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Practice Profile: The chosen few -- the rapidly shrinking world of personal injury lawyers

Practice Profile: The chosen few -- the rapidly shrinking world of personal injury lawyers

The pool of firms practicing in the area of personal injury is rapidly shrinking. What does thefuture hold for the handful of players left to protect the rights of the injured? Claire Chaffey…

The pool of firms practicing in the area of personal injury is rapidly shrinking. What does thefuture hold for the handful of players left to protect the rights of the injured? Claire Chaffey reports

THE SHRINKING LAWYER: What does the future hold for the handful of players left to protect the rights on the injured?
It's no secret that over the last few years, personal injury firms Slater & Gordon and Maurice Blackburn have been on a mission of expansion.

Slater & Gordon has unashamedly and vigorously embarked on a crusade of acquisition, spreading their brand across the cities and regions in what has become an empire of around 900 staff within more than 50 offices.

Slater & Gordon's greatest rival, Maurice Blackburn, has also adopted a strategy of accelerated growth, though acquisition is not the firm's weapon of choice. Instead, the firm has gone from having four offices in two states in 2005, to now having 23 offices in five states - the majority of which have popped up as a result of organic growth and a targeted program of attracting top legal talent and nurturing partners of the future.

Whatever the method, the reality is that many small and medium firms which have traditionally practiced in the personal injury space are being forced to shape up or ship out. Alternatively, they find they simply can't compete with the increasing power of brands which are becoming increasingly dominant in the personal injury market, thus resorting to acquisition or dropping out of the market altogether.

Bearing the burden

The obvious outcome from a decrease in the number of firms willing to take on personal injury matters is that the workloads for those who do are increasing significantly.

"We are seeing, at the legal end, an increase in workload as the number of people that specialise in this area [diminishes]," says Melbourne-based Maurice Blackburn principal Liberty Sanger. "There are a smaller number of firms that specialise in this work, so obviously the workload is concentrated within them."

According to Sanger, the bulk of work is coming in the form of motor vehicle accident claims and workplace injury claims; the latter of which, she adds, are dropping in number. While she says this is a positive trend, she also warns that the truth of the situation may not be as rosy as it seems.

"The work injury rate is gradually reducing and that is an agenda being run by the Federal Government. They report every year through Safe Work Australia on injury rates and they have specific goals around that," explains Sanger.

"There is a clear trend of far more cases resolving prior to court, in what lawyers are calling the 'pre-litigated environment'"

Hayden Stephens, General Manager Personal Injury Claims, (NSW, ACT, QLD), Slater & Gordon

"The danger, of course, with any of those measurement tools is that they might have a perverse impact. There might be incentives for workers not to report injuries. So despite the State and Federal Governments' renewed focus on injuries in workplaces, we still hear at the grass roots level that there is pressure being placed on workers to not report injuries ... That is sad because it encourages workers and teams not to speak up about workplace safety, whereas smarter employers have a focus on safety and on workers speaking up so they can ensure they bring about a safe place of work."

According to Luke Short, a principal with Brisbane-based firm Trilby Misso (which was recently acquired by Slater & Gordon), workplace injuries in Queensland are actually on the rise.

"There has been a real spike in the number of work-related back injury claims," he says. "We think it is due to a lack of attention to OH&S procedures. Especially in Queensland, the economy, in terms of construction, mining and building, hasn't really slowed. For that reason, there are more workers in the workforce, which is a great thing, but there is such a push and such a hurry to complete these huge infrastructure jobs that workplace health and safety procedures are being neglected."

Litigate or negotiate?

When it comes to trends surrounding out-of-court settlement versus litigated outcomes, opinions differ as to which is more prevalent.

Hayden Stephens, Slater & Gordon's general manager, personal injury claims across New South Wales, the ACT and Queensland, says he has seen a definite shift towards resolving claims before they go to court.

"There is a clear trend of far more cases resolving prior to court, in what lawyers are calling the 'pre-litigated environment'," says Stephens. "Whether it be by regulatory design - where schemes such as Work Cover and the Transport Accident Commission in Victoria have placed strict protocols which must be followed before court proceedings can be instituted - or whether you're seeing better equipped and more sophisticated insurers and defendants better prepared to resolve claims early, many more claims are resolved before the court process."

"We are seeing an increase in workload as the number of people that specialise in this area diminishes"

Liberty Sanger, Principal, Maurice Blackburn, Melbourne

Short, on the other hand, says he has seen a rise in the number of claims insurance companies are willing to litigate.

"There is no doubt that the insurance companies are running more trials these days, whereas a few years ago there was an air of compromise and an air of 'let's settle these claims for fair and reasonable amounts and let's put them to bed'," he says. "Now, there are a lot more trials being run, particularly by WorkCover. Even when they lose trials they are then going on to appeal them, so they have had a change of policy and a change of direction."

The reasons behind this shift, says Short, are linked to the effects of the global financial crisis.

"There were huge losses made by WorkCover ... As a result, WorkCover has decided to try and slow down the outgoing money. They are holding things up, they're not settling, they're taking things to trial in order to delay payment and also to make it too hard for claimants so they'll think twice about making a claim when they have otherwise got a basic right to claim."

For love of the job

While personal injury trends may differ amongst different firms and different states, one thing Sanger, Stephens and Short can agree on is the complexity of the work and the sheer enjoyment they get from being a part of it.

"It is a terrific area, because when a client resolves their claim for compensation, it gives you a sense of immediate satisfaction," says Stephens. "Many lawyers in our industry are not exposed to that on a daily basis. Lawyers at large commercial firms, engaged in complex mergers and acquisitions projects, are not necessarily close to the experiences of every day Australians, particularly those who have been injured."

"There is such a push and such a hurry to complete these huge infrastructure jobs that workplace health and safety procedures are being neglected."

Luke Short, Principal, Trilby Misso, Brisbane

Sanger agrees, and says that although the workload is on the rise and expectations as to depth of expertise are also growing, it is a job that is easy to love.

"I will never tire of delivering a terrific result to an injured worker. The joy it brings to an injured person sustains me time and time again. It is just brilliant," she says.

"The thing I have come to learn about my job is that it means everything to the client that you are on their side and that you are going to fight on their behalf. To simply deliver on that promise, in a way that allows them to live with dignity, is the best thing in the world."

>> Click here to read about issues affecting the legal profession in our in depth Practice Profile series

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Practice Profile: The chosen few -- the rapidly shrinking world of personal injury lawyers
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