How to Choose a Lawyer for your Worker's Compensation case in North Carolina

You may not need a lawyer to help you with your Workers' Compensation claim in North Carolina. However, you definitely will need a lawyer on your claim if one of the following situations describes your case:

1. Your claim has been denied. If your claim has been denied by the insurance company, you are not going to get any relief without a competent Workers' Compensation lawyer to represent your interests. Once the claim is denied, the insurance company is not going to spend any more time or effort on it. It is possible that if you request a hearing in front of the Industrial Commission the insurance company may offer you a token small settlement amount, called a nuisance value settlement, just to make it go away. But if your case has merit, and it was still denied, you are not going to get fair value on your denied case without the help of an experienced and competent Workers' Compensation lawyer.

2. You need help getting your wage loss benefits calculated correctly.

3. You need help getting your medical treatment approved.

4. You receive a "Form 24" in the mail seeking to cut off your indemnity compensation (wage loss) benefits.

After you have decided that you need a lawyer, how do you go about choosing the best one for your case?

Many lawyers advertise that they handle Workers' Compensation cases. However, in North Carolina, it is fairly easy to find the lawyers who actually concentrate on Workers' Compensation and have verifiable expertise in this complicated area of the law. In North Carolina, our State Bar has set up a "specialization" certification program. Lawyers can apply to be awarded the designation "specialist" in several areas of the law, including Workers' Compensation. Beginning in the year 2000, North Carolina lawyers were able to apply for the specialization certification in Workers' Compensation.

As of this writing, we have 220 Board Certified Specialists in Workers' Compensation law practicing in North Carolina. Many of those lawyers only handle cases on behalf of the insurance companies and employers, but of the total, approximately 114 handle cases just for injured workers.

In order to become a Certified Specialist, a lawyer must have at least 500 hours per year of experience in Workers' Compensation during each of the previous five years. The lawyer must have taken a greater number of continuing legal education hours in Workers' Compensation or a related area than the minimum required by law to maintain the law license. The lawyer must also receive a recommendation from several of his professional peers vouching for his ability to handle Workers' Compensation matters.

In addition, the lawyer must pass a six-hour bar exam just on Workers' Compensation, which contains approximately 300 questions. After meeting all of these criteria, the lawyer becomes approved by the North Carolina State Bar Board of Legal Specialization to call himself a "Certified Specialist in Workers' Compensation Law."

The State Bar has therefore vetted all of the lawyers who wish to be known as a "Specialist" in that area of law. You cannot claim to be a "Specialist" without meeting all of these criteria. The six-hour bar exam on Workers' Compensation topics was one of the toughest tests that I ever took in four years of college and three years of law school. That test was second in difficulty only to the two-day bar exam that I had to take after graduation from law school in order to get my license to practice law. Specialist lawyers know what they are doing, so the first place you need to look for a lawyer is the list of Board Certified Specialists in Workers' Compensation Law that is published by the North Carolina State Bar at this website: www.boardoflegalspecialists.com.

After you have found the list of Specialists, then you can do further research on the lawyers on the list. The Specialists list will give you the names of the Specialist lawyers in your county or city, and then you can go to a site such as AVVO.com and perform further investigation and research into these individual lawyers. AVVO.com rates lawyers on a scale of zero to 10, although a lawyer who has not "claimed his profile" will have a starting point score of 6.0 to 7.0. After a lawyer claims his profile and fills in his biographical information, his score will rise with the highest score being a 10.0. The rating is good for comparing lawyers, but the most useful thing on a lawyer's AVVO profile is probably the client reviews and the peer endorsements.

The client reviews are particularly helpful because you can read through those and get a sense of how the lawyer interacts with his clients. You can also get a sense of how effective the lawyer is by reading what people have to say about the result obtained by the lawyer in their own case. The peer endorsements are helpful sometimes, but you need to read through those and look for the ones that clearly appear to have come from a lawyer who actually knows the lawyer being reviewed.

Another way to research a lawyer is to look him up on martindale.com and see how he is rated by that peer review organization. Martindale-Hubbell has been around for about 100 years rating lawyers on a scale of CV-BV-AV-AV Preeminent. In this rating scheme, A is the highest level of ability. The V is a necessary part of any rating and it means that the lawyer's peers believe that the rated lawyer conducts himself with good ethics and professionalism.

The AV Preeminent rating means that the lawyer's peer reviews, from other lawyers that he has dealt with in his practice, place him in the top 5% of the lawyers reviewed in the country. An AV Preeminent lawyer is therefore considered to be in the top 5% in the country in terms of Martindale-Hubbell's rating system, in both legal ability and ethical conduct. Some younger lawyers are not rated at all, but that does not mean that they're not good lawyers. A lawyer has to practice approximately nine or 10 years before getting a rating so a lawyer who has been in practice for, say, five years might be a very good lawyer but will not yet have a rating simply because he or she has not been practicing law long enough.

Another good internet source for researching lawyers is www.Superlawyers.com. On this site, lawyers whose peer review ratings in the Super Lawyers survey place the lawyer in the top 5% of the lawyers surveyed, get named as "Super Lawyers" and are featured on this site. Again, Super Lawyers contains lawyers that the members of the profession consider to be among the cream of the crop in terms of how well they represent their clients and interact with their fellow attorneys.

The "Best Lawyers in America" organization also chooses lawyers based on peer reviews, with the top rated lawyers being named or listed in "Best Lawyers." As a consumer, you may have to pay a fee to review the list of "Best Lawyers" but a lawyer who is given this honor typically will advertise it on his website. US News and World Report magazine also has a list of "Best Law Firms in America" every year and these firms will typically advertise this honor as well. Again, these are peer reviews from other attorneys, so they are reliable in the sense that attorneys know each other's work and they know who does a good job and they answer those surveys accordingly. Bob Bollinger was very pleased to recently be chosen as Best Lawyer's "Lawyer of the Year" for Charlotte in the area of "Workers' Compensation-Claimants." The "Claimants" are, of course, the injured workers he represents.

Finally, you may want to see whether the lawyer has been disciplined by the State Bar. Avvo includes this information on the lawyer's profile. You can also look up the actual disciplinary action at the North Carolina State Bar website, which contains a special section on lawyer discipline that is available to the general public. Please note that some lawyer misconduct is quite serious, such as neglecting a case or engaging in dishonest behavior.

After you have performed your online research to get a sense of the lawyer's ability and experience, you next need to take advantage of the "free consultation" offered by every Workers' Compensation lawyer in the state who represents injured workers. Contact the lawyers that impressed you the most from the research stage. Most lawyers will give you a free consultation over the telephone or in person. In that free consultation, you can get a good idea of that lawyer's communication style. You can understand whether or not this lawyer is someone that you will be comfortable talking to about your case and personal matters, and you can size up that lawyer's ability to explain to you the process of Workers' Compensation and give you understandable legal advice and instructions.

Communication between the lawyer and the client is extremely important in any legal matter. In Workers' Compensation, there are times when you will be dealing with your lawyer quite closely during your case. You therefore want a lawyer that you feel comfortable talking to, and a lawyer who speaks to you in a way that is both respectful and informative, without talking to you at a level that is too technical and without talking down to you in a condescending way. You can typically size up a lawyer's communication abilities in the initial phone conversation, which will not cost you any money.

If you hire a lawyer to help with your case, you will also be dealing with that lawyer's office staff. Most lawyers rely on their paralegals to handle a lot of the routine client communication. A lawyer frankly does not have time to take every phone call that comes in and answer every question that you might have, so the lawyer delegates a lot of this to his support staff. Keep in mind that the support staff is talking to you with the blessing of the lawyer and in many cases will have specifically been told by the lawyer exactly what to say to you about a particular situation.

Generally speaking, you can rely on what the support staff tells you. If you have information you need to provide to the lawyer, you can always give that to the support staff and ask that person to relay the information to the lawyer. Chances are, that staff person is responsible for documenting that information in your file anyway. Do not be put off by a lawyer who uses his paralegal or support staff for the majority of the communication with you. It is simply a sign that the lawyer is busy working on his clients' cases.

If you want to hire an effective lawyer, you need to determine whether your lawyer has courtroom experience. Going to court is the biggest tool that a lawyer has to help you when things are going poorly in your case. A lawyer who wants to settle everything and never go to court quickly becomes known to the insurance company as a lawyer that will settle every case. That lawyer has effectively lost his or her best tool to force an insurance company to treat you correctly. If an insurance company will not voluntarily agree to pay you benefits or send you to the doctor or do something else that it needs to do, then the lawyer's tool for forcing the insurance company to treat you correctly is to file a motion or file for an evidentiary hearing and basically "take them to court."

There are some lawyers in the community who do in fact settle virtually every case they have and the insurance companies know exactly who they are. In fact, the insurance adjusters might even laugh when they hear you have hired a lawyer that they know will never go to court for you. At that point that insurance adjuster knows that they will eventually settle the case in a way that is favorable to the insurance company and they will not have to do what they should do for you because your lawyer will not force them to do it. In my humble opinion, if you hire a lawyer for your Workers' Compensation case, you will be best served by hiring a lawyer who is willing to go to court for you if necessary.

Now, how do you find a lawyer who is willing to go to court for you? In North Carolina, it is not too hard to find a lawyer who the insurance company knows will go to court. You can do this online by going to the North Carolina Industrial Commission website. On the far right of the home page is a button for "links." Click on that and then look for the link to the "Livelink database." Once you get into the "Livelink" system, log in as a member of the public and then do a search of the Industrial Commission and Court of Appeals court decisions using the name of the lawyer as your search term.

For instance, if you wanted to search my track record of Workers' Comp litigation, you could put in as your search term "Bobby Bollinger." Once you search my name, you will discover that in the time period covered by the database, which goes back about 10 years, I have well over 100 final decisions from either the Industrial Commission or the Court of Appeals on cases where I have "gone to court" to help one of my clients. If you're considering another lawyer, put that lawyer's name in there and search it and see how many times that lawyer has received a final decision from either the Industrial Commission or the Court of Appeals.

If you do this search, you might be flabbergasted that certain "big name lawyers" that you hear about all the time have either zero or close to zero final court decisions to their names. What does this tell you? It tells you that they settle everyone's case and never go to court. Why? Because going to court is a lot of time consuming work for a lawyer, and it is not the most efficient way to make money for a workers' comp lawyer. Settling every case as soon as possible is the most efficient way to make money. Now if you can find out this information with a simple internet search, don't you think all the insurance adjusters already know it as well? Of course they do. If an insurance adjuster knows that your lawyer in not going to go to court to get you what you deserve under the law, do you think that insurance adjuster is going to be motivated to pay you anything extra in a settlement? Is that adjuster going to be afraid that your lawyer will take the case to court and force that insurance company to do the right thing? Think about that before you choose your Workers' Compensation lawyer.

Bob Bollinger