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.
84 – John Sloan – Experienced Listening
In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with renowned trial lawyer John Sloan. They dig into the vast experience John has acquired in his 40-year career as a trial lawyer, focusing on how he got where he is today, using role reversal techniques to better understand both clients and defendants, and his jury verdict on what he calls his “favorite case ever.”
Michael and John start the episode with a look at where John started and how he became successful. He shares how his boss right out of law school told him to figure everything out for himself, something that was tough at the time (especially when he announced ready for a murder trial just 5 weeks after being sworn in!) but instilled in him a work ethic which has served him well. He continued to learn all he could from other prominent lawyers in town and work countless weekends until he built his skillset up enough to focus on personal injury cases. When it comes down to it, John insists there is no substitute to putting in the hard work of learning both your case and trial skills.
The pair continues this note with some advice for young lawyers who want to get in the courtroom. While John concedes that it’s harder to try cases than when he started, he insists the opportunities are out there if you’re willing to work for them. Michael agrees and adds that young lawyers need to be willing to “pay their dues” by trying some not-so-great cases before getting to try awesome cases. He and John then discuss how they cope with losing at trial, and even highlight a shocking benefit of taking cases to trial even if you lose them.
Michael then moves on to ask John about how he uses role reversal techniques to get to know his clients on a deeper level. It comes down to really taking the time to get to know your client, instead of just asking them questions to elicit facts about the case. It not only makes the attorney-client relationship more meaningful, but it also helps the lawyer be a better advocate for the client. John then elaborates why you don’t need to do a full-day psychodrama to use these techniques. You need to learn the skills first, but you and your staff can use role reversal techniques with your clients in everyday conversations.
Among those techniques is something John calls “listening with a 3rd ear,” which he describes as listening for the story beneath the words being spoken. It’s the emotional content of what you’re hearing from the client, whether it’s actually stated or not. Michael shares when he does this, he makes a point to check in with the client and confirm it’s actually representative of how they’re feeling. John agrees and adds some more interesting strategies for building this connection with your clients.
Michael then shifts gears to the defendant- can you use these role reversal techniques with the people on the other side of the case? John says, “Absolutely.” He explains how he likes to do this introspectively before a deposition. What would they say to their lawyer that they would never say to you? Then, frame the questions you ask around that. Michael tries to approach the defendant (especially the defendant driver) from a place of understanding, which allows the jury to get mad at the defendant company in their own time.
After a brief but insightful conversation about the importance of treating each of your cases as individuals, John and Michael discuss the power of saying no to cases which don’t suit you. John reflects on when he first started his own firm and would take any case just to bring some money in. To this day, that mentality has made saying no to a good case tough for him. But he and Michael agree there comes a point in your career where you need to prioritize your time.
If you’ve listened to Trial Lawyer Nation, you know Michael loves a good trial story; and John
83 – Cliff Atkinson – Beyond Bullet Points: The Art of Visual Storytelling
In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with consultant Cliff Atkinson. Cliff has worked with some of the top trial lawyers in the country to help them better tell their clients’ stories. He and Michael discuss his path to success, what he’s found effective for telling stories at trial, how to use the visual medium to help tell a story and where to find good visuals, the creative process, and how Zoom effects our ability to present information.
Cliff and Michael begin the episode with a look at Cliff’s backstory. He shares how he first used PowerPoint for a business school project in the late 90’s, where he added bullet pointed information into the slides like everyone else. A few years later while looking at some blank slides, he realized it could be SO much more than that. As he began writing articles about using PowerPoint as a creative medium, he began receiving attention. After consulting with General Electric’s board, he was approached by Microsoft to write a book about using PowerPoint creatively, which became the bestseller “Beyond Bullet Points”. After Mark Lanier read his book and couldn’t put it down, he was brought in on his first case- Mark’s legendary $253 million verdict against Vioxx, and the rest is history.
Michael then digs deeper into what Cliff has found effective for telling our stories at trial. While Cliff is well-known for his PowerPoint prowess, he insists the story needs to be crafted before you can even THINK about the visuals. Once you have your story, the visuals ride on top of it, magnify it, and make it more powerful.
Michael notes how it can be a challenge to distill the vast number of facts in a case into a story, and asks Cliff for his advice on how to craft a compelling story. He starts with finding the structure using a 3-part story tool template. It’s about making it clear, concise, and powerful. But Cliff insists that it’s NOT about dumbing it down for the jury, it’s about distilling it down. Michael wholeheartedly agrees with this statement and adds that it’s about trusting and respecting the jurors – a recurring theme in this podcast. Cliff then refers to a concept from the book “Made to Stick” called “The Curse of Knowledge.” If you’ve been working on something for a long time and you’re explaining it to someone who hasn’t seen it before, you’re going to have a hard time looking at it like a beginner.
Cliff then begins to elaborate on how to incorporate the visual medium into your story. After sharing an inspiring example of this being done successfully in Mark Lanier’s Vioxx trial, Cliff eloquently explains this verbiage is the infrastructure for the visual. Once you find your engaging thematic element, the visuals are easy to find. He likes to keep images simple and shares an example from a very complex financial case. He used a blue bucket to demonstrate the key facts of the case, and it simplified the case so well the jurors were asking about it after the case and it undoubtedly helped the attorney win. The key is to make the experience fun and entertaining for the jury.
After a brief but insightful discussion of high tech vs. low tech visuals, Cliff highlights some of his favorite ways to find visuals. The largest source would be items you already have, including documents, PDFs, screen captures from Google Earth, and dashcam video. Once you have all of those visuals, you can do custom 3D constructions, or just do a Google image search to see what’s out there. If you find something close to what you’d like, you can easily hire a freelance graphic designer to create the image you want. Michael then shares some of his favorite low-budget visuals he’s created in hi...
82 – Malorie Peacock – Working Through Others: Building a High-Performing Team
In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his partner Malorie Peacock to discuss the art of managing your team and “working through others.” They cover effective delegation, hiring for experience vs. hiring for attitude, and how lawyers can be leaders to their teams.
Michael and Malorie kick off the episode with a look at delegating tasks to your team effectively, which is easier said than done when the team member has to do the work to your standards. Malorie starts by sharing her thought process when she wants to delegate a task. She first asks herself if this is something she could expect someone else to do in a way she approves of. If it is, she gives clear instructions and deadlines for when the task should be completed. Lastly, she makes a point to be available and open to answering any questions the team member may have about the task.
Michael then brings up a common pitfall for attorneys attempting to delegate tasks – if it’s not done right, he tends to just fix the errors instead of explaining the issues to the team member. Malorie cautions against doing this and outlines the perfect strategy for situations where the work needs to be fixed ASAP, but the team member needs to be taught the correct way for next time.
The conversation then transitions to a look at hiring and training – specifically for a paralegal position. Malorie shares how both of her paralegals started with the firm as receptionists with no legal experience. They were both trained up to the paralegal role which required a lot of work up front, but the benefit to this was they didn’t have any “bad habits.” Michael agrees that he prefers to train someone up from within, so they learn to do the job the way he wants them to, but not every lawyer agrees with this approach. They continue to discuss the pros and cons of hiring someone with experience vs. without experience, to which Malorie concludes it’s really about their ability to perform their main role of assisting the attorney.
After an insightful look at what the attorney can do to ensure their assistant is successful, they begin to discuss what lawyers can do to be leaders to their teams. Malorie reflects on the true meaning of being a leader and insists it all goes back to trust. Your team should trust you enough to tell you when they messed up, or when they need help with something.
Michael continues this line of thought with the necessity of having uncomfortable conversations about issues BEFORE they become a crisis. He recently had the opportunity to meet with Texas A&M football coach Jimbo Fisher, who is notoriously tough on his players. When Michael asked how he holds his players to such high standards, Jimbo highlighted the need for clear expectations, consistency, and for the team to believe that you hold them to those high expectations because you genuinely care about them. In order to have those necessary uncomfortable conversations, you need buy-in and trust from your team members, so they know you’re coaching them up and not putting them down.
Michael and Malorie then discuss how they communicate with their staff to lift them up. They share a variety of techniques that have worked for them, including not creating emergencies, overcommunicating, being willing to do parts of the paralegal’s job, and numerous strategies to show employee appreciation. One thing Michael has always done and will continue to do is invest in his staff’s education. He does this through weekly internal trainings and paying for his staff attend legal seminars like the annual ATAA symposium. Even the act of spending money on their hotels shows them they are valued and appreciated, and “if you buy-in, we’ll have your back.”
This leads Michael and Malorie to discuss the importance of having your team’s back. This doesn’t mean that you sweep iss
81 – Mallory Storey Ulmer – Baptism by Fire: When Tenacity Defeats Tenure
In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with attorney Mallory Storey Ulmer from the Walton Law Firm in Auburn, Alabama. Mallory is a young lawyer who recently achieved a $15 million settlement for her clients in a not-so-plaintiff-friendly state. She and Michael discuss her path to such early success, the details of how she worked up the case, and her advice for other young lawyers who want to make a big impact on a big case.
They begin the episode with a bit on Mallory’s background. After working as a paralegal for 8 years, she decided to go to law school with the intention of becoming an insurance defense lawyer. While in law school, she received a prestigious internship at a plaintiff firm and fell in love with plaintiff work, stating “once you’re on the right side, you can’t switch over.” She and Michael then discuss the emotional toll of plaintiff work, especially in a state like Alabama that’s “no plaintiff’s paradise,” but agree the satisfaction of representing people who need it most can’t be beat (as long as you have the right mindset).
This leads Michael to ask Mallory what she’s done to develop her skillset. She says that one of the best decisions she made was joining an excellent firm with a great reputation. Walton Law Firm has robust systems, great lawyers, and makes education a top priority. She’s been able to learn from some of the best minds in the legal industry both in her office and through a wide variety of legal seminars.
While these opportunities helped build her knowledge base, she and Michael agree at some point you just have to jump in and start trying some cases (or as Mallory calls it, “baptism by fire.”) Michael also notes the importance of networking with other lawyers, to which Mallory agrees. Because of her networking and impressive resume of cases, she is now being invited to speak more often at legal conventions.
Next, the pair jumps into the nitty gritty of the $15,000,000 case Mallory recently settled. While she can’t share too many details due to a confidentiality agreement, she agrees to share what she can within those boundaries. This case had an incredibly complex liability sequence, which stemmed from a series of car wrecks and resulted in catastrophic injuries to her client. In fact, her client’s crash occurred when the defendant driver was not driving a commercial vehicle, further complicating the regulatory guidelines for the company.
Another difficult aspect of this case concerns the venue: Alabama, which is no “plaintiff’s paradise” and has contributory negligence, similar to North Carolina as discussed in our episode with Karonnie Truzy. In short, this means if the client is ANY part at fault for the wreck (even 1%), they cannot receive any compensation. This causes worry in any case, but in a case of this size, Mallory knew she needed a plan to combat this defense if the case went to trial.
She then describes a genius argument of wanton (willful) conduct which would have taken away the contributory negligence defense. While she was never able to use the argument because the case settled, this is an incredibly impressive strategy she plans to “keep in her pocket” for future use.
After discussing the importance of discovery and depositions in the case, Mallory shares why she decided to frame the case as a “systems failure.” This boils down to the fact that juries don’t like to award a large verdict against one driver; they’d much rather award a large verdict to a company where the driver was a victim as well.
Michael and Malorie then have a brief conversation about why it’s necessary to work with others (even if you don’t agree). This starts with politics and ends with an astute observation from Mallory about how this also applies to defense lawyers.
Moving back to Mallory’s case,
80 – Tim McKey – Peak Performance: Developing Systems for Optimum Success
In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down for the second time with Tim McKey, co-founder of Vista Consulting. As a business consultant who works with law firms, Tim was welcomed back to the show to talk about the effects of COVID-19 on law firms, measuring success using KPI’s, organizational culture, hiring, optimum vs. maximum, new trends in the industry, and transparency at your firm.
Michael and Tim begin their conversation with a look at remote work and how to measure the performance of your team members when you can’t see them. Tim’s solution doesn’t vary whether or not there’s a global pandemic. He insists you should ALWAYS measure success using KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators). This strategy focuses on the output of the employee, not the input. For example, a common KPI for a paralegal is to contact every client and conduct a meaningful check-in every month. Measuring this produces an objective number which can be used to evaluate performance and coach the team member on.
Michael then speaks to his experience using the KPI dashboard, and how he used to struggle to stay on top of it. Tim explains how the highest performing firms have somebody assigned to it, such as an Operations Manager. Some firms find success in the owner managing KPI’s, but Tim says it all comes down to what the owner is passionate about and good at. The goal is to remove as much of the other “fluff” as possible and hire great people to do the rest.
A brief discussion about the merits of having daily meetings leads Michael to ask Tim how to maintain culture when many are still working remotely. Tim explains that it’s even more crucial to intentionally develop culture when you’re not meeting in person. You do this through daily meetings, social events, strong core values, and reminding everyone of their part in the firm. After sharing an enlightening example of a receptionist and their huge purpose in the firm, Michael proudly recites his firm’s core values. He says them at the beginning of every meeting to remind his team members (and himself) of why they do what they do. This has also helped make decisions in the office and staying true to their values.
Tim adds that defining your core values makes the hiring process a lot easier, which leads Michael to dig deeper into Tim’s advice for hiring good team members. Tim insists that finding a good cultural fit is even more important than finding someone with the right skills, because it’s easier to train skills than values. His hiring process, which he calls “intentional hiring,” takes a LOT of time. He brings the prospective team member into the office, has them sit beside people, and explains to them in detail what their values and KPI’s are. Even with this lengthy hiring process, Tim says, “You’ll never bat 1000.” But, as Michael agrees, you can’t measure the cost of a bad hire. This thinking is why his firm is now creating an internal paralegal training program to help him continue to promote from within.
After a conversation that tied culture to college football, which will resonate with Alabama and A&M fans alike, they move on to discuss Optimum vs. Maximum, first in the context of intakes. Most lawyers saw a downturn in intakes during the pandemic, but Tim shares how there are two ways to a grow a law firm – get more cases, or add more value to the cases you already have. Citing The Dip by Seth Godin, Tim explains that while your reservoir of cases may be low, it’s not dry. Work on pushing the cases you DO have over the dam. Michael then ties this in beautifully to how far you push a case. It makes sense to push certain cases all the way to trial, but on other cases it’s better for the lawyer and the client to settle earlier on.
As a business consultant for law firms,
79 – Malorie Peacock – Finding Joy in the Practice of Law
In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his law partner Malorie Peacock to discuss how they’ve been finding joy in the practice of law and in life over the last year. They’ll cover the struggles of working from home, what they’ve done to keep joy in their lives, what they’re looking forward to most in 2021, and what Cowen’s Big Rig Boot Camp annual seminar will look like this year (and how YOU can attend!).
The pair begins their conversation on a topic that everyone listening can relate to- the struggles of working from home. They both agree that a lot is lost over Zoom, from the creative process to human connection as a whole. But they also agree that certain depositions and court hearings taking place over Zoom has been a huge blessing for time management’s sake. While they’re excited to engage and meet in person again, they hope that once COVID is no longer a factor, courts will continue to allow certain proceedings to be conducted remotely.
Michael then asks Malorie the big question of the episode- What did you do to keep joy in your life in 2020? Malorie explains how establishing a home office space helped keep her sane, and how their firm daily check in meetings have kept their team connected. Michael adds how remote work was a really fun challenge at first, from buying everyone laptops to figuring out remote court proceedings. But as time went on, he became very burned out from it all. He now finds joy in getting ready for trial and the excitement of starting to meet in person again.
Malorie then turns the tables on Michael and asks him what he’s most looking forward to in terms of practicing law. Of course, Michael answered quickly with trials. Whether in person or virtual, a good case or a bad case, he says “I just want to get back in the ring. I don’t care if it’s minor league.” He’s also looking forward to seeing people in person for conferences, and he and Malorie discuss how virtual conferences have fallen short.
Malorie continues by reflecting on their (failed) resolutions discussed in a podcast episode at the beginning of 2020. This leads her to ask Michael if he’s made any “resolutions” for 2021. Michael says he has, and the theme is “Taking my life back.” He’s looking forward to traveling, seeing friends, and trying cases. Malorie adds that she’s excited to get back into her routine, which as an obsessive planner, is something she misses dearly. She then shares a personal story about her wedding which was originally planned for September of 2020 and how she’s learned to let go of things out of her control. Michael then ties this beautifully into how lawyers stress about trial, and how this year has taught all of us to stop living in fear and to value the little things more.
After a brief but insightful conversation about burnout in the legal industry, Malorie asks Michael about something she knows he’s very excited about- his annual Big Rig Boot Camp on May 20th of this year. He shares that there are both virtual AND in-person attendance options this year, something he decided to do after the fantastic virtual turnout in 2020. If you’d like to attend Cowen’s Big Rig Boot Camp in 2021 either virtually or in-person in San Antonio, Texas, visit BigRigBootCamp.com and register today, as spots for both options are limited.
Michael and Malorie conclude the episode on a wholesome note. Michael shares how he is making a concerted effort to find joy in his life every day, and Malorie says she’s doing the same. If we can all take a step back and put everything back into perspective, 2021 is sure to be one of the best years yet.
This podcast episode also covers getting used to traveling again, what virtual court proceedings may remain virtual, why virtual conferences just aren’t the same, burnout in the legal industry,
Is the podcast over? I hope not
Hope this podcast, have been listening for a while... I hope it’s not over.
Great podcast on trial skills
The episode with Mark Mandell on case framing was super helpful.