Now is the time to look back over 2020 and breathe a big sigh of relief. We could never have imagined this last year would turn out like this and, even now, we remain in the midst of the pandemic. The world in which we live and practice law has been changed forever.
Many of us have friends and colleagues who were directly impacted by COVID-19. It has been an unprecedented and challenging time. While there has been a lot of negatives, there have been some silver linings. The worst of times brings out the best in people.
When January 2020 began, we were practicing law as per usual. Our greatest legal concern was whether a worker was an employee or independent contractor. Two months later, the world — legal and otherwise — looked entirely different. We all thought this would be a temporary situation; it is hard to believe that we are about to ring in 2021 and yet there is no end in sight. It is impossible to predict with any certainty when any of us will be back in a courtroom on a regular basis… if at all. Most of us do miss going to the WCAB. We do miss seeing the faces of our colleagues and staff at the office and the Board. Judges are doing trials telephonically. Court reporters are taking testimony over the phone. We’re muddling through. In that sense, the entire industry deserves accolades for making sure our worker’s compensation system did not collapse.
Actually, we’re doing better than “muddling through”. Cases seem to be moving along at a faster pace. Judges are getting more firm with applicant attorneys. Judges want cases to settle and if they do not settle, they are quickly set for trial. The court calendar is moving at a faster pace. Given that applicant attorneys make the bulk of their money off of 5710 fees, they are now doing depositions remotely and are not able to get their money for travel time. It behooves them to settle cases expeditiously and get their fees off the Award. So, we are seeing cases settle quicker than before the pandemic.
The resolution of claims is also sped up by the decrease in unnecessary medical care that is often sought in a non-pandemic world. Many applicants are just afraid to see a doctor. And rightly so. Also, they do not believe in telemedicine. We are seeing more applicants wanting to buy out future medical care now than ever before!
Interestingly, there is even a silver lining resulting from the weakening labor market. Many applicants now want to look for work sooner rather than later. Thus, we are seeing more cases close faster and for a more reasonable amount of money.
Finally, remote work seems to be more productive. Most of us are working remotely. This was the trend even before the pandemic. While we miss seeing our co-workers regularly, few of us miss the commute. By avoiding what would otherwise be wasted (and frustrating!) time on the road, employers and claims professionals have more time in front of their computers, thereby increasing their responsiveness. Authorization is received at a much quicker pace. Similarly, attorney turnaround time on returning phone calls and emails has dramatically improved.
At the end of the day, we are all in this together. California is still in a mandatory lockdown and we do not know when the WCAB will open again for in-person appearances. But when it does, it will never be the same. There will not be a small courtroom with 20 cases set in one afternoon. I imagine a judge will have one trial set in person and a small handful of conferences. As we have demonstrated throughout 2020, we have—and will continue to—resolve matters more expeditiously and economically. We can and will serve our clients’ best interests regardless of what is thrown our way.
May 2021 bring everyone good health!
All the best….
Joan S. Bernstein is an associate attorney at Bradford & Barthel’s Oakland location. Joan has over 30 years of workers’ compensation defense experience. Contact her at email@example.com or (510) 268-0061.
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