decisions. They discuss the access to JJ Keller trainings for truck drivers, the firm’s weekly Case Valuation roundtables, the yearly Big Rig Boot Camp and more. She also shares that she is grateful for the lawyers who provided her with resources and forms to get started, so she wasn’t starting from scratch.

After a brief look at some of the amazing case values Laura has obtained recently and how she did it, they move on to discuss some of the rules Michael has at his firm, discussed in more detail in this episode with partner Malorie Peacock. Laura shares how these rules may be time consuming, but she has come to learn why they all have a purpose, and she finds herself in a better position to accomplish her goals when they are followed. Michael adds that he has been working a docket again recently, so he’s had to follow his own rules for the first time. He agrees they can be a pain, but that little pain now will save A LOT of pain later.

“The stressed-out brain does not make good decisions.” – Michael Cowen

Circling back to training opportunities, Michael and Laura discuss the long-term value of hiring skilled litigation and trial consultants – you pay them once to work with you on a case, but you have the knowledge they provided you with you in every case going forward. Michael then shares how he is often asked why he spends so much time and money on training, since the lawyers could leave the firm at any time. His philosophy is simple, and he explains it well – he wants to have good lawyers everyone else wants to steal, but for those lawyers to choose to stay.

“I really want a firm that everybody in town is trying to steal our people, every day. I want every lawyer here to be recruited constantly, that every other firm wants them. And then I also want them to not want to leave.” – Michael Cowen

This leads them to discuss how they balance their workloads. While some firms require lawyers to work Saturdays, Michael has a different approach which allows more flexibility, which Laura appreciates. They both agree that sometimes it’s necessary to work late or work weekends but allowing the lawyer to decide what works best for them has led to a much better work life balance for Laura.

They end the episode on a slightly personal note, discussing how they balance their work, spouses, and kids. Laura shares how her and her spouse both have strong work ethics, and it helps them understand each other’s needs. Michael then quotes Randi McGinn, saying that “You can have it all, just not at the same time,” which is his philosophy with this. He’ll work late sometimes, but not all the time. He’ll take long vacations with his family, but not all the time. They agree that it’s all about finding the balance in whatever way works for you and your family.

This podcast also covers how Laura is getting fantastic case values, what she’s doing to develop her new associate, how to find the balance in your workload, and much more.

 

99 – Sonia Rodriguez – The Pursuit of Happiness: Building the Attorney-Client Alliance

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael is joined by his law partner Sonia Rodriguez to discuss a topic sure to resonate with every plaintiff lawyer listening; What can we do to keep our clients happy?

The pair begins the episode with a look at why we want to keep our clients happy. While some of the benefits seem obvious, such as not having a grievance filed against you, getting positive reviews online, and gaining future business through their referrals, Michael and Sonia discuss this in more detail. Michael shares why you want your client to take your advice. And for them to do that, they need to trust you. Sonia agrees and adds that lawyers have a fairly low reputation in the eye of the general public. Clients come to you with this in the back of their minds, so it’s crucial to be upfront, honest, and transparent.

“If you have a client that trusts you, you can go forward with the case strategy as a team.” – Sonia Rodriguez

This leads them to discuss what makes clients unhappy with their lawyer. Sonia explains how the client is initially unhappy when they don’t know how the lawyer is getting paid. To alleviate this strain, Sonia makes a point to have a very frank conversation about the contingency fee and how it works during her first meeting with the client. In this conversation, she also makes it clear that case expenses are separate from the fee. Repeating this throughout the life of the case and making it nonchalant goes very far in building trust with the client.

Michael agrees and adds how crucial it is to fix your own relationship with money to have these conversations. He used to cut his fees all the time, without the client even asking. Sonia shares something that helps with her mindset – that the attorney’s fee isn’t all going into her pocket. It also pays paralegals, investigators, employee health care, etc. It comes down to valuing yourself and your services.

Michael and Sonia’s next topic of conversation is one of the most commonly filed grievances against lawyers – a lack of communication with the client about what’s going on with their case. To nip this issue in the bud, they’ve developed a system which requires a meaningful client contact at least once every 30 days (discussed in more detail in this fan-favorite episode with Malorie Peacock). In this phone call, typically conducted by the paralegal, the client is asked a series of meaningful questions and provided with an update on their case. It not only keeps the client informed, but it also helps the firm know when the client is struggling to keep up with his or her medical appointments. This helps move the case forward, adds value to the case, and helps ensure the client is happy.

After briefly discussing the commonly held belief that the attorney only cares about the money and how to combat it, Sonia asserts a powerful point; attorneys should not put themselves in the position of needing to make the client happy. With a personal injury claim can come a lot of anxiety and depression, and sometimes you can never make a client truly happy. If that is your goal, then you are setting yourself up for failure.

This leads them to talk about managing expectations with clients. Michael and Sonia both agree that bringing up any issues with the case early leads to a happier client in the end. Sonia frames it as not having a “crystal ball.” She will not tell a client early on what she thinks the case is worth. Instead, she tells the client what she “imagines the insurance company wants to pay them.” This is a great way to point out any issues in the case, while diffusing any potential rift between herself and the client and uniting them against the insurance company on the other side.

Michael adds that if the client thinks you need the money, they will doubt you when you advise them to settle. He then shares the powerful explanation that he gives to clients in this situation, where he makes it clear that he is able to take on the risk of going to trial but shares the downsides of doing so for the client.

While there can be a real, scary financial risk for young lawyers with a lot of money invested into a case, Michael shares his personal experience of losing his first $100,000 and his shocking reaction looking back on that experience. At the end of the day, choosing to settle on your advice or not is the client’s decision, and when you make that clear from the start, you don’t need to lose sleep over it.

“It hurts, but when you survive it… it’s a very liberating thing.” – Michael Cowen

Having to be the bearer of bad news comes with the territory of being a lawyer. Michael and Sonia’s next talking point explores the different ways they handle delivering this bad news without damaging the attorney-client relationship. Sonia shares why telling them in person immediately or, if possible, in advance goes a long way to salvaging and potentially even strengthening your trust with the client. She then shares a recent example where her client refused to answer a question in a deposition. Sonia pulled her aside and explained the risks. When the client chose to move forward, she understood a motion to compel could be filed; but it was a decision the client made, and Sonia supported her.

The pair wraps up the episode with Michael sharing a philosophy he learned from his New Mexico office partner, Alex Begum. At the end of the day, personal injury clients don’t usually know if the lawyer is doing a good job or not; but what they do know is how they feel when they interact with your office. Things like offering them a beverage, giving them a gift package, and not making them wait for a long time when they come to see you go a long way. And while the strategies mentioned in this episode won’t make everything perfect all the time, implementing them at your firm will help maximize client happiness over time.

“When you make people feel more respected dealing with your office than anywhere else in their lives, then they will like you.” – Michael Cowen

This podcast episode also covers why online reviews are so important and when you should ask a client for a review, why client happiness is more important in personal injury than most other practices, how to show a client you care about them and not just the money, and much more.

 

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.

 

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