First, let’s talk about when you should think about hiring an attorney.
Unless your injuries are minor you should think about hiring an attorney even before shenanigans begin. While you might be in the small minority of people who never have a problem working their way through the process, the truth is you’re far more likely to deal with an employer who is going to try to make life hard for you.
Employers want to fire you quickly if you’re on workers compensation, just as soon as they have a legal reason to do so. They want to pay as little as possible for your injury. If you try to return on light duty there are employers who will ignore the doctor’s instructions and put you on unsuitable tasks in an attempt to pressure you into a “take it or leave it” situation.
In short, employers are not your friends, no matter how nice Bob was at the company Christmas party this year.
It’s also very easy to make mistakes. There are dozens of forms to fill out and mistakes could cost you the entire case.
With those caveats out of the way, let’s talk about the process.
- You and the attorney will have an initial consultation. This is a good time to explain your situation, but also to ask questions. You might ask: will you inform my employer on my behalf if I am hospitalized and can’t make the call? How will you communicate with me, and how often? Are there any pitfalls I should watch out for here and now?
- You’ll sign a retainer agreement. This will explain the attorney’s fee structure. It will also explain how various contingencies may be handled. It’s essentially an agreement between the lawyer and the client that ensures both client and lawyer understand what their rights and responsibilities are.
- The attorney sends a Notice of Representation to your employer and the insurance company. Don’t worry: you cannot be fired for retaining an attorney. Note that at this point all workers compensation case communications should go to your attorney, not to you. Don’t talk to your employer about the case unless it’s to bring your immediate supervisor documents from your doctor.
- You’ll also sign a HIPAA release form so your attorney can get all of your medical records from any provider who has been involved in your care during your workers compensation case. You will need to be thorough as you list out the locations that will need this release, because otherwise you will delay your case.
- Your attorney will ask for a long list of records that you’ll need to get to them as soon as possible. This could include W2s, contact information for various people in your organization, and other records which might help with the case. Again, get these to your attorney as quickly as possible.
At this point, your attorney will begin working on your case after advising you on how best to ensure your day-to-day actions don’t threaten it. Most of this process will be about negotiating with the attorneys for your employer and your employer’s insurance company.
The best case is that your claim settles quickly and fairly.
The worst case is that your claim has to go to trial.
Either way, your attorney should be working to keep the process as smooth as possible, and should be dealing with problems as they arise. You’ll receive more instructions from time to time, and the goal here will be to ensure you know what to do without feeling overwhelmed.
A good attorney will communicate with you on a regular basis so you know the status of your case. A good attorney should also be opening to receiving your communications, because if something happens at work or with the doctor they’ll need to know about it.