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Personal Injury and Insurance Defence


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Avatar Aang
  • Lawyer

An excellent post I read elsewhere that is helpful for anyone interested in these practice areas to read.

I've worked on both Plaintiff and Defence side before leaving the industry a couple of years ago. Much of my professional circle still practices in these two areas, so I'm still pretty familiar with the industry trends. But here are just my general thoughts.

The first thing you have to realize is that there's both Plaintiff and Defence side personal injury ("PI"). People think of PI as plaintiff work, but for every action commenced by a plaintiff lawyer, there is a defence lawyer on the other side. Many insurance defence lawyers practice exclusively in PI given the high volume of work, so just realize that.

With respect to most of your questions, plaintiff side firms vary a lot more than defence side (and there are both private practice defence firms and in-house defence practices, the latter of which is becoming much more common due to industry-wide shifts).

Weekly hours

Plaintiff: anywhere from 40-70 hours/week. Most of the variability exists in the smaller practices, but the more reputable shops will probably expect 60-70 hours/week in your first few years.

Defence: 50-60 hours/week. More chill than plaintiff work, you're evaluated more on your hours than the settlement amounts, so barring any major fuckups, the work is not super stressful

Job Security / competition pre and post articles

Plaintiff: mixed bag, you'll always find some plaintiff work out there, but you can go very far down the totem pole and work for some very shit firms. Some of the legislative changes over the last 10 years have made plaintiff work a lot harder than it used to be. Insurance companies are also taking harder line positions than they used to.

Defence: if you get a year or two of experience, job security at this point is extremely high. Defence firms are losing a lot of work because insurance companies are bringing work in-house, but you will always find a job as an insurance defence lawyer somewhere (even if it's not at a private firm).

Caveat here is that I don't know whether this trend will persist for longer than ten years. The commoditization of insurance defence work by insurance companies is done so with the view that insurance defence lawyers are cost centres and insurers are always looking for ways to reduce their spend on lawyers. The first step was saving a ton of money by switching from external counsel to in-house, but the next step is going to be to find ways to further commoditize that work.

Office culture (diversity...?)

Plaintiff: really varies a lot, you can get some really sketchy places where you feel like it's a sweatshop and you're not properly equipped. The more reputable places are like any other firm. Most plaintiff practices are small though and range from 3-10 lawyers, so with very few exceptions, you won't get that same Bay Street feel at a white-shoe firm (with some very limited exceptions of larger firms that delve into plaintiff PI)

Defence: defence firms are also a bit varied, but basically what you'd expect of any law firm culture. You're expected to produce billables, but that's really the extent of it. In-house culture is pretty chill, targets aren't high and expectations are reasonable. If you're looking for a job, it's perfect, but if you're looking for a career to grow into, just know that options are limited.

Salary range

Plaintiff: oh boy, as a first-year, your salary can range from $40k at the less reputable shops to $100k if you're at one of the leading plaintiff firms (but there are far more positions in the lower end of the range than the higher end). Most firms offer some sort of bonus structure, but you're not running files in your first year most of the time, so it won't be based on your settlement targets and might be fixed between 5-15% depending on how well your firm does.

As your Plaintiff career progresses, your comp depends on your number and dollar amount settlements and the work you bring in. Comp is less lock-step than your defence counterparts. This means that you could end up making over $500k/year by your 5th year (exceptionally rare), but that would have much less to do with your lawyering skills and much more to do with your hustling skills.

Defence: first year base salaries range from $80-95k depending on whether you are in private practice, or in-house and how reputable the firm is. Average bonus is about 10% of your base. The floor is certainly higher than Plaintiff side, but your salary won't jump up $20k/year like all of your Bay St corporate counterparts who were lucky enough to find themselves in more legit practice areas. You might see $5-10k raises for the first 7-10 years, but you basically cap off at $130-150k after 10 years, which is what a 3rd year on Bay Street would be making. Some of the older legacy insurance defence lawyers have made a bit more, but those are generally grandfathered in from an older payscale.

Long story short, insurance defence private practice is not the place to be if you want high-margin high-end work at the later end of your career, even though it starts off decently. I've seen 20-year call lawyers bill out $300/hour because of the volume discount - this would be a joke in any other industry aside from insurance defence. The pool of external work isn't growing either, so partnership is harder and harder every year (and most defence partners have been dethroned in the last 5 years). On the in-house side, career opportunities are also limited beyond just being insurance counsel and your earnings are capped.

The last thing to consider is that the type of work you'll be doing as a plaintiff or defence PI lawyer is not going to be the type of work you went to law school for.

Plaintiff: 90% of Plaintiff work is hustle work. It's way more about your ability to negotiate than your actual knowledge of the law. It's a lot of client handholding and developing good relationships with defence lawyers to get them to convince their clients to pay you. While knowing the law helps, it's not what will make you wildly successful on the Plaintiff side. If you're the kind of person who likes to solve complex legal problems that make use of the cerebral part of your legal education, this job will not scratch that itch at all. It's simply not profitable on the plaintiff side to treat most of your files that way.

Defence: the same problem exists on the defence side. The bar is pretty low and you get all manner of lawyers. Most are very presentable as people, but few are rewarded for being legally brilliant. On the private defence side, you're mainly evaluated on how much you bill and how well you're complying with the insurer's processes and procedures. On the in-house side, spending time on case law is a bit of a joke, and unless you're actually in a contested motion or hearing, most defence lawyers' actual lawyering-skills end up atrophying over time as you become a glorified adjuster and do more case management than actual lawyering. You can definitely still practice lawyering skills, but that's not really what insurance companies care about or reward you for when it comes to your year-end bonus. It's about saving them money, which most of the time, involves efficiently resolving files rather than going to trial or researching case law.

While the work is generally not too bad or cognitively demanding, just realize that it's really hard to transition out of the industry (even on the defence side after hearing what my friends have had to say talking to recruiters). The recent growth in the industry has really lowered the bar to entry, and the type of skills (ie. non-lawyering skills) the industry incentivizes you to develop has really tainted both sides of the bar. The combination of these factors has given lawyers from other non-PI practice areas the impression that the PI bar does a lot less lawyering than hustling/case managing. Whether or not that's true, it's something you need to consider in your career choice.

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MOL
  • Lawyer

I'd agree with a lot of this post but there are some points of contention:

- the work can be interesting, intellectually rigorous and fascinating, particularly the CGL work. I've spent the last couple days geeking out about commercial plumbing, valves, meters, pressures etc. oh my....

- re in house not spending time on case law, are you kidding me? They have to know the law and it's constantly changing. One of the things that in house lawyers have told me is they enjoy the freedom to chase down points of law or fall down the rabbit hole because they don't have to worry about justifying time

- atrophying of legal skills - The lack of going to court hits all practice areas, any civil litigator who tells you they run lots of trials is either a shitty lawyer or full of shit. Most files do not end up at trial and civil practice has gradually morphed to a discovery/resolution practice

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bclawyer99
  • Lawyer

Very comprehensive comments here. I would add that many legal/factual issues in PI are intellectually challenging. For example, the law on local government/municipal negligence is tortured and complex. You need to be up to speed on medical science.

To be successful on the Plaintiff side, you need to have above average empathy and great "bedside" manners. You will be helping people at their most vulnerable and there is no shame in that. If you are a Plaintiff PI partner, you will be putting (lots) of your own money (or borrow that money) on the line to carry expert report disbursements for years.

One of the more annoying aspects of PI is that there is a tendency for those who have not been injured in accidents to look down on the work that PI lawyers do. In fact, in BC it is so out of hand that the Attorney General has been using the ambulance chasing stereotypes (and admittedly distasteful ads) of PI lawyers to whip up public support for their imposition of no-fault insurance (including retroactive changes on existing cases) for MVA cases.    

Then, too, the Bar outside of PI tends to look down on PI lawyers or at least not place a lot of weight on the practice area. It's unfortunate but there is that stigma. As an example is this forum organization itself. There are separate sections for family and immigration but PI was lumped in with "civil litigation". 

In BC the situation on the ground is that plaintiff and defence firms are super busy as firms on both sides are working up their files as ICBC forces cases to be settled close to trial or right to trial. Lots of trial prep and trial work is available right now. However, with no-fault, in about 4-5 years, things will dry up and MVA litigation at least, will no longer be a viable practice area. 

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Twenty
  • Law Student
On 6/18/2021 at 12:51 PM, MOL said:

I'd agree with a lot of this post but there are some points of contention:

- the work can be interesting, intellectually rigorous and fascinating, particularly the CGL work. I've spent the last couple days geeking out about commercial plumbing, valves, meters, pressures etc. oh my....

Geeking out over law and technical issues is something I can see myself enjoying in a legal career. I am drawn to commercial litigation because it seems like an area with a fair bit of research (legal and non-legal), but it also seems like non-PI insurance defence would also be a great fit.

Is there a way for students to know which firms would give ample opportunity to do non-PI (i.e. commercial) insurance defence work? Is most of this kind of work farmed out to Insurance Defence firms (as opposed to commercial litigation departments of full-services or construction boutiques)?

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Blurg
  • Lawyer
1 hour ago, Twenty said:

Geeking out over law and technical issues is something I can see myself enjoying in a legal career. I am drawn to commercial litigation because it seems like an area with a fair bit of research (legal and non-legal), but it also seems like non-PI insurance defence would also be a great fit.

Is there a way for students to know which firms would give ample opportunity to do non-PI (i.e. commercial) insurance defence work? Is most of this kind of work farmed out to Insurance Defence firms (as opposed to commercial litigation departments of full-services or construction boutiques)?

I can’t speak to whether most of the work is sent to insurance defence firms vs others, but I can say that there is plenty of high quality non PI work at the insurance defence firm I work at. Less than 10% of my work involves personal injury of slip and fall type (although note that some professional negligence work does involve personal injuries, eg medical professionals, long term care homes, etc). 

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Twenty
  • Law Student
30 minutes ago, Blurg said:

I can’t speak to whether most of the work is sent to insurance defence firms vs others, but I can say that there is plenty of high quality non PI work at the insurance defence firm I work at. Less than 10% of my work involves personal injury of slip and fall type (although note that some professional negligence work does involve personal injuries, eg medical professionals, long term care homes, etc). 

That's great to know!

Feel free to not answer publicly/spare details, but is your firm one of those firms that show up in the various law firm rankings? Just trying to guage if there are any meaningful distinctions between ID firms (regarding the kind of work they attract) and if there are any markers students can make use of.  

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Blurg
  • Lawyer
6 hours ago, Twenty said:

That's great to know!

Feel free to not answer publicly/spare details, but is your firm one of those firms that show up in the various law firm rankings? Just trying to guage if there are any meaningful distinctions between ID firms (regarding the kind of work they attract) and if there are any markers students can make use of.  

We’re known in the field and get some recognition for that within industry ‘awards’. Not sure which law firm rankings you’re referring to specifically so can’t say yes or no to that. 

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Psmith
  • Lawyer
6 hours ago, Twenty said:

That's great to know!

Feel free to not answer publicly/spare details, but is your firm one of those firms that show up in the various law firm rankings? Just trying to guage if there are any meaningful distinctions between ID firms (regarding the kind of work they attract) and if there are any markers students can make use of.  

If you want to go really in depth on a firm, you can put lawyers' names into Canlii and see what kind of cases they've worked on. 

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Blurg
  • Lawyer
4 minutes ago, Psmith said:

If you want to go really in depth on a firm, you can put lawyers' names into Canlii and see what kind of cases they've worked on. 

Also reach out to current students and juniors to chat with them about the types of work available. 

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Twenty
  • Law Student
8 minutes ago, Blurg said:

We’re known in the field and get some recognition for that within industry ‘awards’. Not sure which law firm rankings you’re referring to specifically so can’t say yes or no to that. 

Apologies - I should have been more clear. Though, I don't really have a specific preference for a particular ranking. I was just referring to a general understanding that your firm is recognized in the insurance defence space. In that regard, your response was more than helpful.

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MOL
  • Lawyer

My experience, others may have differed, is that the sexy work, i.e. non-injury work, tends to go to more experienced lawyers. I think everyone "times out" of PI work. Doesn't mean you don't still have to do it, it's generally what keeps the lights on, but as you get more years under your belt, you gravitate to the non-injury work. And it can be tougher for a junior to get their hands on it, except in a supporting role, because everyone wants to do it.

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Blurg
  • Lawyer
8 hours ago, MOL said:

My experience, others may have differed, is that the sexy work, i.e. non-injury work, tends to go to more experienced lawyers. I think everyone "times out" of PI work. Doesn't mean you don't still have to do it, it's generally what keeps the lights on, but as you get more years under your belt, you gravitate to the non-injury work. And it can be tougher for a junior to get their hands on it, except in a supporting role, because everyone wants to do it.

I agree that broadly speaking you’ll be able to do less PI work (if you want to do less) as you gain more experience. It will vary between firms though; even right out the gate after call my practice was never more than 15-20% PI because I was clear that I wasn’t interested in making that my focus. The PI files I do now are basically because they come from a client that I want to keep happy because I like the other type of work they send my way. A colleague, on the other hand, did about 90% PI when she started because she liked it. But even she went down to about 50% (or possibly less) within 4-5 years and eventually moved in house at a construction firm. 

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Blurg
  • Lawyer
12 hours ago, Twenty said:

@MOL @Blurg Makes sense, I appreciate the comments. Also, how graphic/gorey are PI files? 

Most are incredibly mundane and involve strains and sprains, and chronic pain claims. I’ve dealt with some fatalities following car crashes or other major events, including of kids; they’re harder typically but there’s usually little reason to need to look at the photos more than once. The medical narratives are very clinical so while they may describe some pretty bad stuff, I don’t typically get affected by that anywhere near the same way. 

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BCLaw2021

to OP, thanks for sharing - very comprehensive.

I would add to the comments that for non-MVA cases, facts will always be a challenge to understand esp in cases involving other areas of specialty.  

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