The Diablo winds come to Northern California in the fall, just as the cusp of rain and cooler weather are approaching, and residents look forward to the changing colors of the leaves. The stiff northeasterlies cascade out of the dry Sierra Nevadas, blast across the Central Valley, and roll right over the coast ranges on their way to the ocean. They blow strongest on the peaks and western slopes of those hills… right through some of the densest forests in the state.
Around 6:30 on the morning of November 8th, 2018, they blew through the hills along Camp Creek Road near the town of Paradise, and dropped a 115 kilovolt electrical line operated by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) into the dry brush overlooking the road. The Camp Fire was alight.
By 8 a.m., the fire had entered Paradise. By 9 a.m., the evacuation routes out of the town were both jammed with vehicles and swept by fire as desperate residents attempted to escape. By November 25th, when the fire was declared contained, nearly 20,000 structures had been destroyed and 85 people had been killed by the most destructive fire in California history.
It also resulted in insurance claims of more than $8 billion, resulted in the bankruptcy of PG&E, and sparked scores of legal cases… including lawsuits by those insurers, which resulted in an $11 billion payout from PG&E itself.
And for insurance companies and lawyers who specialize in insurance, it’s likely a glimpse of the future as wildfire risk and other major natural disasters covered by insurers are projected to increase with global climate change.
Both insurers and customers are working hard to figure out how to cope with this risk, and legal input is critical to solving that puzzle. Whether they are employed by insurers, claimants, or regulatory agencies, attorneys who specialize in insurance will have a key role in the solutions they come up with.
Insurance is all about risk. Companies, individuals, and even municipalities and states use insurance policies to cover a variety of events, likely and unlikely, that might cause losses and require compensation. By pooling the resources of all their clients, insurance companies can maintain the financial stability that individual entities cannot… and help individuals, businesses, and even municipalities recover from disasters such as the Camp Fire.
All these arrangements are fraught with uncertainty and governed by both state and federal laws and regulations. To keep everything on track and in compliance, the industry employs legions of attorneys who are well-versed in both regulatory structures and current trends in insurance litigation.
Attorneys working for insurers help design and write policy documents that comply with regulations and at the same time clearly define the company’s obligations and scenarios in which it must cover claims. This requires knowledge of business, pricing, and actuarial processes. Policies can be tremendously complex, running to tens of thousands of words, and require teams of attorneys and paralegals to write and defend.
Insurance work frequently overlaps with disability, healthcare, and contract law practices. Attorneys within insurance companies often specialize in one particular arm of the business in order to keep up with the specific trends and knowledge—for example, an annual Construction Risk Conference is a must for attorneys specializing in defects and delay insurance.
Something many people outside the industry don’t realize is that the federal government is one of the leading insurers in the nation. For example, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation covers, in theory every individual with a bank account in the United States. And the Social Security Disability Insurance system paid out to more than 9.9 million individuals in 2018 alone, absolutely dwarfing the size of private insurers.
As government agencies, these insurers set their own rules, and often enforce them in their own courts—the Social Security Administration’s appeals court is one of the largest administrative judicial systems in the world, issuing more than half a million hearing and appeal dispositions annually.
Firms assist clients in navigating the complexities of those programs, but can pick any number of other insurance-related specializations as well, such as handling only malpractice claims, industrial insurance, or automobile accidents and injuries.
Although people like to think of attorneys as being litigious, attorneys in the insurance industry exist almost exclusively to reduce the likelihood of lawsuits ever occurring. All those policy documents are heavily researched and drafted to offer the ultimate in protection against any possible disagreements in court.
All the same, in the wake of almost any major claim, someone is going to get sued. Insurance companies may file suit against other companies, against parties responsible for the event, and sometimes against their own customers, as in the PG&E case. And insurance companies themselves are frequently sued, either for perceived breaches in coverage or additional damages outside of coverage limitations.
Those suits are filed by attorneys that specialize in litigation in areas like:
These cases are often handled on a contingency basis by the plaintiff side firms, since many victims don’t have the money to fund them individually. Class-action suits also are common in insurance cases, where large groups of individuals are represented by one or a coalition of firms. And many insurance litigators work pro bono in cases where large payouts may not be likely, but justice still must be done.
Insurance litigation proceeds like any other type of civil action, and involves steps such as:
Insurance cases often turn on relatively obscure details of policies and laws, so it’s a good field for detail-oriented attorneys who enjoy researching and discovering loopholes and precedents.
Insurance practice can also demand empathy and compassion. Whether you are working as a plaintiff or defendant-side attorney, there will be someone in the courtroom with you who has faced loss and the emotions that come with it. Maintaining a human face on those people even as you make dry legal arguments is important from both a strategic and a humane perspective.
How To Become an Attorney Practicing in Insurance Law
Many attorneys will drift into insurance work by first working at a firm offering legal services and representation in related fields, like real estate or healthcare. And, of course, most attorneys working on personal injury, accident, or other tort claims will encounter insurance law cases fairly frequently.
Everyone on all sides of these cases tend to prefer settlement versus trial, so the best areas in which to jack up your expertise revolve around trial preparation, discovery, deposition work, and meticulous case-building. You’ll come out ahead with the right evidence on your side as well as excellent negotiating skills.
Administrative legal practice can be particularly important for attorneys who are working with government insurance programs, so experience in navigating admin law courts and procedures may be invaluable.
Although certifications do not weigh heavily for most clients or companies looking to hire attorneys, they are one way of providing concrete evidence of your expertise in the field.
For the most part, that involves certifications in related practice areas, such as:
Only the Ohio State Bar Association offers a certification that is specific to insurance law.
However, you can find a number of other state associations that offer specialty certifications in other areas that may touch on your particular practice of insurance legal work. The American Bar Association keeps a master list of those associations and their respective certifications, as well as links to organizations that it accredits nationally to provide certification.
The National Board of Trial Advocacy offers civil pretrial and civil trial advocacy certifications, each of which could be valuable to insurance law practitioners—not to mention a certification specific to truck accidents, a unique specialization that is certain to involve a great deal of insurance law, if that happens to be your field. The board also has a Social Security Disability law certification for anyone dealing regularly with Social Security Insurance claims.
Each certification, both state and national, has differing requirements, but all involve, at a minimum:
This can involve years of preparation and a considerable amount of experience in the field, so lawyers who hold those certifications can expect a certain degree of respect and even awe from colleagues and competitors.
Lawyer Career Specialties