Highly Paid Successful Workers Compensation Paralegal Tells All – An Interview with Paula Delp, ACP

DelpPaulaOn occasion, you meet an exception to the rule. This is the case with Paula Delp, one of the highest paid Workers Compensation Paralegals in the country, if not the highest. What a breath of fresh air! Great attitude, smart, dedicated….ok, I digress here. It takes a lot to impress me and believe me, I'm impressed.

Generally known as a low paying specialty, Workers Compensation is often under-rated in its complexity of skill sets required.  There are two sides of the specialty: applicant and defense. Working with this specialty in recruiting for several well-known, well-respected firms, I have interviewed literally hundreds of paralegals. While the position is often rewarding, the paralegal is often compensated as low as $12.00 – $16.00 per hour.  These paralegals rarely tell me that they have low job satisfaction. I found happy, dedicated employees who are compassionate and involved in their jobs. Here is a specialty where you learn via on-the-job training.  While paralegal certificates are preferred, there are no paralegal programs I know of that offer training in Workers Compensation.

Enter Paula Delp, a highly successful, well-compensated paralegal with a great sense of humor and practical, down-to-earth attitude. Here is her eye-opening interview about a specialty rarely written up. This hidden job market has lots of openings, great job satisfaction, is even-keeled in the economy….. it's just that salary thing…..

Who is Paula E. Delp, ACP?

I'm 53 years old, born and raised in Southern California. My father is a retired truck driver. Mother is dedicated homemaker and Avon representative. I have three siblings – one  sister and two brothers. I am the only one of the four kids who has an advanced education as my sister is a homemaker; one brother is a laborer, and the other is a welder.

I've been married since May 1995 to the same man (Fun Fact: I met husband through an ad in the newspaper and have two sons, ages 19 and 14). Our oldest was born on our second anniversary. My husband is a stay-at-home dad and has been since 2000 or 2001. I am the sole breadwinner for our family.

What is your background prior to becoming a paralegal?

In 1984, I moved to Reno, NV, and secured a job working for Federal Probation and Parole as a probation clerk preparing pre-sentence reports and documents related to supervision of probationers and parolees. In 1985, I transferred from the Reno office to the Long Beach satellite office. Only supervision was conducted out of that office; pre-sentence reports were prepared out of downtown Los Angeles.

In 1988, I was tired of the politics associated with working for the government, so I began looking for work in the private sector. I secured my first job as a legal secretary for Cantrell & Green, a workers’ compensation firm for applicants. There, I performed all aspects of secretarial duties except transcription (that was done by our word processing department). I dealt closely with clients (Applicants in this case), primarily on the telephone, as the attorneys did not like to take calls.

In 2000 I began to think seriously about where I wanted to go with my legal career and started looking for employment elsewhere. My thought was to get out of workers’ compensation, but it was difficult since I didn’t have any other experience. The best I could do was switch sides and go to work for defense. At the same time, I enrolled in the paralegal program at Cerritos College.

On 11/6/00, I began working for Schlossberg & Associates (now Schlossberg & Umholtz) in Anaheim, a workers’ compensation defense firm, as a legal secretary. I began working for an associate, but after 8 months, she left the firm. I then worked as a floater until I left on maternity leave in August 2001. When I returned, we had opened a Los Angeles office, and the owner of the firm asked me to come to work for him. I worked as his secretary until December 2004, when I asked to be trained as a paralegal. The following May (2005), I graduated from Cerritos College with an AA degree in paralegal studies and a 4.0 GPA.

What made you decide to become a paralegal?

I wanted something different. I wanted to remain in the legal field, but I wanted something more challenging than transcribing all day.

How did you get your first job?

I am not sure if you mean my very first job or my first job as a paralegal. My first job was as a file clerk in a law office after school, which I obtained by writing letters to the law firms in my neighborhood. My first and only paralegal job is for my current employer, Schlossberg & Umholtz, which I obtained when I asked to be promoted. My training was long and arduous. It took my boss a long time to trust that his training took hold, after which he let me loose on his caseload.

Did you leverage prior skills into becoming a paralegal?

I’m not quite sure how to answer this question. My main skill is typing—I type nearly 100 wpm—and I do a lot of my own typing; but I dictate much of my work, as well. I’ve been in the workers’ comp industry for nearly 30 years, so I was able to use my experience with all the changes in the law through the years to build on in my career as a paralegal.

Who influenced you?

The only one I can think of is my boss. I haven’t really had anyone as a paralegal influence me to become a paralegal. My boss has supported me through every aspect of my career, when I was going to school and when I studied for the CP exam. He pays my dues to my various legal associations, and he pays for me to go to MCLE [mandatory continuing legal education] seminars. He taught me everything I know about how to do my job, and I think he is pleased with my work.

What responsibilities do you have at your present job?

I basically help manage my attorney’s caseload. I help with everything on the file except make the appearances or attend depositions. I review the mail and address letters to opposing counsel and the client setting forth a plan of action. I schedule medical evaluations and depositions, I prepare initial analysis reports for new claims that come in, I review medical records and prepare summaries of those records, prepare settlement documents, prepare cases for hearings, prepare trial exhibits, and once the case resolves, I resolve the lien claims.

Tell us about a very rewarding case you have handled.

From a defense point of view, a “rewarding” case is when we can get a “take nothing” or get a case dismissed. One particular case comes to mind where the Applicant injured her foot by stepping on a rusty nail then later claimed that her injury caused paralysis. The doctors believed her and diagnosed her with “conversion disorder,” which essentially means it’s in her head, though she believes she is truly injured. However, we obtained surveillance video showing the Applicant to be quite active walking well on her own. We even obtained video evidence that she would get in the wheelchair for her deposition and doctors’ appointments. She was ultimately prosecuted for fraud and her workers’ compensation claim was dismissed.

Tell us about a very tough case.

The toughest cases come when the opposing counsel sends the Applicant to a physician in every specialty under the sun (typically internal medicine, psyche, pain management, and ortho). One such case settled by Stipulation providing the Applicant with an impairment for psyche and ortho and future medical care to those body parts. She then reopened her claim, and opposing counsel attempted to stip it again, this time including internal. This Applicant had two dates of injury, but one claim was barred because opposing counsel filed his Petition to Reopen more than five years after the date of injury, which is when the Statute of Limitations ran. The agreed doctors did increase the Applicant’s impairment, but because of the way the doctors apportioned the disability, we are arguing that opposing counsel’s demand for a Stip at a higher rate is not valid. It is a little confusing to explain. In the end, this case is going to trial, and has yet to be decided.

How have you seen the paralegal position change over the years?

My entire legal experience lies in the workers’ compensation arena. In the workers’ compensation arena, paralegals are acting more as “hearing representatives,” mostly on the side of the Applicant. However, I, too, have appeared at the Appeals Board on occasion. In workers’ compensation, non-attorneys are allowed to appear “in court,” whereas other court systems do not allow for the appearance of non-attorneys. I could not testify to whether or how the position has changed in other areas of law.

Why are workers comp paralegals historically paid beneath the average paralegal compensation across the country?

Most paralegals in workers’ compensation work on the Applicant’s side of the claim, and Applicants' attorneys only receive 15 percent of the award or settlement; unlike civil litigation attorneys who get a third of the award or settlement, so I hear. In other areas of law, attorneys get to charge an hourly rate which can be pretty steep, again as I hear it. I make as much as I do because I work for a defense attorney and for a generous boss who values my knowledge and skills.

What can paralegals do about that, if anything?

I don’t know how to answer this. I consider myself an anomaly.

Can you clarify the Applicant vs. defense sides for our audience?

Applicant attorneys, obviously, advocate for their clients, the injured workers, and fight to get them the largest recovery they can. An injury to a neck or low back can only yield so much of an award, but if they add psych and internal, it increases the value of the claim. Defendants work to provide benefits pursuant to the Labor Code, and our desire is to get the Applicant back to work as quickly as possible.

Does the defense side pay more?

I believe that defense does pay more, because defense attorneys can bill their clients by the hour. In my case, I bill hours just as the attorneys do, and I increased bonuses each month. I don’t know if all defense firms work that way, though.

What about the “mill” reputation of some workers comp firms?

There are “mills” out there, and I deal with them on a daily basis. They give the business a bad reputation. The “mill”-type firms deal in volume and will take any case that walks through their door. It was a “mill” firm that represented the aforementioned case where the Applicant was caught committing fraud. It should be noted that “mills” are solely on the Applicant side of the fence.

What type of work background does it take to get into Workers Comp?

In California, workers’ compensation is the easiest to get into. I had no legal experience when I got my first job in the 1980’s. At this firm, we hire people fresh out of school or who have experience in other fields of law, or even people who have no legal experience. I am of the opinion that workers’ compensation is the easiest type of law to learn from a secretarial (or paralegal) aspect. That being said, I don’t think anyone could do all I do for my boss without having a background in the industry.

Where do you see the profession headed?

I don’t really know how to answer this question, since my experience is limited to workers’ compensation. I can speak about my own position and state that two years ago my job consisted of working the files and processing the mail. Now, I actually prepare the files for hearing and prepare the hearing reports based on what the appearing attorney says happened at the hearing. Next, I can see myself making the appearances and sitting in on depositions.

What’s your take on licensing and regulation?

I feel that our profession should be regulated. Without regulation, people can call themselves paralegals without having the experience and training it takes to be a paralegal. Regulating the profession it the respect it deserves.

What education do you think paralegals need today as opposed to yesteryear?

Paralegals of “yesteryear” primarily learned their craft “on the job,” which is no less valuable today. However, education through an ABA approved school goes a long way to preparing would-be paralegals for the real world. In school, you can get instant feedback on assignments you are given, while on the job a boss isn’t likely to be patient while you try to figure out how to complete the assignment.

Can you give us examples of what it took for you to become a successful paralegal? 

It took me a while to think of an answer to this question. The first would be that I am teachable. I learned the foundation of my job from my boss, who pretty much taught me how to think like him. He taught me how to develop a plan of action on any given file. I still run that plan of action through him for approval, but essentially the next steps to take in any given situation arise from my review of the file, the medical reports, and the communications from the clients.

The second is that I am always going to seminars and other MCLE classes and conferences, especially in my field of law; and I use that information on my files when I return to the office. I have attorneys coming to me with questions like “How do you . . .?” and “What would you do if . . .?” I draw on my individual experience with the issues or I pull out my seminar handbooks to get them the answer. It has gotten to the point where my boss refers the attorneys to me whenever they have any questions about legal procedure, or how to rate a report, or any variety of reasons.

Third, I show up every day, and express a successful work ethic. I work long hours at times, and I will often work weekends. My boss does not require this of me, but it is something I do in order to keep on top of my workload and to ensure that important deadlines are not missed.

You are so knowledgeable! Can you give us some advice?

Never stop learning. Seminars and MCLE classes can be boring, but you’ll usually receive some nugget of useful information. A perfect example is a rating seminar I went to where the rater from the Disability Evaluation Unit was spoke, and he taught us how to rate headaches. Now, I have attorneys coming to me with questions on how to rate headaches, and I can refer them to my seminar materials.

Enjoy what you do. I love my job. Workers’ compensation law can be dry and boring, but I love it. I enjoy it because I know what I am doing and I have the respect of my boss, the attorneys, and my peers. It is hard to love a job if you do not know what you are doing or what is expected of you.

Remain humble and own up to your mistakes. As good as I am at my job, I do make mistakes, but when it does happen, I apologize, rectify the issue (if possible), and move on. In one case, we failed to inform the client to deduct an amount from a settlement to pay EDD. It was a mistake that was not discovered by me, my boss, or the client. My boss accepted part of the responsibility, but I had to do the same. The end result was WE paid EDD, and I had to make up hours to equal half the damages. Needless to say, we never made THAT mistake again.

 Thank you, Paula!

Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing providing nationwide staffing opportunities for paralegals and legal professionals. She is the President and Co-Founding Member of the Organization of Legal Professionals (OLP) a non-profit providing online technology training and CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute providing online training for experienced paralegals. An author of 10 books on legal careers, Chere is a national seminar speaker and author of hundreds of articles. She has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Daily Journal, Chicago Tribune, Above the Law, among others. Chere is a recipient of the Los Angeles Paralegal Association Lifetime Achievement Award and the NYCPA Excellence Award. She is a former paralegal administrator in two major law firms, an exec in a $5 billion corporation and Co-Founding Member of the International Practice Management Association. Talk to her at chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com.