ILNews

Switching sides: defenders become plaintiffs' attorneys

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share
Indiana Lawyer Focus

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.”•

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Indiana State Bar Association

Indianapolis Bar Association

Evansville Bar Association

Allen County Bar Association

Indiana Lawyer on Facebook

facebook
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. "Am I bugging you? I don't mean to bug ya." If what I wrote below is too much social philosophy for Indiana attorneys, just take ten this vacay to watch The Lego Movie with kiddies and sing along where appropriate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etzMjoH0rJw

  2. I've got some free speech to share here about who is at work via the cat's paw of the ACLU stamping out Christian observances.... 2 Thessalonians chap 2: "And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last."

  3. Did someone not tell people who have access to the Chevy Volts that it has a gas engine and will run just like a normal car? The batteries give the Volt approximately a 40 mile range, but after that the gas engine will propel the vehicle either directly through the transmission like any other car, or gas engine recharges the batteries depending on the conditions.

  4. Catholic, Lutheran, even the Baptists nuzzling the wolf! http://www.judicialwatch.org/press-room/press-releases/judicial-watch-documents-reveal-obama-hhs-paid-baptist-children-family-services-182129786-four-months-housing-illegal-alien-children/ YET where is the Progressivist outcry? Silent. I wonder why?

  5. Thank you, Honorable Ladies, and thank you, TIL, for this interesting interview. The most interesting question was the last one, which drew the least response. Could it be that NFP stamps are a threat to the very foundation of our common law American legal tradition, a throwback to the continental system that facilitated differing standards of justice? A throwback to Star Chamber’s protection of the landed gentry? If TIL ever again interviews this same panel, I would recommend inviting one known for voicing socio-legal dissent for the masses, maybe Welch, maybe Ogden, maybe our own John Smith? As demographics shift and our social cohesion precipitously drops, a consistent judicial core will become more and more important so that Justice and Equal Protection and Due Process are yet guiding stars. If those stars fall from our collective social horizon (and can they be seen even now through the haze of NFP opinions?) then what glue other than more NFP decisions and TRO’s and executive orders -- all backed by more and more lethally armed praetorians – will prop up our government institutions? And if and when we do arrive at such an end … will any then dare call that tyranny? Or will the cost of such dissent be too high to justify?

ADVERTISEMENT