By Doug Gott
Chief Administrative Law Judge, Kentucky
I was delighted to be asked to write a few words on why membership in NAWCJ is important to me, and why you should consider renewing your membership, or consider joining for the first time.
I have been an administrative law judge with the Department of Workers’ Claims in Kentucky since 2008; I was appointed Chief ALJ in 2017. I have gradually become more involved in NAWCJ over the years, to the point where I will soon join the organization’s board. The belief that I am a better judge now than what I was 10 years ago isn’t just chalked up to experience; it has as much to do with who I have met and what I have learned as a NAWCJ member.
Like most professional organizations, NAWJC opens up networking opportunities. My agency and I have benefited from taking advantage of those opportunities in two primary ways.
The first is learning more about how other agencies administer their workers’ compensation programs. To be honest, I usually come out of “comparative law” panel discussions pleased with how we in Kentucky stack up against other states in the way we do things. I suspect folks from other states come away thinking the same thing about their systems. But isn’t it a comfort to have confirmation in the way your agency does things? Regardless of how strong our respective agencies are, though, we still pick up things from each other, big and small, that help improve our operations.
An example of a “big picture” item that Kentucky is pursuing based on exposure to other jurisdictions through NAWCJ is a new, formal mediation program. We have been motivated to pursue such a program through learning about how successful they are in other states. I have reached out to judges in other jurisdictions about their experiences with mediation as Kentucky works to develop a regulation to implement such a program. Another such example is beefing up the security for our hearings, based on what we learned from other states.
For a smaller scale example, I learned from ALJ Ken Switzer, my counterpart in Tennessee who I met through NAWCJ, that judges there are required to exchange opinions and certain orders for review before being issued. What a wonderful idea to use colleagues to help polish a work product before it is issued. I have implemented such a system with our ALJs in Kentucky.
Apart from broader, agency-improving ideas, a second advantage to networking with NAWCJ colleagues is picking up the small things that make you a better judge. For example, how do other judges navigate issues presented by the unrepresented litigant? What are the best practices for conducting a hearing with an interpreter? How can I better judge the credibility of witnesses? How can I write more succinct orders, using plain English? The issues go on and on. We judges live in a bit of a bubble, even if some of us have the benefit of having colleagues in our physical office space. NAWCJ events, and relationships established with other members, let us know that judges in other jurisdictions struggle with the same issues, and gives us all an avenue to work through those issues.
As I was thinking about all the good attributes of NAWCJ, I went to the website (nawcj.org) to see if I was forgetting something. There I was reminded that all the benefits of membership are at your disposal for just $75 a year. $75!! (And even less if you agency has five or more.)
Let’s face it, judging can be a lonely profession. We don’t enjoy the camaraderie with colleagues that we had in private practice. We don’t have the same outlets to discuss sticky legal issues. Add in the ethical considerations unique to being a judge and we are in an altogether different world from where we came from. NAWCJ provides a network of support to work through these issues. So I encourage you not just to join NAWCJ, but take advantage of what it has to offer. Your agency will benefit from it, and you’ll be a better judge for it!