trial

107 – Stefano Portigliatti – The Power of the Individual: Insights into Juror Psychology, Communication & Understanding

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with Stefano Portigliatti, a trial lawyer out of Jacksonville, Florida, who recently secured a $14.6 million verdict on a tough trucking case. Michael and Stefano discuss Stefano’s background, how he connects with jurors individually, and all the details of his recent verdict.

To begin the episode, Michael asks Stefano about his background and how he got to where he is today. Stefano shares how his family is Italian, and how he grew up in Brazil. He had dropped out of college, but after some life experiences “woke him up to his priorities,” he decided to go stay with his brother in Tampa, Florida, and finish school. The pair finished college, then decided to attend law school together, where Stefano was bit by the “personal injury bug” and found his calling.

His family runs multiple businesses out of Orlando, including a Human Behavioral Research Group. It was in this lab where Stefano studied human behavior, motivation, personality, and social studies through neurosciences. Before law school, he applied this to executive coaching for businesses, but quickly realized the implications on jury communication and connection.

Stefano then elaborates on his personality assessment tool, which goes to the root of what we care about and how we communicate. Some jurors care about the rules being broken, others empathize with the social consequences, and others want to plainly see the numbers.

After Michael asks him what he does to motivate different people, Stefano explains the two-axis that separate people into four different quadrants. The first axis is their level of assertiveness, defined as those who need to influence the environment in accordance with what they want, versus those who look to the environment for cues. The other axis is the individual’s responsiveness, broken into task/objective-oriented versus people-oriented. When you place both continuums together, you get four quadrants from which 70% of human behavior can be attributed.

Michael digs further into how Stefano assesses these tendencies in jury selection. He shares how he doesn’t ask jurors explicitly but instead looks for cues based on their answers to questions, such as their occupation and eagerness to participate in the process. Once he has this information, he tailors his presentation of the case to each individual juror and what they value.

“Communication is not what you say. It’s what people understand.” – Stefano Portigliatti

This technique requires the lawyer to “talk to the juror, NOT the jury.” Stefano argues that this is so important because, at the end of the day, they are all individuals who are forming their own opinions until they step into the deliberation room. He then shares some enlightening examples from his recent trucking case verdict, including questioning a defense witness on his engineering qualifications when he had an engineering student on the jury, the client discussing his relationship with God after the incident when most of the jury were devout Christians, and even questioning the defense’s tow truck driver before relying on a truck driver on the jury to use “common sense” in deliberations.

Michael then asks Stefano to give some background on what happened in this case. Stefano explains how his client was an 18-wheeler driver who experienced air loss in his chassis while on the road during a bout of rain. He was unable to get off the roadway and eventually came to a hill, where he got stuck. He put out triangles on the road, but only put them out to about 160 feet instead of the required 200 feet. He gets back in his cab to avoid the rain when another semi comes over the hill, swerves, and jackknifes into the client’s semi. A witness later testified that the defendant driver was looking down the entire time.

Stefano’s client was flung from the sleeper cab into the front of the cab, where he hit his head and was left with a bad neck injury. They later discovered he also suffered a brain injury in the crash.

Listening to this story, Michael notices some clear issues Stefano had to face, including blocking the lane of traffic on the roadway and that he should have inspected the vehicle before departing. But shockingly, the jury found Stefano’s client 0% liable for the wreck. Of course, Michael asks how Stefano was able to do this. In short, the answer is putting in a LOT of work.

Stefano began to work up this case by consulting with experts, including one on CMV safety, to figure out what happens when a chassis loses air. Then, he held a total of five focus groups just on liability. At each focus group, he was asked questions that he didn’t have answers to. By the end, he learned so much from each of these groups that he went from 70% liability on his client in the first focus group to just 20% liability in the last focus group. The key was accepting and owning the things his client didn’t do right while focusing on the inattention of the defendant driver.

Another interesting aspect of this case was that the client’s brain injury wasn’t diagnosed for over a year after the crash. Luckily for Stefano, while the diagnosis took a while, his client’s symptoms were well documented from the time of the crash. He experienced intense dizziness, vertigo, depression, nightmares, and issues with directions. When they did a specialized MRI on him, they found that he did in fact have a brain injury, which explained all these symptoms.

Stefano then explains how the human story added credibility to the medical story. He had lots of “before and after” witnesses, including family, friends, and co-workers. Each of these witnesses had a distinct reason for being there, which Stefano made sure to emphasize since the order of the trial was much different than he had anticipated.

Stefano’s client received $4.6 million for economic damages and a massive $10 million for human loss, so Michael’s next question is about how he was able to get so much for human loss. Stefano shares his highly effective “damages pie chart,” which he finds particularly useful in cases with high medical expenses in the past and future. He divided the pie into 6 slices, with only one of those being past and future medical bills. He then fills the rest of the slices with examples from the case, such as physical impairment and loss of quality of life. This chart resonated so well with the jury that they asked for it during deliberations.

To wrap up the episode, Stefano highlights two points that he thinks are the most significant of this trial; flexibility and credibility. Trials will never to exactly how you planned them, so being able to adapt and roll with the punches is key. He also put a lot of effort into credibility, opting to go for an understated opening statement to ensure he didn’t overstate by event 1%. This built trust with the jury, resulting in this incredible verdict for Stefano’s client.

This podcast episode also covers getting over the fear of the jury, detailed stories of how Stefano connected with each juror individually, how Stefano adapted to the defense’s delay of the trial, and so much more.

 

Guest Bio:

Stefano D. Portigliatti is a trial attorney specializing in commercial motor vehicle cases at Coker Law, PA in Jacksonville, FL.  He has represented clients in over a hundred trucking cases and helped obtain millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements. Stefano is among the first 20 attorneys in the United States to pass a rigorous exam on trucking laws and an intensive background check to prove that his practice is dedicated to litigating trucking crash cases. He was also one of the youngest attorneys to be included among Super Lawyer’s Rising Stars and the National Trial Lawyers’ Top 40 Under 40.

Stefano often presents on topics related to trial and trucking litigation. He is on the Board of Regents of the Academy of Truck Accident Attorneys. He is also the founder of truck.law™, which assists other plaintiffs’ attorneys handling trucking cases with forms, resources, and seminars available at www.truck.law.

Stefano was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to a hard-working Italian family. Before becoming a lawyer, he was engaged in diverse business ventures across multiple continents. Stefano is the Vice President of SOAR Global Institute – a laboratory that researches human behavior and development. Stefano speaks internationally in the areas of emotional intelligence, innovation, and human development. He is a certified master coach and trainer and has developed several courses and systems that apply psychology and behavioral analytics to management and trial strategies.

Stefano is a musician and likes to sail, golf, cook and travel with his wife, Brittany, and their two sons, Luca and Leonardo.

 

105 – Keith Mitnik – Deeper Cuts: Systems That Simply Work

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with legendary Morgan & Morgan trial lawyer, podcast host, and author, Keith Mitnik, for a second time. They discuss Keith’s recently released book, “Deeper Cuts: Systems That Simply Work from Winning Workups to Thumbs-Up Verdicts,” new voir dire techniques, and the importance of words.

Jumping right into the podcast episode, Michael asks Keith how he gets full damages on cases with no obvious villain. Keith shares a recent example where he framed everything around the statement, “It’s not about how much she’s going to get. It’s about what was taken, and what’s a fair value for what was lost.” He draws an insightful connection between our modern-day justice system and the “eye for an eye” justice system of the past. The “brutal” eye for an eye system was never about the punishment, but about recognizing fully what was taken from the person who was wronged. He’ll explain this concept to the jury, and the results are powerful.

Keith continues by explaining the evolution of his voir dire process over the years, including how and when he gets the jury to get a discussion going. He’s tried many methods throughout the years and shares their flaws, but feels very good about his current strategy, which he calls “The First Big 3.” He’ll set up voir dire with the story about full recognition, then start questioning the jury on the big 3 types of bias:

  1. Feelings against this type of lawsuit.

  2. Feelings against the non-economic part of pain and suffering.

  3. Feelings against large verdicts.

After asking the jury about these 3 items, he’ll share the idea that it’s not about how much was taken, but how much was lost, and ask how it felt when they heard that.

Continuing this line of thought, Keith adds another change he sometimes makes to his voir dire, which is asserting that the jury’s job is not to assess the income of your client – it’s about the value of his or her health, which is way more precious than income. These changes have made for a great dialogue between Keith and the jury.

Michael then asks Keith about something he loved in the book – having the client create a list of the “little things.” Keith explains how we often base damages around the big things that are important to the client – but especially with hobbies, those things are rarely important and are often unrelatable for the jury.

To assist with this process, Keith gives clients a small notepad and a homework assignment- to write down every little thing they notice has changed due to their injury. This includes things they continue to do but in a different way and things they do but now it hurts. Then, he’ll sit down with the client to choose a list of the best ones. By the time the client is deposed, the client is able to readily provide a laundry list of relatable examples of how the crash has changed their life, and the defense lawyer is highly motivated to settle the case.

This leads Keith to share a brief but heartfelt story of a recent trial where he decided to ask the jury in voir dire about race, and why he plans to do it again in the future. It’s a story sure to resonate with any trial lawyer hesitant to bring up a sensitive topic in voir dire.

If you follow Keith Mitnik, you know he’s a man of many words – a self-proclaimed “word nerd.” So Michael asks the next logical question – why do words matter, and how does he come up with the words he uses? Keith explains the process he uses to find the best anchor words, where he circles any words he feels might not be the best, then turns to one of his many trusty thesauruses to see what else is available (He recommends either Word Hippo for iPhone or Wordflex for iPad). He shares some real-life examples before explaining the difference between inert words and activator words:

     Inert Words – Ambiguous words with different meanings to different people.

Activator Words – Consistently activate a particular meaning and a feeling.

From there, a word can be either a positive or a negative activator word, meaning it can work in your favor or against you if you aren’t careful. Keith shares numerous examples of inert and activator words, and how he chooses them based on the person he’s addressing.

Moving away from “Deeper Cuts,” Michael asks Keith what his strategy is for going into a case that someone else worked up to try it. Keith highlights the obvious disadvantages as well as the not-so-obvious advantages of this – notedly that he’s able to experience the case “in one, overwhelming wave, just like it will with the jury.” It provides a truly fresh perspective. His one requirement is that he needs to spend time with the client before the trial begins, to connect with them in his heart.

He continues by sharing the different ways he’s split cases up with other lawyers before, and how it varies depending on the other lawyer’s experience and skillset – though as you probably know, he almost always takes the voir dire, opening, and closing.

Michael and Keith then wrap up the episode with a promise to have Keith return soon. In the meantime, you can purchase his books Deeper Cuts: Systems That Simply Work from Winning Workups to Thumbs-Up Verdicts and Don’t Eat the Bruises, listen to Keith’s own podcast “Mitnik’s Monthly Brushstrokes,” and even join his listserv. To join, email Keith at kmitnik@forthepeople.com and copy his assistant Mary Arnold at marnold@forthepeople.com asking to join. They’ll even send you the past editions if you ask!

This podcast episode also covers why it’s important to emphasize your client’s injuries were brought to them “unnaturally,” a story from a recent trial where Keith had to improvise with a client on the stand, how to combat a convincing defense expert, why Keith almost always does both voir dire and opening, and much more, including numerous stories of Keith’s real-life trial experiences.

 

Bio:

Keith Mitnik is the author of Trial Guides’ bestselling book, Don’t Eat the Bruises:  How to Foil Their Plans to Spoil Your Case.

He is also known for his popular audiotape series “Winning at the Beginning” and for his monthly podcasts.

He is a frequent keynote speaker at seminars for trial lawyers across America.

Keith is Senior Trial Counsel for Morgan & Morgan. In that role, he is in trial almost every month, oftentimes 2 or 3 times a month, trying everything from suits against cigarette companies, medical malpractice, and product cases to car crashes and premises cases.

His list of verdicts is staggering.

He has been a commentator on many national television broadcasts and has been interviewed by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes.

Keith is recognized for creating and teaching systems that simply work – for any lawyer, in any case.

Lawyers all over the country attribute significant verdicts to his methods.

 

104 – Jamal Alsaffar – Sutherland Springs: The Untold Story of a Foreseeable Tragedy

Warning: This episode contains details of the Sutherland Springs massacre. Portions of the show will cover issues of domestic violence, gun violence, and content that may be disturbing to some listeners. Listener discretion is advised.

This episode is dedicated to the memory of all those whose lives were taken in the Sutherland Springs massacre, the survivors, and their families.


In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with trial lawyer Jamal Alsaffar, who served as lead counsel representing the victims of the Sutherland Springs massacre vs. the United States Government, obtaining a $230,000,000 verdict.

They begin the episode with a look at Jamal’s background. Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, he moved to Austin to go to college, where he met his now wife and law partner. Today they are both partners at National Trial Law in Austin, Texas, along with Jamal’s mentor, Bill Whitehurst. Jamal has tried numerous personal injury cases involving medical malpractice and catastrophic injury but has found a rare specialty in Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) cases.

Michael then quickly asks Jamal how he got started in FTCA cases, as it is notoriously difficult to sue the federal government. He shares how his first FTCA case was a birth injury case at an Army hospital. Even though he had many hoops to jump through, he ended up obtaining a very favorable verdict and realized that military families weren’t receiving high level trial lawyer representation in their cases. From there, his practice spread, and now he tries FTCA cases all over the country.

As Jamal lists the many requirements to try FTCA cases, it’s clear why there are so few lawyers who specialize in them as they are fraught with land mines.

The tone shifts somber as Michael asks Jamal about what happened in the Sutherland Springs shooting. He describes how on November 5th, 2017, a former Air Force member walked into a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where he opened fire. 26 members of the congregation were killed, and 22 were injured. While this man was in the Air Force, he was convicted of multiple felonies involving domestic violence and put in jail. Federal law requires that the agency who convicted him report the felony to the FBI’s background check system, but the Air Force did not. Because of this, the shooter was able to legally purchase firearms and ammunition at Academy Sports, which he used to commit mass murder.

Diving into the legal difficulty of a case like this, Michael asks Jamal what legal challenges he faced with holding the federal government liable on tort liability for someone failing to report criminal convictions. Jamal shares how they faced a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss on this issue, and the government’s defense was they cannot be held liable for this failure to follow federal law. But as Jamal successfully retorted, of course they can.

As Jamal puts it, at the end of the day, they didn’t have an excuse for not reporting this felony. In fact, as they learned in discovery, this was not a one-time clerical error. There was a documented 30-year history of the federal government not reporting felonies to the FBI’s background check service on a massive scale. Various internal warnings noted between a 30-50% failure rate, which was even worse at the base the shooter was stationed at in New Mexico – where many employees didn’t even know they were required to report. This was clearly a systemic problem which had been going on for a very long time.

“What we found was a 30-year history of the federal government not reporting on a massive scale.” – Jamal Alsaffar

Michael asks if the government has since done anything to fix this problem, to which Jamal replies with two powerful examples:

  1. In the Air Force alone, there were over 5,000 unreported felons. As a result of this litigation, all 5,000 of those have now been reported.
  2. The entire system of reporting and checklist system has now been automated and modernized for every branch of the military. They now use the system Jamal’s expert recommended.

Reflecting on those successes is momentous – as trial lawyers, we often think about the good we’re doing for one family, but it’s so rare to have the opportunity to tangibly make the entire country a safer place.

The next issue the government tried to fight on was foreseeability. They argued they could never have foreseen this man would do what he did. Jamal explains how they were lucky with the evidence, but it wasn’t magic – this was gumshoe work and discovery. After being stiff armed so aggressively that they wouldn’t even give Jamal mandatory disclosures, the judge became so angry with the U.S. attorneys he sanctioned them (without Jamal even asking) and ordered they provide the documents and witnesses requested.

“The level of negligence and how high it went … all the way up to the Secretary of the Air Force.” – Jamal Alsaffar

It was immediately clear why the U.S. attorneys tried to hold onto this information. The contents of these documents were appalling.

  • The shooter’s violence was documented, and his domestic violence crimes were committed with guns.
  • He had been institutionalized by the Air Force for mental health twice, including for trying to use a gun to kill himself.
  • While in the mental hospital, his computer searches included “how to commit a mass shooting” and “how to get weapons”, and the government knew about those searches.
  • He had threatened to commit a mass shooting on the base, to his superior commanders,

This man was institutionalized by the Air Force while he was threatening and planning to commit a mass shooting.

Michael then inquires if the shooting was random, or if the man knew people at the church. The answer is haunting – it was not random, but an act of domestic violence. It was the church his wife grew up in, and where she would go to escape him.

“It was not a random act. It was related to the very thing the Air Force convicted him of and failed to report on.” – Jamal Alsaffar

Michael then asks Jamal how he became the lead attorney on a massive trial team filled with heavyweights. The answer lies in one of Michael’s first questions: “What on Earth is the FTCA?” Jamal is one of only a handful of attorneys who try these cases regularly, but he also credits his communication, honesty, and preparation. He had an air-tight plan before he even filed the lawsuit, then meticulously drafted complicated pleadings where even a small mistake could ruin the case. But even with his vast FTCA experience and knowledge of how these cases work, he admits he had never tried a case like this before – in fact, only a few people have, and never at this magnitude.

“This is one of the most unique trials that’s ever been done in the history of the FTCA.” – Jamal Alsaffar

One big decision Jamal and his partner, Tom Jacob, made was to not depose any of the government’s experts. They knew the government wouldn’t settle, so there was nothing to be gained from taking a great depo. They did file one partial summary judgement, but they intentionally kept out some real bombshells they found in discovery and strategically saved them for trial.

As a result, they were able to surprise the judge with 2-4 new documents or facts he had never seen each day of trial that were “eye-popping.” As Jamal shares some of these, it’s easy to see why saving them was the right call. As the U.S. attorneys tried to defend themselves by saying this man was simply a monster, Jamal made it clear they knew this man was a monster and did nothing to stop him from harming the public, even after they banned him from accessing military bases and upped his security risk after he tried to access them anyways.

“He was a monster that you knew better than anyone else … even his family. And you let him loose.” – Jamal Alsaffar

Jamal continues by lamenting the fact that the judge only let him use one of his carefully crafted trial boards, but the timeline he was allowed to use showed a detailed progression of the shooter’s madness, aggressiveness, weapons purchases, and where he would have been caught and prosecuted if his felonies had been reported. It was a fantastic visual aid Jamal agreed to share with our listeners and can be found below.

Included in this timeline was one of the most shocking pieces of evidence in the entire case, which Jamal found by mining for third party discovery. The sheriff’s department had responded to a call at the shooter’s residence just 3 days before the massacre took place, where the exchange was caught on their body cameras. Because the man was acting aggressive and erratic, even threatening the cops, they looked him up in their database – where they found no record of his felonies because the Air Force didn’t report them. In this exchange, the man had a gun and stated he was armed, which he would have been arrested for carrying if the officers were able to see his felony conviction record.

Michael then asks how the trial was broken up. Jamal explains how the liability trial and damages trial were conducted separately. The liability trial took about 1 ½ months, but they had to wait another 2 months for the verdict. After the judge found the government to be 60% liable, he tasked Jamal’s team and the U.S. attorneys to get together and decide how to present this case efficiently. The result was an estimated 1-month trial for Jamal’s team, but an estimated 6-month trial for the U.S. attorneys. The judge decided to put faith in Jamal and agreed to a 1-month damages trial.

With so many plaintiffs and the delta variant spreading rapidly, Jamal had some challenges to overcome if his 1-month damages trial was going to be successful. He had to limit each plaintiff in the case to 1 hour of testimony, which required immense cooperation and preparation with his many co-counsels. To stave off the government’s fear of a Covid outbreak in the trial, Jamal even set up a Covid testing room in the courthouse, where each witness was required to test before entering the courtroom.

During the damages trial, Jamal shares some of the terribly heartbreaking stories told and how he used the actual courtroom to tell them, in lieu of the visuals he originally had planned. He tells a profound story of a realization he had one day, while sitting where the massacre took place and preparing mentally before trial. It’s a phantasmal story you have to hear in order to understand why every time the courtroom doors opened … people were on edge.

Part of the reason Jamal put so much effort into the verbal description is because he did not want to show the video of the shooting or the aftermath in the trial. After stating repeatedly to the government he would not submit the video into evidence, it was shockingly the government who moved to have the video entered the day before trial. And even though Jamal rejected it, the judge agreed to admit it because it is evidence. Jamal then asked for the video to not be shown to the media or the family members and placed under seal, which the judge agreed to.

The government may have thought Jamal would want to show the brutal carnage at the church, but that was never something he considered. Instead, Jamal chose to use stills from the video to show the scene right before the shooting. Describing this loving space, the joy, and the sense of community, “the second before it turned to hell,” Jamal’s remarkable skill to visually tell the story with his words will surely bring a tear to your eye.

After sharing more examples of the other evidence used in the case, Jamal highlights how important it was for the judge to understand the sights, the sounds, and the smells of that day. He deftly narrates the poignant scene when each plaintiff and witness spoke on the stand, shared what they saw, and verbalized their pain. With each testimony, the damages case came together for the judge.

Once the trial concluded, the attorneys had to wait patiently for the verdict for MONTHS. Jamal says the liability verdict is more stressful than the damages verdict and shares the very moment he read the result – a historic $230,000,000.

Broken down, it’s a reasonable amount for each plaintiff based on the standard for deaths and injuries. This way, the verdict is much less likely to be appealed, though Jamal admits he wanted more. He praises the judge who handled the case and includes his well-researched, well-founded opinion which will be tough for the defense to overturn on appeal.

Jamal and Michael wrap up the episode with a look at how background check laws work and how successful the program is when agencies report felonies to the FBI as required. This foreseeable tragedy should never have happened – and thanks to the work of Jamal, all of his co-counsel, and everyone who worked on this case, it will hopefully never happen again.

Resources provided by Jamal Alsaffar:

 

Guest Bio:

Jamal Alsaffar is a partner at National Trial Law in Austin, Texas. Jamal represents victims of catastrophic injuries across the state of Texas and has a national practice prosecuting cases against the Federal Government under the FTCA (Federal Tort Claims Act). Jamal and his partner Tom Jacob recently obtained a $230 million verdict against the federal government for their role in the largest mass shooting in Texas history that took 26 lives and injured 22 others at the Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church. Jamal has chaired AAJ’s Federal Torts practice section several times over the past decade, and has served as co-chair of the AAJ MedNeg/Birth Trauma group. He has been selected as one of the 20 “Leading Lawyers” in Texas under the age of 40—way back when he was under the age of 40. And has been named by his peers as a “Super Lawyer” consecutively from 2014-2022. Jamal soon hopes to be hired for his dream job—a perfect fit as he’s been telling anyone who will listen over the years—the next manager for Manchester United football club in England. He has three kids with his wife, law partner and boss, Laurie Higginbotham.

 

103 – Delisi Friday – A Bittersweet Victory: Post-Trial Discussion

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his Director of Marketing and Business Development Delisi Friday for a raw, honest conversation about his (very) recent jury trial win where the number was not what he wanted.

“When you try hard cases, you don’t always get what you want.” – Michael Cowen

They begin the podcast episode with the facts of the case. They were in federal court in Laredo, Texas, a community with a huge trucking and logistics industry. Their client was rear-ended by a truck at only 5 miles an hour. Initially, the client was diagnosed with only soft tissue damage, but later discovered a herniated disc that required surgery. This was argued by the defense to be a pre-existing condition, which the jury ultimately agreed with, only awarding enough money to cover the medical bills before the surgery.

As Michael explains the largest offer they received was only $25,000 during the trial, when the jury verdict was $80,000, Delisi asks Michael why he feels this is a loss. He breaks it down into 2 reasons: 1) he doesn’t feel the client is materially better off because they went to trial, and 2) he believes the case is worth a lot more than the result.

With that being said, he recognizes the challenges he was up against – low property damage and medical treatment gaps. When you try cases like this, he argues you’re not going to win them all. He tried the case well and gave it everything he had, but it didn’t go his way this time. He compares this to the Bengals, a great football team, losing the Super Bowl this year. At the end of the day, they’re still a great team.

“You’re not always going to get a home run every time you get up to bat.” – Michael Cowen

One of the biggest hurdles in this case was the low property damage. Delisi asks Michael about the challenges of them, and what he does to overcome them. Michael emphasizes that low PD cases are always a challenge because they fail the “oh shit!” test. When you have a picture of a vehicle after the wreck that causes people who see it to say, “oh shit, are they okay?” it’s much easier to try than when you don’t have that initial reaction.

Michael shares the strategy he used in this voir dire, which acknowledged both potential outcomes of a wreck – where the vehicle can look really bad but the person is okay, and where the vehicle can look almost completely fine but the person is very injured.

Delisi then asks Michael about his mindset going into this trial. Michael reiterates, as he has in many past episodes, his mantra for trial – the judge and the jury want to do the right thing, and he’s going to have fun (which he did). But as Delisi asks him why he didn’t want to go talk to the jury after the verdict was read, he says he’s just not there yet. He’s also not sure if it would have been helpful, given both his mindset and the gut feeling he believes the jurors made their decision off of. But even after this experience – he still trusts the jury and will continue to do so for his future trials.

“It feels like I asked someone on a date, they said no, and then I’m supposed to call them and ask why they didn’t want to go out with me.” – Michael Cowen

Changing the tone, Delisi asks Michael what he thinks went well with the trial. He shares how they ran a fast, smooth trial, he felt very comfortable and got to use two “new toys”, a King flip chart and a magnetic white board with cardboard vehicles , which he thinks were highly effective for the cost. He felt good about the cross-examination of their experts and the witnesses they decided to put on. He also explains how the client is a Spanish-speaker, along with most of the witnesses, the challenges that came with this, and how they overcame them.

This leads to Delisi asking about the two associate attorneys from their firm Michael tried the case with, and what takeaways he thinks they had. Michael shares that he had them each take 2 witnesses, which they both did very well. And while he admits it’s not as fun as doing it all yourself his firm takes pride in training and this truly is the best way to learn.

Delisi then asks the question on everyone’s mind – why is Michael Cowen trying a low property damage case? He explains how Malorie Peacock, his partner, is out on maternity leave, and he didn’t think it would be fair to the client or the referral partner to have two associates with less experience be the ones to try it themselves. He was also excited to try a case in a courtroom, even though low property damage cases aren’t cases he plans to take on in the future.

Circling back to mindset, Delisi wants to know more about why Michael was in such a good headspace going into this trial. He cites the work he has been doing on mindset and acknowledging he doesn’t have control over what the jury’s going to do. Even the best home run hitters in baseball strike out, but as Delisi playfully quips “I’m proud you got on base.”

Before wrapping the episode, Michael adds one more aspect of this case that made it tough – the fact that he didn’t have a “villain.” The driver admitted it was his fault, the defense lawyers were reasonable, the company didn’t train much (which is not the custom in this venue). It’s hard to get the jury to give you money when your client’s just hurt – there needs to be a villain. But sometimes, it’s really just a crash in a parking lot.

Ending on a heartfelt note, Delisi praises Michael’s courage and honesty for recording this episode only one day after the verdict was read and openly sharing this on the podcast. Even after this, Michael adamantly encourages everyone listening to get out there and try cases, even if they don’t always go the way you hope they do.

“If you can keep swinging, you’re going to hit something. So get out there and swing.” – Michael Cowen

 

92 – Delisi Friday – Back In Action: Post-Trial Discussion

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his Director of Marketing and Business Development, Delisi Friday, for a retrospective look at his recent in-person trial, including prep, mindset and more, only 3 days after the case settled.

The episode begins in a unique way with Michael turning the tables on the traditional Trial Lawyer Nation format and passing the interviewer role to Delisi. She goes on to open the conversation about how Michael is doing after his recently settled trial. “I’m on cloud 9,” Michael says in response, before going into how fun it’s been getting back into a courtroom for his first in-person trial since February 2020. (For the post-trial discussion of that case, check out Ep 53 – The Verdict Is In! with Malorie Peacock.)

After a brief reflection from Michael about just how much he missed in-person trials, Delisi comments on the “calm confidence” he displayed throughout the trial and asks how he developed that skill. Michael goes on to describe working on his mindset and sense of self to “have joy in trial.” He elaborates by sharing how he worked to separate his value as a person and his worth as a lawyer from his trial results. This created an environment where he was not only able to have fun and focus on what he needed to do, but also remove unnecessary pressures.

“You don’t want to say ‘I don’t care whether I win or lose,’ because that’s not true […] but, I just let it go [and] went in there with, ‘I’m just going to have fun, I have a great story, I’m going to tell that story, and I’m going to trust the jury to do the right thing.’” – Michael Cowen

Following a discussion on the differences between this trial and trials in 2019, Michael goes into the unique jury selection process for this trial. For starters, to appropriately space the 45 potential jurors, a larger courtroom was used which came with its own obstacles, such as columns blocking peoples view, the need for multiple spotters, and jurors being unable to hear their peers which limited discussion. “This was probably a little better, because we actually got to talk to every single person and the judge didn’t give time limits. We got to spend a full day doing jury selection, which in south Texas is a rare thing.”

Circling back to voir dire from a conversation about the client in this case and the challenges that arose from her growing story, Delisi cites Joe Fried’s advice from a previous episode (Ep 86 – Challenging Your Paradigm) regarding being comfortable with your number and asks Michael about his number, how he got to it and if he brought it up in voir dire.

Click here to view/download Michael’s opening transcript for the case referenced in this episode.

“I wanted to mention the $30 million number, that was going to be my ask in the case, and I put a lot of thought into why I thought $30 million was fair in that case […] I wanted to get it out there early.” – Michael Cowen

In order to better understand the $30 million number, Michael goes on to describe his client’s injuries and her life before the incident. Before the incident, his client was a charge nurse at a women’s oncology unit in a top hospital in San Antonio. She enjoyed her job, helping others, the comradery with her fellow nurses and some well-deserved bonding time after a 12-hour shift. After the incident, however, that would quickly change.

Following an incident at Big Lots, where a 29-pound box hit her in the neck and shoulders, she would incur physical injuries such as a multi-level fusion in her neck, a rotator cuff injury, back pain and (we believe) a mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI).

Delisi then asks Michael about his decision to not have his client in the courtroom. Michael goes on to explain when your client is there, the jury is focused on them (seeing if they’re fidgeting, timing how long they’re seated/standing, etc.) and are not listening to the testimony. He also brings up that his client had some real psychological problems such as anxiety and depression, and that her moods could be unpredictable; a factor that he did not want to risk when presenting in front of a jury and felt would be unfair to her as well.

The only reason to really call her was fear that [the defense] would punish us for not calling her.” – Michael Cowen

Delisi shifts the conversation to Michael’s use of photos of the client before her injury. Michael explains that to know what someone’s lost, you need to know what they had, and how he had to “bring to life” the person she once was. He goes on to say that he worked with his client, her friends, family, and others to get a lot of photos of her smiling, and doing what she loved, to paint a picture of her joyful life. When talking to Michael after the case settled, one juror described the contrast of those smiling, happy photos to her current, pained photos as “striking.”

One of the final topics Delisi brings up in this episode, is Michael’s thoughts on trying his first case with his law partner (and frequent TLN guest) Sonia Rodriguez. He shares why it was a great bonding experience and while there may have been some differences in approaches, that he knows their trial team “will get there” after working more cases together. Delisi brings this topic full circle by discussing the importance of over-communicating with your staff, especially ones that you’ve not tried cases with before, to assure your trial preferences and processes are handled as smooth as possible for all parties involved.

The episode ends on a lighter note with Michael talking about an experience with his 10-year-old son, a meltdown, and his unique approach to make his son smile. He explains that during a 3-day weekend, his son did not want to do his homework and was less than thrilled about being asked to do so. Michael, attempting to soothe the situation, offered a unique (and very attorney) approach to the situation; a Change.org petition to end weekend homework. The two end by calling out to fans of Trial Lawyer Nation to make a 10-year-old boy (and many more 10-years-olds, for that matter) smile by adding their signature to the petition.

This episode also covers the differences between trials pre- and post-pandemic, Michael’s feelings about settling his case during his return to in-person trials, going against respectable defense lawyers, and much more.