Host Sean Harris talks with OAJ member, Eric Cameron about workers’ compensation and his views on the practice after an eye-opening experience during a hearing.
Sean: Hello, I’m your host Sean Harris, this is episode 39 of Civilly Speaking brought to you by the Ohio Association for Justice. Today is June 27th, 2018. I’m here live in studio with our guest Eric Cameron from right here in Columbus, OH. Eric thanks very much for joining us here on Civilly Speaking.
Eric: Sean thanks for having me, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Sean: Our topic today is workers’ comp in Ohio, but also perhaps the philosophy of the practice of law. Eric, talk to us about what you’ve seen as far as an evolving workers’ comp practice in the 21st century.
Eric: Thank you Sean. You know, it’s interesting, I listen to one of the other podcast’s you guys did with Jeff Johnson and he had some really interesting observations about how it’s changed and he and I have been practicing about the same amount of time and I would echo much of what he said and really, I found myself kind of taking notes as I was listening. These are things I should be doing in my practice more frequently. One of the things that I’ve always been struck by and workers’ comp is all I have ever done, but one of the things I’ve been struck by is that is bar is so collegial. Its, people get along for the most part. I get along with the people of whom I argue against on a regular basis and of course there are exceptions to the rule, but I think that’s the norm, I really do. We interact with each other on such a regular basis. My office for instances has anywhere from 100 to 150 hearings a week. 100 to 150 opportunities to argue with these people every single week. At some point I think that breeds, you know there’s the old concern about it breeding too much familiarity, but I think really out of necessity it breeds respect for one another because that just functions more, that’s more effective. Things have changed in my estimation in the last several years and part of it is that we have this shrinking pool of workers’ compensation claims being filed and being allowed, about 10 percent a year.
Sean: And as a quick aside, why is that?
Eric: Well, there’s lots of theories on it, but you know I think we would = be foolish to say that it’s all due to increase spending on safety programs across the state of Ohio…
Sean: That’s not it.
Eric: That’s not it.
Sean: I see.
Eric: Not to dismiss that entirely because I am sure that has prevented some work place accidents, but I think people feel increasingly pressured to not pursue claims. I think they feel that through tacit actions of their employer. I think they feel it by their peers sometimes in the work place. I think people really, really value their jobs and they, it’s becoming increasingly obvious to people that employers in the state of Ohio can kind of have their way. You become a liability to them if you become hurt at work. Now, I’m speaking in pretty broad-brush strokes here and that’s not true everywhere, but it’s much more true than it is not true with most of the claimants I deal with and so I think people see that. I think there are many more self-insured employers in the state of Ohio and as a result of that we don’t find out about as many claims. People, those claims are kept internal and nobody finds out about them and so you have fewer claims. You have a competitive plaintiff’s bar that has always been fairly competitive while being collegial. There are a fine knight number of these folks that I can represent and so what ends up happening is at least what I have seen is less collegiality and it’s unfortunate. I’ve seen that, it used to be when I first started practicing if somebody, one of my clients were to walk into somebody else’s office, I’d get a phone call before they’d even sit down with them. I find out about it after the fact now, most of the time and there’s still the people the guys who have been doing this for years and by and large OAJ members who I can trust who will still call me and will still say hey this guy’s doing a fine job on your case go back and see him, but there’s been a shift in that regard. There’s no question about it.
Sean: So, Eric you and I were chatting before we started the show and you’d mention as we sit here today it’s actually take your child to work day.
Eric: It is.
Sean: You had an experience in hearings this morning.
Eric: I did. It was phenomenal. I had a hearing this morning and it was one of these, potentially fairly contentious hearings and I had a couple of witnesses, the employer had a couple of witnesses, and the hearing officer had brought their children to work today and there was probably a 12 year old little girl and a 9 or 10 year old little boy and I found myself in the middle of this hearing where we’ve all had the experience where somethings being said or at least insinuated that you know isn’t true, you know isn’t accurate, you want to interject, you know that you can’t. Your body language as you know carries with it a whole slew of messages, but I found myself being hyperconscious of the fact that there were young people in this room, who were there to watch attorneys and to see how attorneys, not just what they do, but how they behave and I had this kind of, this little awakening in the course of this hearing that, you’ve heard that old thing about who you are speaks so loud I cannot hear a word you say and irrespective of what I was saying it became very obvious to me that these kids were watching us and how we were behaving and how we were interacting with each other, myself and the employers attorney and the hearing officer and the hearing went on. It was actually fairly long for us, it was 45 minutes or so and it occurred to me afterward how much better off we would all be if I behaved as if my kids were in the room or somebody else’s kids were in the room watching an attorney do what they do and watching how they do that. It just seems to that there’s a lot to be had from thinking about things that way. We become, I think in a volume-oriented practice, there’s this tendency to become jaded, become cynical in what we do. We do the same thing over and over and over again, there’s slight variations in it, but obviously it’s so important to keep in mind, even if I do this 50 times a day, this is the most important thing in this person’s life right now. What we’re talking about, what we’re doing, has to do with whether or not they’re going to be in pain tonight or tomorrow. Has to do with whether or not they are going to be able to pay their water bill this month. Has to do with whether or not they’re going to be able to have Christmas for their kids and it’s really easy when you’re taking on hundreds of new clients a year to become a little bit cynical and a little bit jaded by all of it. What if though, you know, what if I can somehow, we can all somehow introduce just a moda camor of humanity into this process and it’s easy to remember this when you have the client who hugs you or when you see the client in tears or something happens to you particularly identify with the client. It’s a lot harder when that person’s angry, when that person’s upset, there indignant about how they’re being treated and they’re taking it out on you cause you’re the human being in front of them and it’s a lot easier in those circumstances when I go into a hearing be much less tolerant of the person whose, you know letting red herring fly down the stream and telling half-truths and I want to stop it you know and my eyes want to roll and I want to, it’s a lot easier to not think about how would I behave if I had a couple of kids in the room with me here and I don’t know, I think our practices, workers’ comp specifically lends itself to kind of a churn and burn type of deal where you’re just going and going and going and going and the inbox is never empty man and all of our practices are like that to some extent, but I just know when I get back to my office, these files multiple like rabbits and hey that’s great news, right for my practice, but the works never done, the people are never done, and it’s really easy to just forget that this is the most important thing in this person’s life.
Sean: Obviously it was a unique and unplanned, unforeseeable situation that brought you to this thinking today. You didn’t walk into work thinking hey I can’t wait to see what it’s like with hearing officer kids at the hearing, but I wonder how we as you say guard against becoming too focused on perhaps the business side of the practice as compared to the professional side.
Eric: Yes, and I think that’s tough because one of the things I always tell you know people who don’t know what I do for a living and when talking about is that they never teach you is how to run a law practice in law school right and I spend much more time now on that side of things than I do practicing law I feel like. At the same time, practicing law is what I want to do. I love getting 5, 10, 15 minutes to champion somebody and win, lose, or draw, having to pick up the pieces and do it again maybe even the next hour, the next day, the next week. I really like that about what I do. I really like that I make a difference in those people’s lives so why would I not, this is just my observation, very few people as you know are sitting around at the end of life going man I wish I would have worked more. I wish I would have more money. When we’re talking about our careers and when we’re at Convention or we’re at a CLE or at a board meeting the stories we’re telling and the comradery that which binds us is the causes that we champion for these people. It is not our business acumen. It is not how much money we’ve made. You know we all get excited over big verdicts for people, it’s awesome, it’s great cause you know how many hours, days, years, that guy has toiled away at nothing so you really do celebrate those big wins, but at the same time the stories you remember, the tales you’re telling people, are stories about the differences you made in people’s lives, the impact you made in people’s lives so why would I not focus on that more? Why would that not be, rather than how much money I made this year or how many clients we got or how much my practice has grown, why wouldn’t my focus be on kind of the humanity of what we do and I don’t know I think that starts at home really. It starts at home. What I mean by that is in our offices. One of my mentors, a man who kind of taught me how to do what I do, Jim Clymer, every morning I would watch him go around and talk to each of our staff and not just hi, how are you, asking them about their lives asking them about what’s going on with them. He treated them not just like human beings, but he treated them like family members, right and as our offices grown and as offices grow it becomes increasingly difficult to do that, but if I treat people with respect there when I go out from there when I go to hearings when I am interacting with other attorneys I think I’m much more inclined to probably treat those people with respect to and to remember kind of the vary human element of why we do what we do for a living.
Sean: I’m reminded as your talking about the human aspect of what we do whether it’s injured workers or in the PI context, my senior partner Mark Kitrick telling me and it’s not something I ever picked up on until he pointed this out and you’d notice I would say in the plaintiff’s bar generally and OAJ members in particular, even though we are competitors we’re still friends we’re still fighting the same fight. You can’t say that about the defense bar. They would steal a client from each other in a heartbeat. I suspect with employer’s counsel as well and that’s remarkable since we are all undeniably in business and we’re all competitors, yet on the plaintiff side, on the injured workers’ side it’s a united front and once he said that I went oh my god that’s right and how remarkable.
Eric: It’s really great and it makes you, like anything else, like any community and maybe it’s speaking too plainly, but I think it’s much of what our country has lost as this ability to have a sense of community. That sense of community both geographically in terms of where you live, but professionally in terms of what you do how critical that is to feel a part of something larger to feel a part of a tribe if you will right? Feel a part of something bigger than you and that there are brothers and sisters who are walking along side of you that I am not alone in what I do. Man, that’s emboldening when you go out into the world and know that that’s the case, that you’re not alone. You can walk with a little more wind behind you, you know and feel a little bit stronger about what you’re doing on any given day.
Sean: So, Eric part of being a part of something larger and bring a group of course involves some level of communication and what have you noticed recently when it comes to the ability for lawyers and others to communicate their ideas?
Eric: I’ll tell you Sean, this is my observation and I don’t know how much it’s universal or how wide spread it is, but we interview in any given year probably 20 or 30 law school students to clerk with us and then usually the last few years we’ll interview for an attorney position as well and it’s part of the blessing of growing one of the things I struggle with is at the risk of sounding to much like the guy who wants to get the kids off his lawn and is a neophyte and doesn’t understand technology I do have my iPad right in front of me right now and I’m pretty proud of that, but I will tell you I have seen, there’s this strange dichotomy that exists between are enhanced ability to be connected and communicate with one another and this is not a novel observation I think it’s uniquely applicable to what we do for a living, but this increase means of communication through so many devices and such a sense of immediacy to it in the decreased ability to actually communicate and what I mean by that is that when we do what we do for a living, by in large my ability to communicate is measured in two ways both by what I say and how I say what I say and what I write and how I write what I write and I have seen I think an unfortunate decline in that in the last several years where the writing is not what it should be in my estimation for a lawyer for somebody who’s gone to school for seven years to learn how to communicate. The ability to interpersonally connect with somebody is not what it should be. I can put somebody in a room and they can flash for five or ten minutes but man beyond that they don’t know what to talk about or how to express themselves and I see you know, I don’t bemoan this and say well the profession is lost, it’s terrible. I look at it and see in my estimation what our job is as mentors is a little bit different from what it used to be. It used to be a little bit more inside baseball stuff, this is how you got to process this application and this type of award in a workers’ comp claim and this is how you talk with this type of client. Much of what we do now, and I think the most important work I can do working with a young attorney is teaching them through sharing my experience how to connect with their clients, how to connect with other lawyers, how to communicate with hearing officers, with judges, with juries, that’s a huge part of it right now and I think by in large it’s not just law schools, but it’s society as a whole has kind of brought these kids to the table ill prepared to be professional advocates and it’s not that they’re not smart, they’re brilliant. It’s not that they don’t have technology at their disposal and the means to be able to do things to potentially run circles around me. They do, but at the end of the day guess who’s making the decisions? It’s jurors, it’s judges, it’s hearing officers, it’s on some level opposing counsel and if I don’t know how to interpersonally connect with each of those individuals, live and in person I’m in some trouble and my clients in some trouble. So, it’s a shift as I see in terms of how we talk to and how we teach and how we mentor young lawyers.
Sean: Well I know you got to get going because Denny’s specials are going to run out soon.
Eric: Get off my lawn.
Sean: Eric Cameron it’s been a pleasure thanks very much for joining us here on Civilly Speaking.
Eric: It’s been an honor Sean, thanks for having me.
Sean: Eric thanks for being here and thanks to all the listeners out there. If you like our show check out civillyspeaking.com. Check us out on iTunes as well and please leave us a review we really appreciate it and we’ll see you on the next episode of Civilly Speaking.