Worker’s compensation legal work is a highly specialized aspect of labor law that covers insurance settlements and medical coverage for workers who have been injured on the job.
The worker’s compensation system evolved from a need to balance the needs and rights of injured workers against the strong possibility of traditional tort claims for on-the-job injuries bankrupting employers, and potentially putting many more employees out of work.
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The compensation bargain in the United States evolved slowly from around the time of the Civil War on a state-by-state basis into the system that exists today. Within it, injured workers are generally barred from filing civil suits against employers for on the job injuries; in return, they are guaranteed medical coverage, retraining, and reasonable re-employment prospects.
On the face of it, this is a fair bargain that wouldn’t seem to need much legal intervention. But it has developed into a complex, multi-faceted system combining administrative, civil, and criminal law at all levels of government.
Worker’s comp claims require the kind of skills good paralegals naturally have a knack for. This kind of work demands an attention to detail, the ability to coordinate multiple experts and agencies, and a talent for dealing with clients who are experiencing the compounded stress of missing work and losing out on income while at the same dealing with a debilitating injury.
Paralegals Juggle Details In Worker’s Comp Case Management
It is often something of a surprise to people entering the field that many worker’s comp claims are not for dramatic workplace accidents, but rather result from chronic and repetitive strain injuries.
This fact is part of what makes worker’s comp the challenging field that it is. Proving that an RSI is work-related is not as cut-and-dry as a flashy industrial accident. The long period of time over which such conditions develop and the multivariate causes—which may include both personal and professional activities—make cases hard to prove. This uncertainty creates some serious obstacles to getting a client the coverage and treatment they may need.
The process involves working closely with medical professionals to get their assessments and to coordinate therapy for clients. The worker’s comp system revolves around administrative law requirements that mandate the steps that must be taken to open a claim or contest agency decisions.
It usually falls to paralegals to handle the details of clearing these requirements. It may include setting up services or evaluations including:
- Physical Capacity Evaluations (PCEs)
- Functional Capacity Evaluations (FCEs)
- Work Conditioning Therapy
- Work Hardening Therapy
- Job Modification Analysis
- Physical Therapy
To coordinate all these activities, paralegals spend a lot of time working the phones and writing letters and emails to varied professionals including everyone from doctors and physical or occupational therapists to insurance case managers and vocational rehabilitation counselors.
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Paralegals In Worker’s Compensation Have Exposure To Many Aspects of The Law
A day on the job in a worker’s compensation firm is never boring. The field has some overlap with aspects of labor law, healthcare and medical malpractice, administrative law, and civil litigation. Because of the patchwork of laws that can cover different professions, paralegals in worker’s comp not only have to know their own state’s specific worker’s compensation laws but also aspects of:
- The Jones Act
- Federal Employer Liability Act
- Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act
- Black Lung Benefits Program
- Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program
Similarly, worker’s compensation cases can result in many different types of legal action.
The most common element of the work is simply coordinating treatment of the injury, rehabilitation, and retraining (if necessary). This involves in-depth understanding of the terms of the industrial insurance coverage offered under the program covering the employee as well as a firm comprehension of the administrative rules that govern how compensation is provided.
Many issues in worker’s compensation can be worked out with a quick phone call to a claims manager or voc, or by filing an administrative appeal with the state department that oversees worker’s compensation.
But worker’s compensation claims can create a whole raft of related claims and legal actions depending on the specifics of the accident and subsequent handling by the employer and insurer. These may include:
- Torts for negligence against other parties involved in the accident.
- Social Security filings and appeals for long-term disability.
- Family and Medical Leave Act filings for short-term disability.
- Product liability claims against the manufacturers of any equipment involved in the accident.
- Medical malpractice claims rising from treatment issues.
- Wrongful termination claims if the worker is improperly dismissed after the injury.
This puts many demands on paralegals working in firms that specialize in worker’s compensation.
But the difficulty of the work can be part of what makes it rewarding. When you are fighting for the right of an injured worker to be compensated for suffering an on-the-job injury, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing them retrained and back to work again at the end of a long and painful period of rehabilitation.
And combating the inevitable injustices that occur in complicated systems offers other rewards for paralegals in top-performing worker’s compensation firms. Seattle’s Emery Reddy is a good example of one of these firms. Well-respected in the Washington State labor law arena, attorneys there have been racking up six-figure settlements and court wins since 2005.
Paralegals both benefit from the financial success and the experience that comes from working with a team that can take on Labor and Industries, big insurers, and negligent employers —and win. After landing a job at a firm like Emery Reddy, paralegals working in labor law don’t have to worry about looking for work ever again—other firms in the field will be looking for them.
Becoming a Paralegal Specializing in Worker’s Compensation
Although there is no secret handshake required for getting a job in worker’s compensation at a firm like Emery Reddy, it should be clear that they get their pick of qualified applicants. You need to have both experience and a solid paralegal education to be considered.
That experience can come in any of the various interrelated subjects that come up in worker’s compensation work:
- Civil litigation
- Administrative law
- Labor law
- Health and malpractice law
It’s also a big plus if you are comfortable working with clients and outside professionals. If you don’t already have a good medical vocabulary, you’ll need one when it comes time to discuss cases with therapists, doctors, and claim managers.
On the education front, there are fewer options. NALA, the paralegal association, offers a certificate focusing on personal injury in the worker’s compensation field. It’s the only professional association with a directly related certificate program, so it’s definitely worth investigating if you’re interested in the field.
NALS, the association for legal professionals, does offer a specialty certificate in employment law which may have some applicability to worker’s compensation practice.
As always, attention to detail and superb organizational skills will always count in your favor when looking to find your niche in worker’s compensation law.
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