In this special joint episode, Jody Sanders and Todd Smith join their friend M.C. Sungaila to celebrate the 100th episode of her podcast, The Portia Project. Together, Jody, Todd, and M.C. talk podcasting, things they’ve learned, and memorable guests. Join them as their share their collective wisdom from more than 200 podcast episodes.
Listen to the podcast here
In this episode, we’re going to share our conversation with our friend M.C. Sungaila from California. M.C. is the host of The Portia Project Podcast. She’s been on our show a couple of times before. We were in the unique position of recording an episode of her podcast where M.C. interviewed us and so we decided to release that as an episode of the show as well.
We co-interviewed each other. We each shared our reflections on podcasting and all the things that have brought us to this point, so it goes both ways.
We look forward to sharing our thoughts through the filter that is M.C. on podcasting. We’ve certainly enjoyed our experience for 115 or so episodes as co-hosts of our show. If you want to know what we’ve gotten out of podcasting and what our approach is to podcasting, then please continue to follow. M.C.’s discussions of what she’s gone through and her 100 episodes of The Portia Project Podcast are interesting as well. Please stay tuned.
I’m very pleased to report that we have a joint special episode between The Portia Project Podcast and the Texas Appellate Law Podcast. I want to welcome both of the co-hosts of that show, Todd Smith and Jody Sanders.
Thanks for having us, M.C. We’re happy to be here. We know we don’t fit the demographics of your normal Portia Project guests. We’re grateful.
Both of you were instrumental in The Portia Project coming into life and being present. You had such a quality production and podcast. It was inspiring, the work that you have done. It pushed me towards doing the podcast myself. As we’re at the 100-episode mark for Portia Project and you all have exceeded that as well, I thought it was a good time to sit down and talk about our podcasting journeys. Also, the combined knowledge and information that we’ve learned from our various guests in both of our shows. It would be like getting the wisdom of 200 episodes together.
A lot of wisdom in there passed along by people other than the three of us. Congratulations on hitting 100 episodes. That’s a significant milestone. You’ve done it very quickly, much faster than we did. When you first started, you were going great guns recording constantly. You had quite a stockpile of episodes. Have you been able to maintain a good clip as far as keeping content coming and staying ahead of your publication schedule?
It’s driven by the guests and those that they continued to recommend or suggest to me. The pace was driven by the people who were willing to come on, many of them are state Supreme Court justices, who wanted to be part of the project. I moved faster and had a lot more interviews in a row because I didn’t want to have it be interviewed in February 2022 and their episode wouldn’t come out until mid-2023. I wanted to make sure that we got all of that done and out. It’s still ahead of schedule. I still have quite a few episodes recorded and ready to go. In total, at this point, on the judge’s side, 32 different state supreme courts of different states will be represented on the podcast. I’m going for 50 but we’re at 32.
I feel inadequate. We have more than one Supreme Court that we’ve done, though, even though we’re Texas centered. We’ve exceeded our quota, I suppose. That’s impressive to have that many. What a great to hear from and get wisdom from, not only about being women in the law and on the bench but general knowledge of appellate-related stuff. It isn’t necessarily the focus on your show quite the same way it is as ours, but it’s still great. There are lots of good content and opportunity, especially for the target demographic. You’re trying to encourage women to not only become lawyers but also judges.
Thank you, Todd. I appreciate that. I’m happy with serving as the facilitator for those who want to share their stories. We hope we have an impact on others as a result of sharing them. That’s one of the things. I want to be the conduit for what is resonating with people, both with the judges and those who are tuning in.
We both have a range of guests. I do have a lot of judicial guests but a lot of people in other roles inside and outside the law. Let’s talk about the judges first because you had a lot of judges on your show too. For me at least, there are certainly a lot of things that we know, especially as appellate advocates, that are good things to do, best tips or practices in brief writing or argument.
At least, my experience has been having talked to many appellate judges in many different courts where I haven’t even appeared yet. There’s more than a common thread about things that they’re interested in seeing. It’s more like I have seen through their lens what they need to do to decide the cases and where oral argument sits in that process for them. I’m forever changed in how I look at what we’re doing as advocates for the courts. I don’t know if you guys have had a similar experience where you have this a-ha like, “The way I think about this and my job is very different now.”
I don’t know that it’s changed the way I think about it, but it has continually reinforced getting to the point. That’s one of the things that both advocates and judicial guests have stressed. It’s easy to forget that because as the advocate, you get so deep into the case. You know it probably better than anyone. The judge who’s going to get it, whether it’s on a Supreme Court, an intermediate Court of Appeals or even the trial court, it’s going to be one of many that they probably have zero context for. Many of them have reminded me, “Give us something short and upfront to help us orient ourselves and figure out why this case matters and what matters to us.”
I have heard that time and time again in different ways of delivering that message, but that’s something that I’ve taken and tried to incorporate into what I do, whether it’s a motion hearing in a trial court, an oral argument at the Court of Appeals or in the way I do a brief. Let’s figure out my distilled elevator speech that this case is going to be about. I need to keep that upfront and keep it to what I’m doing.
It’s been reinforced for me too. I was sitting down with one of my partners because we’ve been asked to do an in-house seminar with our younger lawyers in the office. One of the things we talked about was the lesson that’s carried through in addition to being something I’ve learned on the podcast. I’ve heard many judges say over time, “Get to the point,” as Jody was suggesting. Make the decision-makers’ jobs easy. Let them know upfront what it is you’re asking them to do.
That applies no matter what kind of written advocacy you’re engaged in. We’re going to be speaking to our younger lawyers about it in the context of trial court motions primarily because that’s a lot of what they’re doing. The same lesson applies to almost any form of written advocacy, whether it’s an internal memo on a big case for an institutional client that’s going to be applied across different actual cases, a trial court motion, an appellate brief or anything like that. I was okay with that before but that has been cemented into my brain that this is something that you need to do. It doesn’t matter what level the court sits at. The job is still to get their attention quickly and let them know exactly what the case is about.
To think from their perspective, whether you’re trial court or appellate, you’re moving between cases pretty quickly to get that orientation like, “What am I dealing with? A summary judgment in an employment case on this.” What’s the issue?
We like to ask a lot of our Supreme Court guests, “What part of the brief do you read first?” For almost all of them, it’s been the statement of the case, which to me is more of a throwaway. This is a short little technical, but they all read it first because it gives them that blurb that they need. “What’s this case about? What’s the issue that I’m looking at? What’s the action that’s at issue here?” I find myself spending a lot more time on that than I used to when it was like, “Let’s cut and paste the procedural details.” Now, I think, “What needs to be in here? What’s truly important that I want them to see? If this is the first place they’re going to turn, where do we go?”
That answer varies between the different folks that I’ve talked to. There’s one thing that I always thought would be, the table of contents of each of those. That’s my way of getting into the briefs. I’ll generally read the reply brief first so I see where the fight is and then work backward. Every judge has a different way of which part they’re reading first.
Some of them could say the statement of the case. You’re like, “I need to up my game in that department.” You never know. Your judge might do something differently. My sense is you need to have your game up everywhere but pay attention to it. You never know what the entry point would be that particular judge uses.
The second thing that I learned was that sometimes the entry point isn’t even the brief for many of them. Many of them say, “I start with the opinion I’m reviewing. I want to read what the district judge, the trial court or the Court of Appeals said if it’s the Supreme Court.” That’s where I start. I start with the judge’s decision and then I move to the briefs from there. That’s an interesting wrinkle. I always think of them starting with a brief first, but you have to think sometimes they might start with an opinion.
Although, for a lot of our intermediate Courts of Appeals here, our Texas trial courts don’t issue written orders. It’s nice because they rarely start with that other than the order is granted or denied.
It’s because that’s where they have to go.
Orders granting summary judgment are typically shortened to the point here for several reasons. The last Supreme Court justice that we interviewed did exactly what Jody suggested. She said, “Statement of the case.” From there, the next thing was the Court of Appeals’ opinion. I thought it was an interesting progression. As an advocate I’m generally starting with the order that I’m taking up or defending, but then you have to craft those other things based in part on that order.
I’m like Jody in the statement of the case part. Many years ago we went to this tabled statement of the case that is not anything to look at, but even though you’re not supposed to be argumentative according to the rules in that section of our briefs in Texas it still does give you the chance to lay out the things that you think the court needs to know about the case.
Some of those can be stated fairly objectively and in a way that does exactly what we’re saying. It gives the court the basic information it needs to orient itself to what it’s about to be asked to do without necessarily making a lot of editorial comments about the weight of evidence. I see people do that still, despite the fact that our rules say don’t. It’s a sign of an inexperienced appellate advocate to see a lot of attempted advocacy in that part of the brief. It’s been something I’ve honed my skill in developing because I do know how important it is. It’s been reinforced by our conversations with our judges.
Probably in the category of the most significant impact of what I heard from the judges about this is in the oral argument. It was Judge Millett on the DC Circuit, who was an amazing appellate US Supreme Court advocate before going on the bench. I thought she’d have an interesting perspective in particular saying, “Is there something you know now being an appellate judge that you wish you’d known or that you’d have a different perspective of when you are an advocate?” She said, “One of the things was that as an advocate, oral argument is the end of the case for you until the decision comes and you do something. Oral argument is part of the process as the judge. Things get started after argument for us.”
If you think about where that argument is in the process for the judges who are deciding your case, you’re going to think about oral argument very differently. It’s not the end. It’s the beginning for them in terms of asking questions to you to get answers. It’s that triangular thing that happens sometimes between one justice talking to another justice through the advocate.
They’re conferencing and discussing this. It made me think that their perspective is very different. That’s not the end. How can you help them have the information that they need to engage in those discussions with their colleagues and get to a conclusion that’s hopefully favorable to your client? Thinking about that, put yourself in their shoes quite literally about what that is.
I hadn’t thought about it in that context, but I do like that.
I was like, “She knows both. What would she think?” It was what part of the process it is for the judges. Knowing that or thinking about that when you’re engaging in it might change your perspective a little. That was my big a-ha.
It’s not necessarily the end of the process for anyone who can’t stand having the last word.
That can happen. It looks like Todd’s thinking about something that happened in that regard.
I don’t ask anyone about post-submission briefs as an advocacy tool. The best example I can think of off the top of my head about post-submission briefs is dealing with a question at oral argument that wasn’t a good answer at the time. It was something that was addressed by your opposing counsel and you didn’t have much time. You’re the appellee. It came up in rebuttal and you couldn’t address it. There are situations like that. I was thinking to myself, “Is it really the last, though?”
In most cases, it could be the last but you’re right. There could still be some volleying back and forth. That gets to our guests’ brief writing and oral argument. Those are both good takeaway tips from all of them. What about guests in their careers? What struck me the most that has been universal for all of the guests on my show has been two things.
First is that you see the shiny outcome of their careers. If you didn’t talk to them, you would think that everything was shiny all along. The answer is it was not. There were dark parts of the journey. There were tough things. There were things where they didn’t know where they were going to go, but they managed to pull it all together and there it is at the end.
It’s very encouraging and human to see that. Even for people who are on the Supreme Court, there were moments of uncertainty and challenges in their careers. Even some of them talked about when they were asked to apply and when the opening came up on the court. They may have been dealing with a lot of things personally. Something going on in their family. Something where they would’ve otherwise said, “This is not a good time,” but they said, “This is the time when there’s an opportunity so I’m going to take it despite all of these other things going on.”
That’s inspiring to people generally. Whether you’re looking to become a judge or any of the roles that these people are, you can have success ultimately, even when there are a lot of challenges along the way. Sometimes those challenges, overcoming them gives you the skills you need to succeed in the end. There’s something about that universally.
We’ve seen a lot that when you think of the traditional path to being a successful appellate advocate and clerkships, that’s true. We’ve also seen that you can be a tremendously successful advocate and not take that path and still get to the same result.
We’ve had probably 2 or 3 guests and one of the features of their interview was that they were taking a non-traditional path to become an appellate advocate. It’s the same, too, with some of our judges. In terms of being transparent and offering some stories of resilience, more than one judge we have interviewed has wound up in their current position after losing a previous election.
Staying with it, winding up having a good outcome for themselves, being appointed to a higher office and then getting elected. We’ve had a lot of that. I’ve been pleasantly surprised and happy with how many of our guests will show more of themselves than you get going to a CLE or something like that. It’s because of the nature of this conversation where we’re having a three-way conversation over Zoom that it feels more intimate, even though they know that people are going to be listening. It could be 1,000 people or more that hear the episode. They’re more willing to share.
For some of them, you have to get over the hump. We’ve had a few that wanted to know the outline. “What questions are you going to ask me?” Once we steer them to some other episodes and they reach a comfort level and know that they’re not going to be on the hot seat, at least not for very long with us.
It’s a positive experience. It’s not meant to be a gotcha moment.
I was going to say another takeaway that threads between both types of guests, the advocates and the judges, is that there’s no universally right way to be an advocate. There are some universal wrong ways, but there are people that have so many different styles and ways of doing things that do a good job. It’s been fun to see the different ways that they go about it and think, “I’ve never thought of doing it that way, but that works.” Find what’s authentic to you.
That brought to mind the other thing that I’ve seen, too. It’s always when you go looking backward at the careers that it makes complete sense that they ended up where they did. They have this particular talent here and there. Somehow where they’ve ended up is the perfect marriage of all of those talents. Somebody else who didn’t have all of those things wouldn’t be doing it nearly the way they are. It seems inevitable, but because of the first part we talked about it wasn’t.
There are very few straight paths in one’s career in law. Everybody has a speed bump somewhere along the way. Unless you’re Jody Sanders and you go to work for a great firm and have a great mentor, you stay on this your whole career.
We’ll see. There are still a few years left.
There’s still time for that speed bump, Jody.
Not to say those haven’t been there already.
That’s one thing, too. People are willing to be much more forthcoming. Part of it is the intimacy of the medium in a way. Also, they don’t come on unless they’re willing to share.
To that point, with us we were shocked at the beginning at how much success we had getting good guests.
You started with your clerk of the Supreme Court so that’s a pretty good first guest.
Our first actual guest was a sitting Texas Supreme Court justice, who we got through our mutual friend who happens to be the clerk of the court. I’ve said this many times, that gave us immediate and instant credibility. We go and tell people, “We had Justice Boyd on. The clerk of the court, Blake Hawthorne, came on.” We must be legit. We’re not just some guys trying to get you on some weird show that nobody’s going to pay any attention to.
You had the same success. The numbers that you shared with us about having had 30-some-odd state Supreme Courts represented as your guests are incredibly impressive. We have found that having that success and getting guests snowballs on itself after a while. People don’t treat you like you’re crazy or you’re trying to sell them something.
Yes, especially the judges. They’re cautious understandably. I would be the same way. I’ll be like, “Who is this person?” It was the first dozen guests I knew who did the recordings with no podcast out there at all. That was deep faith that I was going to treat them fairly and that was going to be a good podcast and everything. From them and those experiences came the next guests. It snowballed on itself. Once they were out there, then it looks legit. “I see it’s okay to do this. Look at all these other amazing people who have agreed to sit down and chat.”
In terms of getting guests, people also make referrals. We’ve taken advantage of that. There are still people on our lists that we need to reach out to that were referrals that we want to have on the show. One strategy that I’ve used unintentionally but has been very effective is if I go to a CLE and it’s a topic that’s relevant potentially or if I went to an event and targeted a judge. Not even intentionally. After chatting with this judge for a while, I was like, “You’d be a good guest on our podcast. Would you consider coming on?” She knew about it. She’s not an appellate judge. She’s a trial judge, but we love having trial judges on our show. She said yes.
We look forward to that and recording those kinds of episodes. It’s those chance conversations that I find are effective in terms of being able to get other guests that don’t necessarily fall within the narrow parameters of Texas Appellate Law, but still we can have interesting conversations. As we always say, we learn something new from talking to that person.
The referrals of current guests or past guests is one of the avenues. One of the things that’s interesting about a podcast, which is different from writing a book or an article, is that it naturally evolves both from the guest that you’re having and also the direction that the podcast itself is going. It’s a highly personal thing, too, of where your interest is. You say, “I’m interested in this. Other people might be interested in this.” We’ll then go in this direction.
In my case, I started with women appellate judges but then I thought, “What other kinds of judges?” How you apply to become a judge or even whether you’re elected or appointed, that varies from state to state and different levels of court. Magistrate judges versus district court judges, all of that. I started thinking outside that box and then it started growing to, “What are the other ways that women are leading in the profession off the bench, in other ways and even outside the profession?” It ultimately led to, “If I were in law school, what other kinds of careers and things are out there that I would like to know about that I’m not going to learn through career services?”
There’s a vast number of ways you can use your law degree. I started branching out to legal design and a number of new cutting-edge areas and, of course, general counsel and things like that. That’s how it’s evolved. It’s pushing the envelope a little bit more even towards women who are not in the law but are in C-Suite business, maybe chief marketing officers or otherwise, who have learned to navigate the business world. They have a little different approach towards that. What can you learn from them in how they’ve navigated their path?
I’ve expanded a little bit outside the law because I thought when we go multidisciplinary, that’s when we start learning and thinking outside the box about how we can do things. That’s nothing that could happen if it weren’t a podcast. If it were a book, it would have to be, “It’s done and it’s there.” That’s one of the neat things about the medium.
We’ve had some legal tech folks come on. We always try to at least have something of an appellate law angle to it or a maybe practice management angle. It still winds up being a good conversation we all learned something from. I like that idea about the C-Suite. If you had someone like an in-house lawyer who would come and talk about relations with their outside counsel, from a client perspective, something like that would be good. There are all kinds of possibilities.
You guys have new ideas for your podcast, too. I’ve had a couple of chief legal officers or general counsel of some major companies also on, which is a thing to learn about how you get to that point and the difference between being in-house and outside counsel. Also, legal tech founders and legal design people from all over the world.
Chief marketing officers of some major companies like Unity 3D, the chief marketing officer who also worked at Apple and Google. She has a different perspective. Her episode is coming up, but we’ve recorded it already. Think outside the box there. I’m hoping for some CEOs who have law degrees. There aren’t that many public companies, but there are maybe half a dozen female CEOs with law degrees. That would be an interesting crossover, too.
You always hear all the things you can do with a law degree. We all read a fair amount in terms of alternate careers that you can follow. That’s just as important to educate people about it. Not everybody has to practice law just because you have a law degree, but it doesn’t mean that having a law degree isn’t significant and doesn’t open doors for you in other ways. It does. I’m always interested in those stories.
Most of the people who are most conscious of what you’re talking about, Todd, in terms of how they use their legal training, thinking and analysis are those who lead nonprofit organizations. The program chair of Girls Inc. was on. Also, the CEO of Cayton Children’s Museum and the Executive Director of Project Hope Alliance, which deals with homeless youth. All of them are very conscious.
They can articulate in ways that are highly specific about how they use their legal training to lead their organization, understand risk and think through problems. It’s something they’ve thought about. They’re like, “Yes, it’s useful.” Also, it’s useful for them in that context. They’re like, “We got a lot of legitimacy from that, too. We have a law degree and a certain level of respect that we are given in leading a nonprofit from having that training.”
I always appreciate non-traditional legal paths.
It’s interesting to hear how they’ve evolved into that or maybe that’s something they plan to do going into law school. Some of the academics are interesting, too. The Dean of RAND Policy School is a lawyer. She doesn’t have to be. She has a PhD also, but she was previously a dean of a law school. Who would think that you’d be the dean of the training ground for a think tank? That wouldn’t be something we’d think about, so it’s been interesting. There are few lawyer authors. Novelists, a lot of us have a novel in us or think we might.
Especially the appellate lawyers of the world. That’s what we are. We’re all frustrated novelists.
Also, for me is the historical development of what it shows in the history of women in the law. From hearing the stories of people who were in law school in the ’70s and early ’80s, as opposed to moving to the current day, how quickly that changes happen that there are more than 1 or 2 women in law school. The Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor days are gone from not being able to get a job.
You get a sense of appreciation for history and how fast it’s changed. These are women who are still practicing or on the bench who had those experiences. I hope that’ll give insight and maybe appreciation to those who are just coming out of law school. At the front end, we’ve got a very different experience than those who had far more challenges to begin with but still ended up being on the bench.
I’m privileged as an Anglo male in our society, but I always find those stories inspiring because I have my own perspective. I don’t want to say biases because I don’t mean it to be a negative thing, but it makes me respect the folks that had to climb in that way even more. With more women in the profession and on the bench, it’s easier to see. You’re used to women in those positions, which has to set that example for even more women that are coming up. There are a lot of great stories of folks climbing up from less-than-ideal circumstances to get to where they are. I always enjoy hearing those.
Some of the most popular episodes are Julia Smith Gibbons on the Sixth Circuit, Judge Lee Rosenthal from District Court in Texas and Diane Wood. Those who are at the very beginning, everybody’s always fascinated by those stories. Even Christine Durham from the Utah Supreme Court. There is a lot to those. I’ll say Judge Gibbons is probably one of the most popular because she was a first in almost everything she did. It’s interesting to hear about that time. It’s pretty neat.
People talk about diversity, inclusion and different backgrounds. There’s an importance of having different backgrounds or experiences on the bench. When you hear the stories, you realize that it’s important to have those different perspectives. The one that resonated with me was Washington’s Supreme Court Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis. She was a tribal court judge before becoming a trial court judge and then moving up to the Supreme Court.
Thinking about and hearing her story of serving as the tribal court judge and understanding what that role is, which is different, you have to understand the culture of that particular tribe. She was a tribal court judge for different tribes and the job is different depending on which tribe. How you gain legitimacy of your decisions and mediate things is vastly different because it depends on the culture in which the court was brought up.
In some of them, there’s no authority, statutes or case law. It’s all oral transmission of what had happened before. Others were much more like our legal system. Understanding how each of those was created came out of the culture of that particular tribe. Having that background, you’re going to look at the context in which you’re making decisions on other benches differently. You’re going to understand in an intuitive way how all of that contributed to the legal system that’s there because it’s a vastly different and interesting perspective.
That’s a thread that has run through a lot of our episodes, the doors that have been closed to applicants of different backgrounds to appellate practice traditionally. Also, the people that are working to open those doors and create pipelines for populations that didn’t have access to appellate practice and didn’t know anything about it.
One that stands out is Juvaria Khan, who founded The Appellate Project, having her bring into sharp focus the problems that our practice has with the lack of diversity. The things that she and so many other people are doing to try and fix that is something that has stuck with me. It keeps coming up in many different episodes with many different guests with that same theme.
From my experience in appellate practice, when I first started there were a lot more women in the practice because it didn’t quite have the prestige that some segments of the appellate practice have now. It was easier to balance having a life. It wasn’t like I’m in trial all week and have no idea what was going to happen, so I can’t schedule anything in my life or for my family or anything.
There were more women in the profession at that point. Now that it’s changed, we’re back to not as many women. I’ve even seen that evolve during the time I’ve been in appellate practice. It’s an interesting phenomenon. We need to get back to having a more wide array of folks practicing appellate law. Juvaria Khan’s project is very focused on that and has a lot of people involved in it. A lot of the judges who’ve been on my program have mentioned that and said, “We’re involved in that. We’re doing something to help foster that encouragement.” I remember that episode on your podcast. It was a good one.
My partner, the head of my practice group, and I have both taken on mentees from The Appellate Project. I knew Jody had done that but my partner, Amanda Taylor, was already working on that, even aside from having Juvaria on the show. It was a nice way to help publicize that wonderful program that she’s built. It’s so nice to see the fruit of that firsthand working with the mentee and watching Amanda’s experience with hers, too. Just little things like that will make a difference.
That’s what I hope the podcast does in itself, that it makes a difference. If you can’t have that one-on-one mentoring situation, you at least get that through the podcast itself. Many of the guests have said they’ll reach out to me if anyone’s curious about something, they’re open to talking to people. The other thing that you touched upon in that is a podcast being part of a larger whole, like another tool in your toolkit. You were able to fully elevate the knowledge of that particular project so more people could participate, which would have a ripple effect in the real world besides the particular podcast episode.
The corollary of that for my podcast is the Girls Inc. episode that we did. Live panel in person with eleventh-grade girls who were going through an internship training program in the summer with Girls Inc. in Orange County. There were personal relationships. Honestly, judges offered for these girls to come to watch them in court and all of this came out of that experience. Being able to use the podcast to leverage more than those 100 girls who were in the room, we’d get to hear the knowledge of that panel and hopefully ripple out and inspire more people down the road.
That’s one of the powers of the podcast. It’s being able to leverage it into ripple effects in the real world. It was so much fun to do because when you’re there with the girls, they’re like, “This is so amazing.” You are talking to eleventh-grade girls. How you describe your career and what people do is going to be different because you’re thinking about it through a different lens.
A lot of the participants thought it was very rewarding. They’re like, “I had to go back to when I was in high school or college. What would I want to know?” It was a neat trip for them. Also, the camaraderie of having all of them together at once doing the podcast is pretty neat. Since we’re talking about podcasts and podcasting, close out with some tips. For those who might want to start a podcast, what things should they think about, things I wish I had thought about before I started this or things I wish I knew? Maybe if some of the things we knew, we might never have started it so maybe we don’t want to share everything.
I came in knowing almost nothing, so it was pretty easy for me to say, “I wish I had known a whole lot more.” I’ve talked to several people about starting a podcast. Several of the things I tell them is, “Map out quite a few episodes in advance. Think about what you want to do, what you want to cover and make your roadmap of the first 5 or 10 episodes.” Todd has mentioned the stat that very few podcasts get past 10 episodes. If you can do that, you’re already in a very small percentage of podcasts that are successful.
Sit down and map out where you want to go for your first 5 to 10 episodes. If you can, we can’t all be like you M.C., who was able to put so many in the can before you even got started, which is amazing. Try and get several of them going because life does get in the way. Todd and I were, in some ways, lucky that we recorded our first couple of episodes together at the Texas Supreme Court. The next week was when COVID hit.
All of a sudden, we had a lot of time on our hands. All the judges had a lot of time on their hands. Everybody had a Zoom account. Life didn’t get in the way for the first year and a half almost of our podcast. That was a weird thing that happened that wouldn’t have happened. Trying to do weekly episodes with what our lives are like and starting it from scratch would be incredibly hard. If you’re going to do it, map it out. Think about where you want to go. Maybe recruit your first few guests if you’re going to do a guest one. Record a few and see how you think they sound before you start putting them out there.
Having a plan is critical, for sure. In my previous thinking about starting a podcast, I didn’t have a firm plan. That was one of the reasons why it never got going. Connecting with Jody made it easier. One of the things I admire about you and your show, M.C., is the fact that it’s all you all the time. If I’m having a bad day, Jody can pick up the slack or vice versa. Although, we don’t tend to have too many dead spots in our podcast. We manage to keep the conversation going, which is half the battle is what I would say.
The advanced planning and having the tech stuff down, which is important, has worked out fine for us. Zoom is a great medium to record on, but there are other mediums out there that you can use that are all pretty accessible. You can do a Google search and figure out what those are, but this has worked out great for us.
It’s worked for me, too. I try to make whatever’s easy for the judges. Almost all the judges have Zoom so that decides which platform I’m going to use. They’re like, “Zoom, we know that.” Some of the more pro pros use Riverside to record theirs, which I’ve experienced. There are different strokes for different folks, as it were.
The upside I understand to Riverside is that it records to the hard drive separate files so that if you had a hiccup in the internet connection, it can be spliced together and fixed easily. As long as everybody’s internet is reasonably fast, Zoom has been just fine. Rarely has there been an issue.
You can record separate audio files on Zoom on the computer. That usually solves the problem for me.
We do that, too. We’ve stuck with Zoom, and we have no plans to make any changes at this point but keeping an eye open, though. Who knows what will happen in the future. Your point about judges knowing Zoom is a good one. We don’t have to train them on how to join a Zoom call. That was one of the concerns. It would not have been practical to think that we could record all of our episodes in person. Especially if we’re covering a broad geographic area in terms of our guests, it would’ve been impossible for you.
Zoom has been a great solution there, so we hit the perfect storm with the pandemic starting. We give a lot of credit and try to see the good that came out of COVID. For us, it helped us get started and build that momentum. It was a big benefit for us. Plus, people were thirsty for conversation and different things.
It’s helpful for the guests because they were like, “We want to talk to someone,” and the judges weren’t in court. That’s my experience, too. The first set of episodes I recorded was still during yet another lockdown in California. The judges were like, “What do we have to do? We’re available. No problem. We’re happy to talk.”
It made it easier. You’re right. Now that everything’s in motion, it can be harder. Take a few times to schedule something. Plus, in that case, not only were people wanting to talk to people but the audience was interested in hearing things and listening to podcasts. It gave you the edge in getting the audience, to begin with.
We also had a lot to cover. Probably our first 20 episodes, 15 of them had to deal with pandemic effects and shifting over to Zoom, remote proceedings and all of that. That was stuff that we felt was important to get out because it’s not like everybody could go to a CLE and discuss it. We felt like we were helping do a public service by disseminating information about that for ourselves as well.
I would say what you both said in terms of tips but also the planning out. Part of the reason to plan it out, invite people, run through it and see how the episodes go is to see if the theme works for whatever it is that you’re planning to do. Is it broad enough but niche enough? Are there enough episodes in it to make it continue and have it interesting? Is there room to evolve within the theme that you’ve chosen? Who would be interested in this kind of thinking about the audience? You have to work that out, test it out and plan that out to see if there’s enough room in there. Another thing is as it goes along, be open to it evolving because that’s inherent in the medium.
Like everything else in the law, it ebbs and flows. We will go on streaks where we record 3 or 4 weeks in a row and have quite a stable of episodes built up. It is useful to have that, especially at the end of the year, when it is harder to get people, but we roll with it. Whenever opportunities come up, we will try to schedule when people are available. It is usually not too hard because the way we approach our show is not closely scripted it. We know enough about our guests to be able to come up with a general outline of topics for discussion. Most of them are more than agreeable to go off an outline and then see where the conversation takes us.
To me, that’s where the magic is. If you try to script it too closely, then it comes across as stilted. I get a kick out of every so often I’ll ask a pointed question of the guests. I surprise, even myself, occasionally, whom I choose to ask pointed questions of. Our guests are almost universally very gracious about it. They understand that people want to know things and the medium lends itself to that. We have had nothing but universally good feedback from not only listeners but our guests, too. They all say, “I enjoyed that experience,” even the ones that go in with some trepidation.
I’ve had that, too. We’re like, “I’m not so sure.” They’re like, “That was a good experience.”
You get your referrals.
I let Todd ask the hard questions. He’s the mean one. I’m the nice one.
I’m not mean, but Jody is nice.
You guys have the luxury that you can go off each other in that regard. It’s me all the time, and it’s either good or bad. Hopefully, people are okay with that and don’t get too tired of that.
They’re clearly okay with it.
You’ve been very successful with being just you. It’s great.
I’m going to throw out something for discussion before we close because I know we are going to wrap up here shortly. The one question I get asked fairly often, and Jody does too, is, “Do you get any business out of your podcast?” The consensus between Jody and me is it is hard to measure it directly, but you are putting yourself out in the world. It does help to increase name recognition. People recognize you as an expert in your field. We are talking specifically about things that are at least indirectly related to being an appellate lawyer. It may be a little bit different than your focus M.C., but I will throw in to answer my question here.
I have started using podcast episodes to demonstrate to a potential client who has contacted me about a specific topic that I have talked to people who know some things or I know some things and have had those conversations. I had a few people comment. They were like, “That was helpful. Thanks for sending that.” These are quite often non-lawyers who are the most impressed by this.
In the last few months, maybe it is a byproduct of having over 100 episodes in the can, but when a phone call comes in or somebody approaches me about a new case, we’ve got a podcast episode that is relevant to that. It has been a useful resource in that way, even trying to be helpful to someone that doesn’t even wind up hiring you for whatever reason.
That is in the category of, “I wrote an article on that. I have a blog post.” You’ll say, “I have a podcast on that.” That honestly never occurred to me, but I have on occasion when a trial lawyer asks about a particular judge. “Does anybody know about Judge X?” There are biographies and various things you can do. I’m like, “There is a podcast where you can hear her talk about her journey that might be relevant to you.” That is the only way that I have responded to an inquiry. That is a good point, Todd. I haven’t thought about that.
How I have used articles I have written in the past is, “Here is this article. Here is a CLE paper I wrote on this particular subject.” Jody has written his fair share of CLE papers. I feel confident if anybody wants to talk about some of the things that Jody has written, it is a nice marketing tool. I don’t think podcasting in our realm is direct marketing of any sort, but it does elevate you and keeps you on top of mind with people in some ways, which is part of the goal. You can’t be super aggressive in your marketing as an appellate lawyer. You can drive your clientele away.
The most direct benefits I have gotten from the podcast are the insulated podcast-branded mug and the two podcast-embroidered shirts that I have. It is a great mug and they are nice shirts. To Todd’s point, there are a lot more people I can call to ask questions of or vice versa than before we started.
The most surprising benefits of it are not only do you get to learn about the guests or the community that has been created by the guests themselves but the community of other podcasters that we have found, which is neat. There are a lot of unexpected areas like that. I have been conscious of that community within the guest part.
If somebody calls me and says, “I have heard such and such episode. I’d like to talk to Judge, or whomever the guest is because there are some similar things that I want to start something like that in my state.” I will say, “That is fine. You can reach out to them.” They were like, “Would you introduce us?” I’m like, “Sure.” In many cases, they are both judges. They could call each other, but that’s fine. I’m happy to facilitate it, but the community that is created within that is neat.
What about we put a little different spin on it and ask if you have any regrets or things you wish you had done differently so far?
If I had known how much work it was going to be, I might not have done it.
I understand that.
That is fair, especially being the sole personality on the show. I want to hear what you have to say, Jody, but for me it is not a regret. It is more of something I could have done differently and still might. It has to do with the community aspect of the podcast. There are things you or I could do to try to develop that among our guests. It is a cool thing when I send out a mug and post it on Twitter. Suddenly, I get all these messages from previous guests saying, “Where is my mug?” “I’m working on it.”
That is not exactly the community thing I’m talking about, but something as simple as an email list of guests only with new episodes. That would be so easy for me to set up. I could do it in ten minutes. That is something I wish I had started from the beginning. If I were going to do it now, it would be a little more challenging but it could still be done. I haven’t given up on that idea yet. With that thing you are talking about, “I heard maybe they don’t listen to that many podcasts,” I also don’t want to inundate our previous guests with emails. I don’t want to hassle clients. That is something that I might give more consideration to going forward. Jody, what about you?
I don’t have any regrets. This is one of my favorite things that I do. Had I known then what I know now, I could have done a better job early on but that is part of learning and experience.
Part of the early advice is to start. If you are waiting to make it perfect, no. It happens by doing it.
It is like drafting a brief. Sometimes you have to get words on the paper to get started. I feel like this is that way. You learn by doing, you improve, and you get better. I have no regrets about doing it at all or anything that we have done.
I don’t mean to imply that I have any regrets. It is something I could have done maybe a little differently. There is maybe still time, but you are spot on.
That is part of the evolving process, Todd. You have enough to have a critical mass to have that community aspect. I have had particular things where people have said, “This person is my hero because she has done X. I’d like to learn about X.” I’m like, “Feel free to use the show as a reason to contact her,” and being able to facilitate those things. They enjoy that all the time.
Facilitating connections, seeing connections between people and making that happen, I enjoy that, whether it is through the show or otherwise. It is another way to do that and have a connection even with people that you have known before but haven’t talked to in a while. The show is one way to do that, and certainly people that I have caught up with by having them as guests on the show.
One of the more rewarding things about it is being able to show the rest of the world that somebody with a lot of valuable things in their head and thoughts and getting them to share them.
I want to shine a light on them, elevate them and share how awesome they are with the world. It is neat that you are able to have the platform to do that through podcasting. Thanks for sharing this and having this discussion. It has been a lot of fun. As always, it’s a seamless, fun discussion with both of you. Not for your podcast, I would not have met you. I’m grateful for your podcast for that reason alone, and it is high quality. I usually end with lightning-round questions, but I’m going to ask one question for both of you. What is your motto if you have one?
There are two concepts that I have tried to think about, and it is directly related to our conversation. It is a one-word thought, “Simplify.” Another one is to stay focused because we are full of distractions in the world. I am not particularly good at either of those, but I’m trying to get better.
I don’t know that I have a motto, but one of the principles that I try to always live by is to be kind to yourself and others because you never know what people are going through.
M.C., what is your motto?
My mom has various things that she would send to me, quotes and inspiring things. She would always tell me, “Make this the best day ever. Paint the canvas of the day the way you want to.” I think of that way as each day as a new day to start over and think about that like, “It may have been a tough day yesterday, but now we are going to move forward fresh and start over. It could be a better day.” Also, do not forget to make your mark on the world and do what you think is important. Both of those are things I think about a lot.
Thanks for having us. We sure appreciate it.
Thank you so much. Congrats on 100 episodes.
Thanks so much. I appreciate you joining. Have a great day.
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About M.C. Sungaila
M.C. Sungaila is the leader of the Appellate practice group and a shareholder in the Orange County office of the Complex Appellate Litigation Group (CALG). M.C. Sungaila is a highly regarded appellate attorney who has briefed and argued appeals raising cutting-edge and fundamental business issues for over two decades. Her work has helped shape undeveloped areas of the law in constitutional law, employment, franchisor liability, product liability, class actions, probate, immigration, Holocaust art recovery, and human rights. She crafts creative approaches to clients’ emerging legal issues and provides pretrial consultations in cases where an appeal by either side appears inevitable.
Chambers USA reports that clients describe her as “a phenomenal writer,” “an excellent strategist,” and a “gifted appellate lawyer who consistently delivers bottom line results.” Clients praise her “great practical sense,” “laser” focus on key issues, “excellence in creative thinking,” “deep local knowledge of the California Supreme Court, as well as other appellate venues,” and her ability to “advise on the business side just as well as she does on the legal side.” She has been recognized for over a decade by the Daily Journal as one of California’s 100 Leading Women Lawyers, and as one of the state’s Top Labor & Employment Lawyers. She is a recipient of two back-to-back California Lawyer of the Year (CLAY) awards, including one in 2015 from California Lawyer magazine, Daily Journal Corporation, for the precedent-setting franchisor vicarious liability case she argued before the California Supreme Court, Patterson v. Domino’s Pizza.
In addition to her appellate practice, M.C. Sungaila is also frequently recognized for her sustained commitment to community service and pro bono work. In 2017, she was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, whose recipients include seven U.S. Presidents, Nobel Prize winners, athletes, leaders of industry, artists, and others whose work has made a lasting impact on humanity, for her combined professional achievements and humanitarian and pro bono work. She has also been recognized by groups such as California Women Lawyers, Alpha Phi International Fraternity, Orange County Women Lawyers, the Orange County Hispanic Bar Association, the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, and Coastline Community College Foundation.
M.C. Sungaila is regularly published and quoted in top industry publications, and her articles relating to effective amicus briefing, appellate brief writing, and gender issues are cited frequently and are required reading in law schools throughout North America. She has taught appellate law at University of California, Irvine, Loyola, and Whitter Law Schools.