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40 – Ken Levinson – Focus Groups and Metaphors

In this episode of Trial Lawyer Nation, Michael Cowen sits down with Ken Levinson, a successful trial attorney who is also very active with his trial consultant focus group practice, for a discussion on how his unique practice is getting big results in the courtroom. Ken selfishly loves his “split practice” primarily because of its process of constant learning which comes with both sides of his practice, noting that he’d never want to give either of them up.

The conversation begins by exploring focus groups, as Ken talks through how they help in cases because lawyers are able to find out what resonates with people and then test it before ever stepping into the courtroom. “Over time, I’ve learned the better approach is to accept what people tell you. Listen, and in a neutral way, find out what’s going on.” Ken goes on to say “I don’t want to fall in love with my case or a witness or a theory without really stepping back and almost looking at your case in a different way” which is exactly what focus groups help him do while pointing to the teachings of Michael Leizerman [link to Michael Leizerman episode] of needing to have a “Zen mind” or a beginners mind. He adds “I think we get lost in the language of being a lawyer and I’ve really tried to train myself to talk like real folks in everyday life about our cases.” Michael then points out how it is incredibly important to be yourself, noting the power that authenticity brings to human communication both inside and out of the courtroom.

After working with so many great lawyers, Michael wonders what Ken has seen separates the good from the elite. Ken points out two factors he’s seen in elite lawyers: 1. They know their cases inside and out and although they may seem to talk very casually about things in the courtroom, they actually work extremely hard; and 2. The better trial lawyers he’s gotten to know are always learning. Ken goes on to point out there are some firms he might do 20+ focus groups for in a given year, and although they have been getting multi-million dollar verdicts for decades now, they are always learning, testing, reading, revising, and thinking about how to improve.

Michael speaks to his own experiences on learning and how over the years, while there are some basic human things that don’t change, many things do change over time and thus, lawyers need to be open to continuing to learn in order to be effective in the courtroom. Ken follows up to describe some of the other things he’s doing to continually get better, such as reading a lot on decision-making, psychology, and metaphors, then discussing what he’s learned with friends and colleagues, testing things for himself in focus groups, case preparations, depositions, and in the courtroom. He also goes to seminars and holds in-house trainings. Ken also discusses some of the ideas he’s learned from R. Rex Parris [link to Rex episode] on metaphors and how he’s been able to incorporate them into his courtroom proceedings.

Talking more about Ken’s experiences with focus groups and testing theories within them, he describes a few exercises he’s used to better understand the imagery that focus group juries associate with their case using simple techniques. Then he takes things a step further to discuss the findings, one-on-one, with the focus group participants. Through this process, he’s discovered many great metaphors and images that have helped his cases as well as some that needed to be tweaked or reworked for a case, noting that it’s better to find out and understand things which can negatively impact your case prior to trial, than during it, of course.

Beyond running his law firm and focus groups, Ken has also written books and articles, which begs the question – how does he have time for all of this? Ken describes his methods of time management which include getting up several hours before his wife and kids, but also includes time blocking and scheduling things based on his own understanding of the best times for him to get work done, which he details more in this episode. Michael also talks through the structures he’s implemented in his life and his firm to help to “move the ball forward” toward accomplishing his goals.

Michael turns the conversation toward what lawyers can do to set themselves up to achieve their goals, whether it is getting a $43 million verdict or a $6 million settlement, to which Ken turns the table a little bit and points out some great advice he had heard from Michael about taking on the right cases and turning away the others. Michael elaborates on this point and discusses the juxtaposition of the normal mentality associated with turning down cases, which really hits the nail on the head in terms of getting more of the types of cases lawyers want to get and building their practice.

Their conversation rounds out in a discussion revolving around the terms Ken has seen come up over and over in focus groups involving trucking cases specifically. Ken talks about terms he’s found to be important to focus groups and juries alike such as “professional driver,” and ideas revolving around vision and forgiveness. Truly insightful information that Ken discusses more in depth, which not only brings perspective to trucking cases at their face value, but also the impact focus groups can have in helping to bring another element of humanity into our cases by getting the perspectives of what’s important in the eyes of others.

 

BACKGROUND

Ken Levinson is a passionate advocate for accident survivors and child safety. For more than 20 years, he has represented disenfranchised clients against corporate giants. By using the law, the court system and his skill as a lawyer, his goal is to level the playing field for those facing the most challenging times of their lives.

 

Leadership

  • Former Section Chair of the American Association for Justice  Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway and Premises Liability Section
  • Vice Chair of the American Association for Justice Trucking Group
  • Board Member of the American Association for Justice National College of Advocacy
  • Co-chair of Overcoming Jury Bias Litigation Group
  • Regional Coordinator of the American Association for Justice Chicago Student Trial Advocacy Competition
  • American Association of Justice Board of Advocates
  • American Association for Justice Law Schools Committee
  • American Association for Justice Voter Protection Committee
  • Committee Chair of the American Association for Justice Litigation Group Coordination Committee
  • Press Advisory Board American Association for Justice
  • Chair Chicago Bar Association Solo & Small Firm Practice Committee

Ken also serves as chair of the section’s Practice Resources Committee, which compiles documents such as pleadings, research, expert reports and other information that might be helpful to fellow trial lawyers. As part of AAJ, Ken acts as Secretary of Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway, and Premises Liability Section and Chair of the newsletter committee; he has served as Education/CLE Vice-Chair of the Trucking Litigation Group (2014–2015) and Co-chair of Publications Committee (2013-2014). Additional memberships include the Chicago Bar Association, where Ken has also been the Solo & Small Firm Practice Committee Chair from 2009-2019, Vice Chair (2008 – 2009), and the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, where he is currently a member of its Board of Managers. Under ITLA, Ken is also a co-chair of the legislative committee. In 2010, Ken was elected to serve a three-year term on the Trial Lawyers College Alumni Board. He is currently serving on the editorial board of The Warrior, the Trial Lawyers College magazine.

Ken has written numerous articles for prestigious lawyer publications and spoken at dozens of conventions for trial lawyers and American Bar Association organizations. Ken also recently appeared on an episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast.

 

Honors and Awards

Ken is currently the Vice Chair of the American Association of Justice Trucking Group. Ken also formerly served as Chair of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway and Premises Liability Section and  Illinois Board of Governors for the American Association for Justice, a designation that carries Illinois Trial Lawyers Association (ITLA) Board status. He has been recognized by Leading Lawyers and Super Lawyers magazines as one of the top attorneys in Illinois, including the Super Lawyers Top 100 in 2012, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. He is the co-author of Litigating Major Automobile Injury and Death Cases, a two-volume reference series designed to help attorneys build strong cases for their clients by highlighting real-life case studies related to Major Auto Injury and Death. The book is published by AAJ Press/Thomson Reuters.

Named one of The 40 Lawyers Under 40 to Watch in Illinois by the Law Bulletin Publishing Company, Ken is among a select group of trial attorneys that has graduated from legendary lawyer Gerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College, which is dedicated to training and educating lawyers who represent people against corporate and government oppression. Ken is one of only 100 trial lawyers from Illinois selected for The American Trial Lawyers Association, where membership is by invitation only.

 

Education

After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree from Hobart College in 1989 and his Juris Doctor in 1992 from Case Western Reserve University School of Law, Ken was appointed an Assistant Illinois Attorney General, representing state agencies and employees in civil matters, including both personal injury and civil rights cases. He has been admitted to practice before the Illinois Supreme Court and the Northern District of Illinois, United States District Court since 1992. Levinson is also admitted to the Federal Trial Bar.

 

Personal

Ken volunteers his time and resources to a variety of community and charitable organizations in the Chicago area, such as sponsoring the Tristin Speaks Benefit, which raised funds for autism awareness. Ken is a former member of The Citizens’ Council of LaGrange, a non-partisan community group that promotes better government through the recruiting and evaluation of candidates for local public office, having co-chaired the Council’s Qualifications Committee. Ken participated in the 39-mile, two-day Avon Breast Cancer Walk and the St. Jude Walk/Run to End Childhood Cancer. Ken also supports Art in Motion, an event hosted by the Associate Board to raise funds for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, now known as the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab.

Ken is an area native, born in Chicago and currently living in LaGrange, IL. He is happily married and the father of three boys, keeping him very active in youth and sports-related activities. One of his favorite pastimes is to go with his wife to their sons’ high school varsity games and in-state and out of state tournaments for basketball and volleyball.

Ken can be reached at all hours via email: Ken@LevinsonStefani.com

 

RESOURCES

How Customers Think: Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market by Gerald Zaltman

Marketing Metaphoria: What Deep Metaphors Reveal About the Minds of Consumers by Gerald Zaltman

Metaphors We Live By author George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

 

 

28 – Malorie Peacock – Storytelling in the Courtroom

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In this episode of Trial Lawyer Nation, Michael Cowen sits down with Cowen | Rodriguez | Peacock partner, Malorie Peacock, for another installment of TLN Table Talk to answer the questions of our listeners. Today’s topic focuses on storytelling in trial and identifying the “characters” in your case.

They begin with the most obvious question on today’s topic, why do we want to tell a story instead of just presenting our facts? Michael explains that people don’t learn through cold, clinical facts and if you want a juror to connect to your client’s situation, they must relate to it. The easiest and most effective way for them to relate is oftentimes through a story. Michael adds that we are genetically programmed to think in story, going all the way back to the campfire in the cave scenario, also noting that people can tell when a story is not right. Malorie also describes what stories are on a very basic level, in that they aren’t something that is made up for a trial, but rather something that is very specific and still based on facts. A sequence of events with a beginning, middle, and an end with characters who have motivations for doing things.

Conversely, the real danger of not having a story, Michael explains, is that the jurors are going to come up with a story. For Michael’s team, the story might be about the greedy trucking company who pushed their drivers to drive more hours than are safe on the road, just to make more money. Whereas, a different story that could be formulated by a juror on their own might be about a greedy plaintiff’s lawyer who took a case and is trying to make a lot of money from it. And because the juror wants to be the “hero” of the story, they might stop the attorney from getting that money. This puts even more importance on the story that gets told, for the client’s benefit.

Does every story need to have a hero? Yes, and it’s always the same group of heroes (the jury). Michael refers to a book written by Carl Bettinger called Twelve Heroes, One Voice, that has really helped him to understand the dynamics of storytelling, heroes and villains, and how the jury must be the hero in a trial. He also notes that this book transformed his thinking from where he had thought he, as the attorney or his client needed to be the hero when in reality, the only ones who can do anything heroic are the jurors, because they’re the ones who can save the day.

Michael points out that it is important when starting to storyboard your case that you carefully consider who the “villain” is while also keeping an open mind to the idea that it could always change before going to trial. Michael has gone so far as to research and study playwriting and screenwriting books to find out what the common characteristics of villains are since most people have learned about heroes and villains through watching movies or tv and he wanted to be able to give people a story structure that they can relate to. He lays out his findings of the 5 ideal characteristics of a villain as he found them to relate to the courtroom, those being that they are: Powerful, Intelligent, Immoral, Deceptive, and an Individual (not a collective or an entity). Michael and Malorie go on to talk more about the immorality of these villains and the selfish quality that they portray, while also pointing out that these people are not typically evil just for the sake of being evil (like in some movies), but rather are just willing to risk others for the sake of their own gains. Again, it’s not that they actively set out to kill someone that adds to their guilt, but rather the act of knowing something is wrong and then doing it anyway, also known as conscious indifference, or as Malorie points it out, as a selfish quality to such villains.

Why is it so important to make the villain an individual versus a company or a collective? Michael explains that we just haven’t been programmed in our upbringing to see the villain as a corporation or collective and therefore it doesn’t translate as well into the courtroom. Corporations are not actual “people” and thereby do not have emotions or individual thoughts, again making it hard for them to take on the responsibility for making a decision. So, if you can find the person that made the decision, who knowingly endangered the public, it becomes so much more impactful to a jury, especially when that person is powerful, intelligent, deceptive, and immoral.

The focus shifts from heroes and villains to what role you, as an attorney, and your client (the plaintiff) play in the typical courtroom story, to which Michael sees the plaintiff as the survivor or the one who needs rescuing by the jury, and the attorney as the ones guiding the jury to the truth…like a courtroom Yoda. As a part of that Yoda-like role, Malorie and Michael discuss the need to stay calm and collected when dealing with people who are trying to be deceptive and allowing yourself to place the trust in the jury to see things for what they are and that they will do the right thing. Michael goes on to point out that going into the courtroom without that trust in the jury or suspicion that they may not do the right thing, will almost always do more harm than good to your case. It will show unconsciously in your body language, a tone of voice, and you will have a disconnect with the jurors. Michael also credits Joe Fried and Michael Leizerman on helping him to understand that concept as well.

This TLN Table Talk continues with vital conversations on how you structure a story for a trial where the jury can come to their own conclusions about the villain on their own so not to “tell them what to think;” why it is less impactful to accuse someone of being deceptive, versus exposing it; being aware of the other stories being told in the courtroom so not to seem like you’re beating up the defense and inadvertently become the villain yourself; along with many other real-life, and some fictional, stories to illustrate Michael and Malorie’s insights. Clearly topics they both have a lot of experience with and knowledge that any attorney can find helpful.

 

19 – Malorie Peacock – Trial Tips: Voir Dire, Visuals, and Technology

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Every month, our podcast receives questions from our listeners (which we love by the way, keep them coming) and we take the time to respond to each individually. After 8 months of being on the air, we thought it might be fun and valuable to dedicate an episode to reflect and respond to some of these questions in a new series we’re calling “TLN Table Talk.” In this episode of Trial Lawyer Nation, sought-after trial lawyer and fellow partner at Cowen | Rodriguez | Peacock, Malorie Peacock, flips the script and puts Michael in the “hot seat” for an open discussion to answers questions from our listeners.

Malorie digs right in with a note from a listener that asks – “Knowing that we all need to try more cases to get better, and sometimes you just can’t get to trial for one reason or another, how do you practice for the big moment of going to trial?” Michael reveals how he personally prepares for each trial and his approach toward different types of cases and jurors, along with his thoughts on prepared scripts. He goes on to share outstanding insights about planning and practicing for voir dire, where you don’t know what the jury panel is going to say; and allowing the truth to be acknowledged without letting it throw you off your intended path. Interestingly enough, Michael’s use of pizza and beer to get a deeper understanding of a case, while simple in practice, can also be incredibly useful in the courtroom. Michael also opens up about his rekindled respect for inclusive voir dire with a recent example of a case that turned a $125k offer into a $1.25M verdict, seemingly built in voir dire, before any evidence was ever discussed.

From there, Malorie talks with Michael about the firm’s strategy in trying most cases in pairs and asks him why he believes it’s better. His answer is perhaps not what you might expect, and the discussion shifts toward courtroom perceptions. Michael and Malorie both agree that every perception matters: from how you dress, to how you interact with your staff, to how people see you drive away in the parking lot. The same goes for your client too! Both also agree that understanding visual communication is extremely important as a trial lawyer.

Trial technology seems to be a hot topic for our listeners with all kinds of questions around what types we use, how we utilize them, and the thoughts around why we use them (or not). Michael is quick to point out that we all need to remember the purpose of the tech and the need to tailor the tech to the case, so you don’t look too slick when the other side brings in a manila folder and a legal pad. He does recommend that if the courtroom, and your budget, allows, there are some specific pieces of technology that are far better in his opinion in helping jurors understand pieces of evidence, so long as you are comfortable with it and prepared to proceed when it doesn’t work.

Michael and Malorie close the conversation in talking through strategies on figuring out how much money to ask a jury for and how to actually ask for it, the details of which you’ll have to listen to learn. 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!

For more information about Michael Cowen, go here.

For more information about Malorie Peacock, go here.

Michael Cowen – Introduction to Trial Lawyer Nation

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Michael Cowen and his guests explore critical topics distinctive to the legal profession – specifically focusing on developing extremely efficient law practices, securing a competitive edge in the industry, and wildly excelling in the courtroom.

Podcast Host
Michael Cowen is not only a founding attorney at a Texas law firm, but an accomplished author and sought after speaker. Specializing in personal injury cases involving trucking, commercial motor vehicle, catastrophic injury, oil field accidents as well as product liability, Michael celebrates 20+ years of practicing law and is devoted to passing on his years of experience and lessons learned along the way, to his peers in the legal community.

Click here for more information on Michael Cowen

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