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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.

 

90 – Sonia Rodriguez – The Trials of War: Tactics, Strategy & Mindset

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with Cowen Rodriguez Peacock partner and attorney, Sonia Rodriguez, to discuss Sonia’s rediscovered inspiration and lessons from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” and the strategies and tactics trial lawyers can utilize from it while still dealing with a pandemic.

Michael opens the episode by telling Sonia about his feelings of frustration about his upcoming case (which is less than a week away at the time of recording) being canceled due to Covid concerns. Sonia responds to this by saying this trend of “getting the rug pulled out from under you,” seems to be the “new normal” for trial lawyers during the pandemic.

The two then begin to discuss how this impacts your case outside of the courtroom, specifically having to invest time and money into a case multiple times due to cancellations, the need to find flexible experts, and the pandemic’s “giant wrench” in your damage evaluations.

“We all know that, even in non-pandemic times, the certainty of a trial date was never really that certain. But now, the prospect of having to prepare multiple times for the trial setting is going to multiply the cost.” – Sonia Rodriguez

The conversation then shifts to what trial lawyers can do in times like these to maximize the value of their cases. Sonia begins by discussing her re-reading of Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and its impact on her successes in 2021.

“I’ve been practicing law for almost 25 years, and I’ve never made more money in a one-year period than I have during this pandemic,” Sonia says leading into her first citation from the book (with a notable twist for trial lawyers); “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without [a trial].” This, she notes, is similar to the modern-day strategy, “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

Sonia then delves deeper into this concept by discussing how she prepares for war, or in this case trial, by hiring and preparing our experts, paying for exhibits, and (probably most important) laying plans and evaluating her cases strengths and weaknesses.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”– Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”

Building on the subject of the importance of evaluating your case, Sonia presents one of her touchstones for case valuation: Remember torts 101, negligence has two parts. She presents that it’s easy to fall into the rut of evaluating your case based on your client’s damage model. However, if you look at your case carefully, based on liability factors you believe, and go to battle fairly evaluating both components, you will add value. Michael agrees with this, adding that if the defense did something really bad, you’re more likely to get a bigger result.

The two continue this conversation with Sonia explaining how mediators only want to talk about low property damage and pre-existing conditions; subjects to which she responds, “I spit on that!” Instead, she wants to talk about this trucking company, how they have no training protocols, how they’ve had the same types of crashes for the last 3 years, and so on; ultimately aiming to change the framework of the conversation to focus on liability.

“No one really knows what a case is worth. There is no magic formula … . If we, in our heart of hearts, believe it’s worth more, we can get more.”– Michael Cowen

Sonia then shifts the conversation to “attacking by fire,” or, in other words, always coming from a position of strength, even if you have weaknesses in a case. Regarding the weaknesses of the defense, however, Michael adds, “you always want conflict in the other room.” We want to add pressure to the other side to the point that they want out. Adding a final point to the subject of “attacking by fire,” Sonia hones in on her “fun” way to strategize; namely finding the pressure point of the defense and exploiting that weakness.

Moving on to discussing and evaluating the actions of the defense, Sonia cites Chapter 9 of “The Art of War,” entitled “Assessing Strategy Based on the Actions of Your Opponent.” Here, Michael and Sonia discuss how noticing aggression, “frenetic” activity, or threatening motions from the defense are clear signs of fear and, more importantly, weakness. “Especially when you respond with calm,” Michael says, “There’s nothing like that calm, quiet confidence.”

On that note of quiet confidence and taking power from the defense, Michael begins to take the conversation in a different route, breaking down his feelings about the results of cases and how that relates to his self-worth as a trial lawyer.

“It’s not that I don’t care about the result, it’s that my self-worth is detached from the result.”– Michael Cowen

This prompts the closing topic of conversation for the episode, mental health in the practice of law. Michael and Sonia discuss the trials and tribulations of their profession including starting and ending trials, letting go of trials (win or lose), the discipline required to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and being compassionate to yourself. “I think perfectionism is something a lot of lawyers struggle with,” Sonia says, “The struggle holds us back.” The two end the episode by sharing their own strategies for coping with the struggles of practicing law and close with a positive note of constantly seeking to be better in their cases, mental health, business, and practice.

This episode also discusses finding the weaknesses in your case and how to overcome them, the importance of obtaining key information during the initial client meeting, and trusting your intuition.

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