Recently, I had an opportunity to talk with Daniel Walden, a certified specialist in workers’ compensation law. Dan graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington and from Cumberland School of Law of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1975. He is currently a partner in the firm of Walden and Walden, in Winston-Salem, practicing with his wife, Margaret Walden. Dan’s comments on specializing in workers’ comp law follow.
Q: Why did you pursue certification?
I had practiced workers’ compensation law representing injured workers for some 25 years when the State Bar began to explore certification in this practice area. I supported the State Bar’s efforts, and pursued certification because I felt that it was important for injured workers to be aware of and represented by specialists in what had become a very complex and rapidly changing area of the law.
Q: How did you prepare for the examination?
I began early in my re-reading and review of Chapter 97 of the General Statutes and the decisional law construing the Workers’ Compensation Act—a not inconsiderable endeavor, I might add. I found invaluable in this connection the past and current CLE materials from excellent presentations by both the NC Academy of Trial Lawyers and the NC Bar Association.
Q: Was the certification process (exam, references, application) valuable to you in any way?
My review of the Act and the cases showed me just how much there is to forget, and to re-learn about workers’ compensation law in North Carolina. That review, along with the continuing CLE requirements, has kept me on my toes, and I hope sharper in representing my clients. It is interesting in my case that a couple of my references were opposing counsel.
Q: Has certification been helpful to your practice?
In addition to keeping me up to date, certification has put my name out to prospective clients and to other members of the Bar who might seek needed assistance, or who might wish to refer cases. Also, because workers’ compensation claims can wind up in litigation, I believe relationships between opposing counsel are improved when both are workers’ compensation specialists. I believe we are better able to narrow issues and to resolve disputes in a professional manner. Specialization really assists the Industrial Commission in moving hearings along, narrowing the issues, and making decisions that lead to the correct results.
Q: What do your clients say about your certification?
Many prospective clients call me because of my yellow page advertisement, which notes my certification. The public has been aware of specialization in the medical field, and has become more and more aware of specialization in the legal field, and most people are looking for a specialist to represent them. There is no doubt that employers and their carriers are represented by very skilled counsel, and injured workers are now able to locate specialists to represent them.
Q: Who are your best referral sources?
My best referral sources are my clients and other members of the Bar who do not practice in this complicated area of the law.
Q: How does your certification benefit your clients?
Prior to specialization in workers’ compensation, and unfortunately even sometimes now, injured workers were served by well meaning, but sometimes unknowledgeable, counsel. I believe my clients are better informed of their rights and risks and are able to make informed judgments concerning their claims.
Q: Are there any hot topics in your specialty area right now?
How much time do you have, and how much space do I have? Without belaboring each issue, there are controversies or uncertainties or discussions regarding burdens and standards of proof in proving disability, regarding Medicare’s interests and recent medication coverage, regarding the proper role of vocational rehabilitation providers, regarding communications with treating physicians—the list goes on and on. And of course recently so-called “reform” was and remains a hot topic before the legislature.
Q: How does your certification relate to those?
I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to be involved in novel cases before the full commission and the court of appeals, and to have served on workers’ compensation committees for both the Academy and the Bar Association in addressing issues which arise under the Act or in its administration.
I want to say that we all owe a debt of gratitude to those other specialists in workers’ compensation from both sides who worked tirelessly this past spring and summer at the legislature, informing and advising and ultimately assisting in compromise legislation in the area.
Q: How do you stay current in your field?
Every two weeks I read the latest cases from the appellate courts and of course I attend periodic CLE seminars, which help keep us all current, interested, and engaged with the law and with each other.
Q: Is certification important in your practice area?
Workers’ compensation certification is important statewide. The Act applies, with few exceptions, to almost every employer and employee in the state, including all governments. The commission reports that some 66,000 claims statewide were filed from July 2004 to July 2005, with 15% of that number being contested. The decisional law changes almost monthly, and an in-depth knowledge of commission rules and procedures is critical to the successful prosecution and defense of claims.
Q: How does specialization benefit the public? The profession?
I feel that the public is able to rely on specialization in choosing an attorney as opposed to simply word of mouth or advertising in general. The benefits provided for in the Workers’ Compensation Act are reaching injured workers because of specialization in this area. The profession is benefited because we all share our experience with each other so we can all better serve the public.
Q: How do you see the future of specialization?
Specialization is here to stay. For good or ill, the practice of law has become so complex that it is a necessity to specialize and to stay current in your field. Specialization also helps keep the competence level high and the expense low for the public.
Q: In what other areas would you like to see certification offered?
I notice that the State Bar has recently recognized Social Security law as an area for certification, and I certainly support that.
Q: What would you say to encourage other lawyers to pursue certification?
I would like to see more specialists in workers’ compensation law across the state. Most claims are resolved without litigation, but it is crucial, even in the seemingly simple claim, that injured workers and their families be protected. The more specialists there are, the greater the pool of competent counsel from which the public can choose an attorney and be better served.