by Douglas W. Gott
Chief Administrative Law Judge
Kentucky Department of Workers Claims
Neera Bahl, Director and Appellate Division Judge, Georgia State Board of Workers’ Compensation
Last year, when Governor Brian Kemp appointed me to serve as a director of the Georgia State Board of Workers’ Compensation, I was thrilled to be a part of overseeing our state’s workers’ compensation system, joining our Board’s chairman, Frank McKay, and my fellow director, Ben Vinson. I knew I was well prepared to take on the responsibilities of this new position, given my experience in litigation and organization management. On the other, I also knew I had much to learn about the workers’ compensation system and about my new role as a judge; our three-member Board not only oversees the operations of the Georgia workers’ compensation system but also acts as an appellate review board for litigated claims.
My professional background is in immigration law. Accordingly, I brought to my new role experience in litigation, including familiarity with the importance of procedural rules, evidence, fact investigation, discovery, and courtroom presentations. Clearly, I was aware that there would be work involved to transfer the skills gained from this experience to a new area of law. Crossing over from advocate to judge has involved less obvious considerations. All these skills and this experience takes on a different perspective when executed from the role of adjudicator.
Fortunately, I have received invaluable support from my fellow Board members and the Board’s outstanding professional staff. Even with these excellent resources, however, my transition from practicing attorney to judge was helped immensely by the NAWCJ’s New Judges’ Virtual Bootcamp that occurred over March 1-4, 2021.
“Boot Camp” is an apt name for the program: four days of intensive material that went beyond being merely introductory but also provided useful information that can be put into action immediately. From the presentation of the general philosophy of workers’ compensation laws, that was both broad and deep in its scope, to specific considerations regarding evidence, overseeing a courtroom, effective writing, and the weighing of evidence to find facts, the program was effective. It covered three main categories of needed knowledge: reinforcing what you already knew; illuminating what you knew you didn’t yet know; and opening your eyes to what you didn’t know that you didn’t know—that is, the unknown unknowns, to borrow a phrase from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
I was especially impressed by the presenters. They all took great care in recognizing that the each of the program’s participants brought different kinds of knowledge and experience to the new role as judge, but all had in common a transition that the presenters themselves had experienced. They were able to share their own understandings of what it means to look at the courtroom in a new light—moving from a place of offering evidence and argument to one of receiving and weighing evidence and argument. And, all this was discussed in a way that never let the procedural and technical requirements of the job overshadow the real-life, human importance of the work we do. In this regard, it was gratifying to see attention given to being mindful of implicit biases each of us brings to our experiences. With my background in representing individuals with immigration issues, I know firsthand the importance of understanding how language and cultural differences can affect someone’s perception of court proceedings and at times, unfortunately, how a person is treated by judges and court personnel, even when no unfair treatment is consciously intended. This program provided an excellent reminder of the problem and sound advice on both keeping these biases in check and avoiding the perception of such biases.
I was also struck by the advice not to assert an ownership over the courtroom, even as we are charged with its effective management. We all have witnessed a judge say things like, “Not in my courtroom.” While we are responsible for controlling proceedings in many ways, we must never forget that the court does not belong to us: it belongs to the judicial system, and we are mere stewards on the system’s behalf.
Throughout the program, the presented material was consistent with how Socrates aptly described the essential qualities of a good judge: “Four things belong to a judge: to hear courteously, to answer wisely; to consider soberly; and to decide impartially.” These words remain as true today as they were when Socrates first spoke them more than 2,400 years ago.
Other judges had similar positive experiences from the Boot Camp:
John Moneyham, Judge of Compensation Claims, Panama City, Florida –
Having practiced my entire career in Florida, I didn’t know what to expect from a seminar whose speakers were workers’ compensation judges from around the nation. While it appears every state’s workers’ compensation laws and procedures are very different, I was pleased to learn that there are some common threads that run through other states’ workers’ compensation systems. These include treating everyone you come in contact with, both inside and outside of the courtroom, with dignity and respect and applying the applicable law fairly and blindly.
A comment made in one presentation that stuck with me was that the process is more important than the outcome. I couldn’t agree more with that because not treating someone appropriately or denying a person due process is a stain that cannot be erased by a completely correct decision. The speakers reinforced the idea that you are the face of not only your employer but also your state and the very concept of justice itself.
The speakers stressed the importance of taking your time and doing the hard work necessary to issue correct legal rulings supported by the facts and the law. The speakers also stressed the need to always consciously evaluate our demeanor and decision making to ensure we don’t let any implicit biases, however small they may seem to us, creep in and affect our rulings.
I was pleased to learn that other judges throughout our nation possess the same pride in and passion for their own workers’ compensation system as we do in Florida. Thanks so much to all who had anything to do with putting on this great conference. The ideas presented reminded the attendees of the way that we should treat others who come in contact with us.
Erik B. Grindal, Judge of Compensation Claims, Sarasota, Florida –
The transition from advocate to adjudicator requires more than finding a gavel online and measuring for a robe. The NAWCJ’s Judge’s Bootcamp provided a strong foundation upon which to build the skills necessary to become the kind of judge you appreciated as an attorney. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend this program.
Like becoming an attorney, learning to be a judge takes more than knowing the law. This experience advances your base of knowledge into those areas of practice that you may not have fully appreciated as a lawyer. While learning through trial and error is part of the learning process for new judges, having experienced professionals provide guidance at the early stage of this new career was invaluable.
This program introduced a new judge to fundamental skills like dealing with evidence and procedure from accomplished judges from across the country. We learned how to write concisely and effectively from legal writing professionals. We gained perspectives on effectively handling proceedings in the face of cultural issues and language barriers.
Whether coming to bench as a battle-hardened trial lawyer or a young attorney focused on public service, I am confident that all new judges like me benefited from the knowledge gained from the Boot Camp.
Tonya Clemons, Administrative Law Judge, Lexington, Kentucky –
This year has been about change “both within and outside”- the workers’ compensation judiciary. In a profound example of how the judiciary has had to adapt over the past year, the NAWCJ held its new ALJ Boot Camp virtually. While virtual is not a replacement for in-person training, the important thing is the experiences shared by the panel of speakers to help ease the new judges into our roles and to hone and optimize the skills needed for careers as ALJs.
The Boot Camp was effectively structured to facilitate not only on-boarding into our positions, but to also integrate us into the larger world of the workers’ compensation judiciary. From history and ethics to writing and an understanding of the cultural differences that we may encounter with attorneys and their clients, the program was ideally suited to assist the new judges develop professional skills and resources. Instructions in how to handle our hearings and collaborate with our colleagues are invaluable lessons taken away from the panel of speakers. Allowing for an interactive question-and-answer session as well as group chat during the programing provided the new judges with the ability to address concerns in real-time with the speaker panel. In a year when it has been more important than ever that we work to advance together, the Boot Camp provided a virtual program that demonstrated everyone’s collective efforts are required to help the workers’ compensation judiciary succeed.
Robert E. Trop, Administrative Law Judge, Phoenix, Arizona –
There were many salient takeaways provided by the excellent panelists for understanding the nuts and bolts needed for an ALJ transitioning from private practice. And there was a judicial operating principle that really struck a chord with me, a litigator with thirty years of experience appearing before State and Federal judges: “Be the judge you wanted to appear before when you were in practice, namely, one that is understanding, patient, kind, firm, respectful, and knowledgeable.”
Shelly Tolman, Administrative Law Judge, Tuscon, Arizona –
I especially enjoyed the presentation on effective judicial writing. The professors focused on transitioning from writing for attorneys and judges to writing for the parties. We received practical tips for writing understandable orders.