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Switching sides: defenders become plaintiffs' attorneys

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Bloomington attorney Mike Phelps was a successful defender for insurance companies for nine years. State Farm, Allstate, Monroe Guaranty – he represented some of the biggest names in the business. But a personal injury case that he won on behalf of the defendant caused him to question whether he was ready for a change. Phelps is now among a handful of lawyers in Indiana who’ve made the switch from defender to plaintiffs’ counsel.

Making the change
In 2005, Phelps represented a farmer defending a claim against his Allstate insurance liability policy. Phelps said that the farmer was clearing debris from his property and had piled cardboard boxes in a heap, doused them in gasoline, and asked a friend to burn the boxes. The friend was severely burned when the spark from his lighter caused an explosion.

“The jury found that despite all the facts, the farmer did not act negligently,” Phelps said. “And because of that, the plaintiff did not recover a dime.”

Phelps said he believed the injured man’s hospital bills exceeded $100,000.

ITLA“That case just really, really made me feel bad,” Phelps said. And while he was mulling over the outcome of that trial, he got a call from personal injury attorney Ken Nunn, inviting him to join his practice. Phelps seized the opportunity to reinvent his career.

Tess White had worked for several insurance companies in her 13 years as a defense attorney before she decided she wanted to head in a new direction.

“In 2008, after working for Liberty Mutual for about three years, I just felt like on the defense side that we weren’t really practicing law, and I was ready for a bigger and better challenge and decided to start my own firm and switch sides,” she said. She started the Indianapolis law firm White & Champagne with colleague Joan Champagne, who focuses on family law – a staffing choice that was practical, White said, because litigators don’t get paid until they win a verdict.

“The idea was that Joan would focus on hourly work, to keep the lights on,” White said.

Working for insurance companies was “more about being a cog in a corporate wheel,” White said. Her decision to begin representing plaintiffs was largely due to her desire to help individuals, rather than corporations.

Jon Schmoll’s decision to change sides was motivated by his respect for a peer.

“I think it was a situation where I had great opportunity to practice law with an attorney that I’ve known for a long time – Steve Langer – and I’ve always respected Steve for his competence, his work ethic, and his ethics,” Schmoll said.

Schmoll worked primarily on medical malpractice cases for Merrillville firm Spangler Jennings & Dougherty for nearly 42 years before joining Langer & Langer in Valparaiso. He said his work as a plaintiffs’ attorney isn’t fundamentally different than the work he performed on the defense side.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of difference… obviously the main difference is that the plaintiff has the burden of proof,” Schmoll said. He said that he thinks attorneys on both sides are working hard to help their clients, so in that respect, he sees their roles as essentially the same.

white-tess-mug.jpg White

Pete Palmer, partner with the New Albany firm Palmer Thompson Law, said he thinks clients increasingly expect attorneys to have clear allegiances. And Schmoll said, “The insurance companies make it very clear that you can’t be on both sides of the equation when it comes to doctors and hospitals.”

Peer reaction
Defenders-turned-plaintiff lawyers say that, despite the sometimes adversarial nature of trials, they haven’t experienced any significant criticism of their decision to switch sides. Just as athletes who play with intensity during a game are able to shake hands after the final buzzer sounds, opposing attorneys are also able to interact amicably at the end of a trial. In fact, Phelps tried several cases against attorneys from Nunn’s office before joining the firm.

Schmoll also said that he has not noticed any difference in the way his peers have treated him since switching sides.

He said that the professional relationships he built as a defender have endured, despite the fact that he may be representing different parties nowadays.

Job satisfaction
White seems to have found that human element that was lacking in her former position.

“It’s been much more rewarding, because I actually have a human being client that is depending on me to help them – somebody who’s never been through this process, who doesn’t know what to do, who’s injured, has bills mounting – so that’s much more rewarding, but it’s also more demanding.”

Phelps also has found in plaintiff work the personal interaction that was missing from his role defending insurance companies.

“I had a trial probably about a year and a half ago – my client was hurt really bad. To this day, he calls me on Christmas, he calls me on Thanksgiving to say, ‘Hey I appreciate it,’” Phelps said. “That’s something you don’t get from an insurance company.”•

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  1. Indiana's seatbelt law is not punishable as a crime. It is an infraction. Apparently some of our Circuit judges have deemed settled law inapplicable if it fails to fit their litmus test of political correctness. Extrapolating to redefine terms of behavior in a violation of immigration law to the entire body of criminal law leaves a smorgasbord of opportunity for judicial mischief.

  2. I wonder if $10 diversions for failure to wear seat belts are considered moral turpitude in federal immigration law like they are under Indiana law? Anyone know?

  3. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

  4. Justice has finally been served. So glad that Dr. Ley can finally sleep peacefully at night knowing the truth has finally come to the surface.

  5. While this right is guaranteed by our Constitution, it has in recent years been hampered by insurance companies, i.e.; the practice of the plaintiff's own insurance company intervening in an action and filing a lien against any proceeds paid to their insured. In essence, causing an additional financial hurdle for a plaintiff to overcome at trial in terms of overall award. In a very real sense an injured party in exercise of their right to trial by jury may be the only party in a cause that would end up with zero compensation.

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