While Covid has disrupted everyone’s life, it truly blows me away how different the Illinois Workers’ Compensation system looks and operates now as compared to two years ago. For you, the injured worker, it’s important to figure out how your lawyer of choice has adapted to these changes and how this will affect your case.
Before Covid, attorneys would gather at hearing sites on a daily basis. For example, in Chicago the court location was the Thompson Center. You’d often go there to appear on one case, but also be looking for other lawyers to discuss other claims that weren’t on the court docket that day. You’d get to know other lawyers as well as the Arbitrators. These relationships would help all of your clients and really became a way to get things done.
Fast forward, all Cook County work comp claims are now at the Daley Center. You only show up there if you are actually going to Arbitration. This is true for hearing locations throughout Illinois. As a result, there are some lawyers that used to see each other 2-3 days a week who haven’t seen each other in two years. If you are a younger lawyer, you have lost the chance to make these relationships which hurts your professional development and in turn hurts your clients. There is talk of creating an area for attorneys to talk at the courthouse, but that hasn’t happened yet.
Now if a case is set for hearing, but isn’t going to trial, you check in online through Webex which is a system similar to Zoom. This allows attorneys to handle cases anywhere in the State more easily because they don’t have to travel three hours to participate in a five minute hearing. They only have to show up if the case is actually going to trial.
Before Covid you could take the deposition of a doctor over the phone, but 98% of them were done in person. Now some lawyers will show up in person to the doctor’s office, but the majority of attorneys are doing the depositions via Zoom or the phone. While this is convenient for lawyers who can do it from home, it might hurt your case if one attorney is in person and the other isn’t. Imagine a situation where we realize that the IME doctor never reviewed your MRI report. If I’m at home and the defense attorney is in person, they can easily hand that report to the doctor without me realizing it. The bottom line is that this new way can make some lawyers take short cuts which could hurt you.
Beyond that, we hear all the time from injured workers that their lawyer says it’s taking forever to settle cases and you can’t go to trial. That simply is not true. Cases are settling as usual. Sometimes that happens after an online pre-trial, but more typically a case will get set for hearing, you will appear before an Arbitrator on Webex and that Arbitrator will send you to a breakout room to talk with the other attorney. Getting trials to happen is harder than “the old days” of two years ago, but they can happen if your attorney is aggressive. If your attorney doesn’t even try to make that happen, your case will probably settle for much less than it’s worth because all of their leverage will have been taken away. Smart defense attorneys know this.
In addition, court filings are now done electronically and medical records are typically digital. Some older attorneys have trouble adjusting to this new way of doing business. This is one aspect of Covid that has made being an attorney more efficient if you are comfortable with technology. If you aren’t it’s a real struggle.
While it’s possible to do trials by Webex, no smart defense attorney would ever agree to that and I don’t think you should either. It’s important for the Arbitrator to see you in person in my opinion. And it’s also important for your attorney to get to know the Arbitrators which can happen much easier in person than over a screen.
In the big picture, I think some of these trends will continue and others will not. Being able to check in at court online is helpful if nothing is really going on in the case. I believe that when Covid is more or less behind us, informal in person hearings will likely return. But in the long run it will be a challenge for the next generation of attorneys unless they come up with a more practical way to get to know each other. Online efficiency is great, but the reality is that old school ways also work in ways that benefit everyone.