What Exactly Does A Workers' Compensation Attorney Do?

Workers' Compensation Lawyers: Education, Skills, and Responsibilities

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Accidents can be pretty common at work—a broken arm from a fall off a ladder, a back injury from lifting heavy boxes, or carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of years of typing are all common examples. A workers' compensation attorney can help workers who are injured on the job recover compensation for these injuries, including medical bills and lost wages.

Available Benefits

Workers' compensation laws permit workers who are hurt on the job to receive a number of benefits, depending on the injury. They can include:

  • Permanent total disability benefits
  • Permanent partial disability benefits
  • Temporary partial disability benefits
  • Medical benefits
  • Wage reimbursement benefits
  • Vocational rehabilitation benefits

Workers' Compensation Laws

Workers' compensation laws are governed by each state legislation and by federal statutes. Both provide for fixed awards to employees or their dependents in the event of employment-related accidents and diseases.

These statutorily-prescribed awards enable the injured worker to receive compensation without initiating legal action against an employer. The various state acts differ with respect to the type of workers covered, the amount and duration of benefits, and other details.

Federal employees are covered by a number of laws, including the Federal Employees Compensation Act, the Jones Act for seamen, and the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act for longshore and harbor workers.

The effect of most workers' comp laws is to make the employer strictly liable for injuries sustained in the course of employment, without regard to the negligence of the employer or the employee. The injury must arise in the course and scope of employment to give rise to a valid claim, and an employee-employer relationship must exist.

Independent contractors are not covered under most workers' compensation laws.

An Attorney's Duties Overall

The ultimate goal of a workers' compensation attorney representing the claimant—the injured worker—is to help that individual obtain benefits.

The goal of the workers' comp lawyer representing the defendant, which would be the employer or the employer's insurance company, is to mitigate the defendant's liability.

Typical job functions of a workers' compensation lawyer include:

  • Gathering medical evidence and medical records
  • Taking depositions of the claimant, physicians, medical experts, and other parties
  • Conducting discovery
  • Performing legal research
  • Remaining current with developments in the law
  • Drafting pleadings, findings of fact, motions, briefs, opinions, and other legal documents
  • Litigating cases before a judge or referee

A lack of concrete and comprehensive medical evidence is one of the primary reasons workers' comp claims fail, and it's a critical responsibility of an attorney to prevent this.

Specific Claimant Attorney Duties

Workers' compensation lawyers on the claimant side must have a working comprehension of the claims filing process, as well as compassion for the injured party's plight. An attorney representing the claimant will typically:

  • Answer clients' questions and guide them through the workers' comp process.
  • Contact medical providers and complete paperwork relating to the claim.
  • Represent the interests of the claimant at hearings, trials, depositions, oral arguments, mediations, arbitrations, and other proceedings.
  • Assist the injured worker with benefits, including appropriate medical care.
  • Communicate with the worker's supervisors on the injured worker's status.
  • Negotiate settlements on behalf of the claimant.

A top-level claimant's attorney should have superior negotiation skills based on an accurate assessment of what the case is honestly worth—no pipe dreams or inflated figures.

The attorney will be able to recognize when a "final offer" really isn't quite final.

Specific Defense Attorney Duties

On the defense side, attorneys help insurance companies or self-insured employers mitigate their exposure and defend against workers' comp claims.

They must understand the claims-handling guidelines for each business unit they work with and be able to budget costs and calculate exposure. They must have knowledge of billing procedures. Attorneys on the defense side will:

  • Represent the interests of the employer or insurer at hearings, trials, depositions, oral arguments, mediations, arbitrations, and other proceedings.
  • Communicate with claims representatives.
  • Monitor loss run reports for trends and increases, and alert management to concerns.
  • Assist with the investigation of accidents and problem areas.
  • Manage workers' compensation costs.
  • Compile and submit reports required by company management.
  • Coordinate and attend claims reviews.
  • Negotiate settlements on behalf of the insurance company.

Skills and Knowledge

Other capabilities and knowledge are required to excel as a workers' compensation attorney in addition to these essential legal skills. They include:

  • Litigation experience and strong trial experience
  • Working knowledge of workers' compensation laws and procedures
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills
  • Strong research and analytical skills
  • Ability to handle large caseloads and juggle multiple priorities and deadlines
  • Excellent negotiation skills
  • Ability to work independently as well as in a team environment
  • Strong technology skills, including proficiency with Microsoft Office software and legal research platforms, such as Lexis and Westlaw
  • Understanding of medical, scientific, construction, products, engineering, and similar issues inherent in workers comp cases

Workers' Compensation Attorney Education

Like all attorneys in the U.S., workers' compensation lawyers must obtain an undergraduate degree, complete four years of law school, and obtain a license by passing the bar exam in the state where they want to practice.

Workers' Compensation Attorney Compensation

Claimant attorneys rarely charge an hourly fee. It's more customary that they work on a contingency basis, collecting a percentage of any award received for a claimant, anywhere from 10% to 33%. Some state laws cap the percentage.

Defense attorneys are more likely to work for or be retained by insurance companies and employers.

Job Environment

Workers' comp attorneys work in an office environment, often employed in a law firm or in a corporate legal department. Frequent travel to hearings, arbitrations, depositions, and job sites can be required. Long hours can be required due to traveling to hearings and depositions in distant locations, and when preparing for hearings.