Why I ended up in workers' compensation? Michael Sullivan

By Michael Sullivan

I got started in workers’ compensation in 1992, just out of law school. Like just about everyone else, I fell into it, but once I got started, I loved it. Law in other areas is so much research and writing. In my first five years of practice, I got to take a thousand depositions and try twenty-five cases to verdict. Where else can you become a grizzled negotiator and trial attorney in such a short time? Workers’ comp cases are driven by issues of fact, and nobody is tougher than a street fighter.

But times have changed. I used to have to wear a suit and tie every day at my chair from nine to five, now I write this sitting at home in casual clothes. The judges are getting better. When I first started, it seemed like a third of them could not even
form a complete sentence. It was nearly impossible to get to trial – I had one case continued ten times in three years. Now the Board is smarter and more dedicated, standardized and organized. Claims people are better too; smart, college educated and well-trained… when I started, not so much. 

It used to be that defense lawyers would carry 120 to 150 cases and only really work half of them. There was no ethos of focus on resolution at every stage. Rather, cases would just sit, building liability (including the dreaded back VRMA) for years. After the reforms of 2004, we spent half a decade cleaning this up, and now lawyers are sharper, leaner and held to account more. We manage to the numbers. We are also more diverse in terms of race and gender in leadership and generally. Times and attitudes have changed.

Overall, we have become better and more professional. I have been so proud to have done my part by the development of Sullivan on Comp and our firm Michael Sullivan & Associates. The latter now approaches 90 lawyers in nine offices throughout the state and has several practice areas including a blossoming employment law section. Sullivan On Comp now approaches seven thousand subscribers. It has become a nimble and ubiquitous standard text and tool-laden website. As I get older, I take my main joys in education, mentorship, executive vision and creating institutional health. As has been said, we take care of the people, the product and the profit – in that order.

What does the future hold for this maturing and growing industry? Obviously, one part of it is virtual reality. Even with the vaccines kicking in, who knows how much significant business we will do with each other in person again? For my part, I am guessing that we will rarely hold depositions in person going forward, and we will rarely physically go to court except for trials. How will we build and maintain unit cohesion? In some ways, this new era reminds me of life before the Industrial Revolution. We live with our families working in our homes, educating our children. It is hard to see what all this will mean.

But if history teaches us anything, it is that we will have to be prepared for what we never expect. Is universal health care coming, and if so, what will it mean for workers’ compensation? Artificial general intelligence will arrive sometime in the next thirty years, and on its heels computer superintelligence. What will this mean? Are we indeed headed for a time where there is little physical work for humanity? A basic income for all even if there is no work to be done? In this pandemic, I have often felt like I cannot see more than a few weeks into the future. The long term is even more opaque.

Looking back on thirty years of practice, I think to myself, I could never have anticipated all of the lessons I would learn. It gives me a healthy dose of wonder as to what the next decades will hold for all of us.


Mr. Sullivan formed Michael Sullivan & Associates in 1996 as an aggressive workers’ compensation defense firm. It has grown rapidly throughout the entire state of California. Mr. Sullivan is a bar-certified Specialist in Workers’ Compensation Law.

In 2011, Mr. Sullivan, as lead author, published “Sullivan on Comp,” a 12-volume comprehensive, objective treatise on California workers’ compensation law. It is read by the legal, insurance and medical communities, as well as by employers keen to stay abreast of the law. The dynamic book series is updated monthly. Mr. Sullivan regularly conducts seminars and webinars, and co-authors white papers on significant topics in workers’ comp law.


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