GPSolo September 2007
Rarely will you find a workers’ compensation lawyer say that he always aspired to practice in the field of workers’ compensation. Atticus Fitch did not practice in workers’ compensation; neither did Clarence Darrow, Johnnie Cochran, or Gerry Spence. However, some of the best litigators I have met are workers’ compensation practitioners, and their clients hold them in the same esteem as the lawyers mentioned earlier.
Workers’ compensation law is deceptively complex and not for the faint of heart. In many jurisdictions, there is no “pain and suffering” component, and the injured worker’s rights are strictly outlined by statute. Although these cases are generally not argued before a jury, lawyers in the field must be proficient with expedited discovery, knowledgeable about the particular administrative law judge handling the hearing, and skillful in managing client expectations.
In a medium to large workers’ compensation defense practice, first-year associates are generally paid somewhere between $75,000 and $85,000, depending on the city and cost of living. The normal billable requirement ranges from 1,900 to 2,100 hours. In addition, many firms strongly suggest that you adapt to the firm culture by attending their functions, serving on their committees, and participating in “client development” activities. Associates in these firms will find that they are very busy and will likely be forced to juggle the competing demands of home life, professional activities, and job satisfaction. However, there is no finer training ground if you desire to have your own workers’ compensation practice one day.
Coming from this background, I began my workers’ compensation law firm in April 2005. Interestingly, the associates in my firm are similar “big firm refugees.” In order to compete with the larger firms, we have invested a great deal of resources into technology to better represent injured workers. With each case, we create a “virtual file” to alleviate the cost of file storage, enhance multiple-user access to files, and reduce postage costs. Additionally, our practitioners may access our databases from anywhere in the world with a high-speed Internet connection. In order to manage a large volume of files, we also have invested in case management software that enables us to track all documents created, manipulate calendars, and assist with accounting matters.
There is an old saying that “no matter what you pay a good assistant, she is underpaid; no matter what you pay a bad assistant, he is overpaid.” In the workers’ compensation setting this adage applies perfectly. As with other fields of law, the workers’ compensation lawyer deals with folks who are in pain and are experiencing a sense of loss. Consequently, the “attorney” will quickly become a “counselor” in all senses of the word. During these “counseling sessions,” the assistant, paralegal, or secretary should be handling the administrative matters so that you have time to devote to your client. Additionally, another friendly voice from your assistant conveys to the injured workers that an entire team of folks is in the battle with them.
As in any specialized field of law, the workers’ compensation bar becomes a close group of lawyers. These lawyers will have more than one case against each other over the years. More times than not, these lawyers understand that respect and professional courtesy go a long way.
At the end of the day, I believe that the workers’ compensation lawyer is a true embodiment of the dual roles of attorney-at-law and counselor-at-law. Whether you are an insurance defense lawyer or claimant’s counsel, workers’ compensation law will test your technical, tactical, and people skills.
Bryan C. Ramos practices law in Atlanta, Georgia.