Sabiha Goolab, solicitor at Minster Law, shares her experience transitioning from defendant to claimant lawyer
As a former defendant lawyer working predominantly for the insurance industry defending employer and public liability claims for over a decade, my outlook on personal injury litigation was a whole different experience altogether. Most of my instructions would come from the insurer client once proceedings had been served. On receiving the proceedings, I would consider the claimant’s allegations, medical evidence, and damages claimed. The usual approach would be to try and find any holes in the claimant’s case, then either recommend a settlement or if there were reasonable prospects, defend.
Most of the times, the approach was to recommend a commercial settlement by using any arguments as a negotiating tool. So, negotiate hard, make the best possible saving for your insurer client, settle at the earliest opportunity, close the file, and move onto the next case.
I did at times have clients who really cared about defending the proceedings, either because they had something at stake other than their insurer’s money, such as the company reputation, or because they were offended at being sued. The cases that went to trial however were few and far between and very much depended on the costs risk to the insurer.
There was also a ‘misconception’ , perhaps a common misconception I might add, in terms of judging the claimant and their representative’s conduct. Of course, it is all too easy to see the potholes in a case when you almost have the full picture and evidence in front of you. If you want to find discrepancies or an opportunity to discredit your opponent’s case or conduct, chances are that you will find something. This would often follow with the ‘what they have and haven’t done’ or highlighting any discrepancies and try and use any shortcomings to my advantage to achieve a favourable settlement.
My whole outlook changed when I moved over to work as a claimant lawyer. My decision to do so was not completely out of choice, but driven following the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to my previous job being at risk. Whilst this did bring about several uncertainties about my future, I saw it as an opportunity to try a new challenge. Some might say I’d moved across to the dark side when I chose to work for a claimant law firm, but I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than to embrace the unknown, start afresh and learn new skills.
I quickly realised how different my role as a claimant lawyer was compared to a defendant lawyer, even though the core principles and fundamentals of conducting litigation remained the same.
The main difference I would say that I personally experienced was one of greater purpose, passion, and empathy.
As a defendant lawyer, for me it was sometimes easy to flout the fundamental of why claimant’s sue. Of course, we know that claimants sue because they are injured and it is someone else’s fault. That they want to recover income and security they lost because of that other person, and that they want to try and make up for a life that has changed, usually for the worse. However, I would say that a personal connection to a claim or the claimant for me was not there, and my mind would be more focussed on the procedural aspects of a claim, such as preparing the defence, collating evidence to support my insurer client’s case, and where necessary, prepare for and attend trial. The process of litigation is more intense for me as a claimant lawyer than it was compared to when I worked as a defendant lawyer.
Having worked on both sides of the fence, I know that the disparages that both parties sometimes throw at each other are, for the most part, based on different roles. A defendant lawyer who might be pressing for early disclosure of medical records or conducting an excessive disclosure exercise for example might not necessarily be harassing the claimant, but is just trying to defend the case appropriately without giving much thought of how this may impact a claimant. It is easy to forget that it is not just another claim, but rather their life which is being put under a microscope and judged.
Good communication is always vital, but this extends further. There is a need to be a good listener. It’s also about having to explain a process or position as many times as it takes and in different ways, so the client fully understands your advice. Providing good news to clients with enthusiasm is always pleasant but it is also choosing the right time to break any not so good news gently to a client.
It’s about pushing myself to negotiate that bit harder for the extra pounds when it comes to settlement, not so that it looks good on my personal record, but because I know it will make a real difference to them.
Before, my way of working was reactive. Review the papers and evidence and think of a strategy. Now it has to be proactive. I need to make sure that I am doing everything possible to not only progress my client’s claim, but also delivering the crucial client care to aid their recovery throughout the litigation process to achieve the best resolution for my client.
Before it was a measure of success on a commercial level, how much money I had saved the insurer client. It is now a measure of success on a more personal level. Seeking the best resolution for my client to provide them with a sense of justice having been achieved and the ability to move forward in life. Therein lies the difference between my role then and now.