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Workers' comp lawyers get court's OK to certify

Friday, Jan. 20, 2012

People injured on the job soon could have more information about which lawyers are better qualified to handle workers' compensation cases, because of a ruling by the state Supreme Court.

The high court agreed to allow the Workers' Compensation Law Section of the Pennsylvania Bar Association to certify attorneys in the specialized field, making it the first body allowed to grant such certification in the state, the PBA said on Thursday.

"It's an important consumer issue," said Marcy Mallory, a spokeswoman for the Harrisburg-based bar association.

Johnstown attorney John Bagnato played a central role in getting the certification process approved.

"I've personally been working on this since 1995," Bagnato said.

That's when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that lawyers could advertise they are specialists in certain areas of law only if they received certification from a court-approved body. Since then, the court has approved groups to offer certification in areas ranging from elder law to trial attorneys.

"No one ever came in and offered that for workers' compensation law," Bagnato said.

There also was a state rule prohibiting bar associations from being allowed to certify attorneys in specialized fields until 2005.

"Since there was no one certifying our workers' compensation people, we decided to bring it in-house and do it ourselves," Bagnato said.

The state bar association has about 1,000 members who practice workers' compensation law.

The new certification process could help "weed out" some sole practitioners and personal injury lawyers who sometimes take on workers' compensation cases without necessary experience or expertise, said Sean A. Casey, a workers' compensation lawyer with DeAngelis, Dastur and Associations, Downtown, and chairman of the Workers' Compensation Section of the Allegheny County Bar Association.

Some lawyers will continue to competently practice workers' compensation law without being certified, including some who might protest the certification by not applying, Casey said.

"Overall, I think it will be a good thing," said Casey, who plans to seek certification. "It will be something I think the general public can use to gauge an attorney's expertise and experience."

The written certification exam could be available this fall, Bagnato said. Applicants must be licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania, have at least five years of experience in workers' compensation law and spend at least half of their time practicing in the field. The application fee could be as much as $1,000.

Certification will be good for five years.



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