Michelle Sorrells, workers’ comp claimant attorney of counsel with Walters, Papillion, Thomas, Cullens, LLC and co-chair of the Kids’ Chance scholarship program through the Louisiana Bar Foundation – among many other leadership roles – is this month’s “Women in Comp” featured executive. Find out what the born and raised Baton Rougian has to say about the range of work experience that inspires her practice today, and how being female confers some distinct advantages in the world of workers’ comp.
Comp Blog: Tell us about your background.
Sorrells: I’ve lived in Baton Rouge all my life. I graduated from Trafton Academy, which was the predecessor of The Dunham School. After that I went to LSU and then LSU Law School [1992-1995]. Since I graduated from LSU in three and a half years [December, 1991], I had a gap semester. Since my undergraduate major was News-Editorial Journalism, I worked for the Louisiana Senate during that time writing press releases for the Senator’s offices.
I chose that major because I knew I wanted to go to law school and journalism is researching and writing so it was a good fit. I also got to learn a lot about the Legislative process, and I clerked for them later during law school.
Comp Blog: Given your experience in the Legislature, did you ever think about working in public service?
Sorrells: No, I never did. Actually, I thought the political process was kind of distasteful. I knew I didn’t want to go into politics for sure. It just isn’t for me.
But my first year in law school, I did almost quit in the middle of a final. My parents told me to stick it out and so I did, but I was going to quit and become a teacher. I had a scholarship to go to law school, and so I figured I owed myself and the donor the effort. I’m glad I did, because I ended up doing very well.
Comp Blog: Ever still think about teaching later in your career?
Sorrells: Well I’m teaching right now at Southern University Law Center, I teach a workers’ comp clinic there. I’ve been surprised about how rewarding that has been for me. I joke with my husband that that could be my retirement career!
Comp Blog: How about personally?
Sorrells: I got married soon after I finished law school in 1995, so I’ve been married for 20 years now! I have two girls, one is twelve and one is fourteen. I try to just balance working and being a mom! It’s kind of funny, one of my daughters wants to be a lawyer, because she admires what I do, and the other one says, no way, that’s too hard. Both of them do competitive cheerleading, one cheers for St. Joseph’s Academy and we just got back from her competition at Disney World.
Comp Blog: How did you get started in workers’ comp?
Sorrells: I just fell into it. I started clerking for an attorney in law school, Arthur Cobb. He was kind of a local icon and he had a big personal injury practice, with some workers’ comp as well. He was the type of boss that just threw you into the work. Even though I was just clerking he took me to depositions and trials, he had me doing discovery – I was acting more like an associate than a clerk.
Arthur Cobb then hired me out of law school and started assigning most of the comp cases to me so that he could focus on the bigger tort claims. I remember once, when I was still his clerk, he tried a case and lost and I wrote the appellate brief and the writ to the Supreme Court and it was accepted. Believe it or not, he allowed me, a year out of law school, to argue in front of the Supreme Court. It was the Wise v. J.E. Merit Constructors Inc. case – the hallmark case for 1208.1 determinations. I just fell in love with workers’ comp and I preferred doing it over personal injury.
Comp Blog: What happened in your career from there?
Sorrells: Arthur Cobb had a sudden heart attack. I kept the practice going by myself for awhile, but then Chuck Davoli saw me in court one day and approached me. I was still a young lawyer, just four years out of school at that point, and he suggested that I join his firm and do workers’ comp. I jumped at the opportunity because Chuck was known to be the premier workers’ comp lawyer in the state of Louisiana, and I always admired him. I worked with Chuck for the next ten years.
Comp Blog: Where did you go after that?
Sorrells: Well, [Chuck Davoli and I] were of counsel to a larger law firm, and those partners split into two separate firms. The new firm later recruited me to join them. I miss working with Chuck, and he will always be one of the people I admire the most. So now, I’m of counsel to Walters Papillion Thomas Cullens, LLC which does a lot of person injury type work. A lot of times you see an overlay between personal injury and comp. WPTC needed someone to monitor the workers’ comp portion of the claims while they were working on the third party claims. My caseload at any given time is between 200 and 250 files. Whenever I see a third party claim, or I have clients involved in subsequent accidents, I refer those cases to the firm. In exchange, I handle all calls that come through for comp claims. It is a good referral source and arrangement for both me and the firm.
Comp Blog: Is there anything in particular that you think of as your number one comp issue, especially as we head into the 2016 Legislative Session in March?
Sorrells: I’m more worried about preserving the rights that the injured workers do have. To me, the most important right that workers have in Louisiana is the ability to seek treatment from the physician of their choice. Every Legislative Session, there always seems to be some sort of proposal to knock that out and we’ve always fought hard to retain it.
The Medical Treatment Guidelines – I think they need to be tweaked a bit. Honestly, at first I was opposed to them completely. Now that they’re in place I can see how they work if it is done properly by the physicians. It does make the process of getting medical treatment faster, but there are some utilization review companies that abuse the system. And the fact that we don’t have a Medical Director right now is huge. Why have the system in place if we can’t hold down a Medical Director?
Comp Blog: Anything else?
Sorrells: To me, the vocational rehabilitation process is disappointing. In theory it seems like a great idea, but in reality it doesn’t work and it isn’t effective. I’ve never had a client that went to work at a job that was identified by a vocational rehabilitation counselor. [My clients] are better off finding jobs on their own. The only thing vocational rehabilitation is good for is to bring settlement discussions to a head, because it forces the parties to look at potential wage earning capacity. But what it doesn’t do is benefit the workers. It’s not getting the workers back to meaningful, gainful employment. The vocational counselors are just looking for a job that can reduce the benefits.
It’s not fair for folks in Louisiana with good-paying careers, like welding and electrical work, to be told that they should just go back to work as a security guard. That is demeaning. I understand the purpose of it – to force people out of the system – but it’s not in the best interest of the worker.
Comp Blog: So back to you, describe a typical day.
Sorrells: I am fortunate to have two wonderful secretaries, so when I get to the office they have gone through all my mail the previous day and I start with all of that. And then the rest of my day is usually packed with meeting new clients or attending depositions. My days tend to be pretty packed and so I don’t have time to do real work until I go home in the evening. When it’s quiet then I can do settlement evaluations and other elements that require concentration. It’s fast paced and you’ve got to change gears rapidly. Oh, and a lot of email!
Comp Blog: You’re heavily involved in Kids’ Chance, what other professional activities do you pursue?
Sorrells: I’m co-chairman of the Baton Rouge Bar Association’s workers’ comp section, for about the last ten years now. I’m also active in the Louisiana Bar Association and the Bar Foundation, which is how I got involved in Kids’ Chance. Part of my role with that is to educate people about the scholarship program and what people in the industry can do. That is very near to my heart and I spend a lot of time working with that. As I mentioned, I’m also an adjunct professor at Southern Law School for the past three years – one twice a week night class every semester. I try to take a very practical approach with that – teaching the lingo, calculating AWW and SEB, calculating settlements and evaluating future medical, taking doctor’s depositions, etcetera.
Comp Blog: Finally, what do you have to say about your experience practicing law, which is still a male-dominated field, and do you have any advice for young women?
Sorrells: I would tell young women thinking about going to law school to keep in mind the type of practice that you’d ultimately want to be in. I think, as a woman, that I’m a good fit as a workers’ comp attorney because I am patient, compassionate, and I can use my motherly instincts that way. Clients feel comfortable with me, and I’ve actually had a lot of clients that specifically sought out a woman attorney. They want to be heard, and I have that advantage over many men.