By Jonathan Widran
When it came to pursuing his career in law, Michael J. O’Connor could have easily established himself as a high powered attorney in almost any area of expertise.
Instead, the son and grandson of working union men chose to return to his roots in Pennsylvania and devote his career to helping injured workers obtain workers’ compensation benefits, as well as defending against insurance companies attempting to terminate, suspend or modify lost wage benefits.
Growing up, O’Connor experienced first-hand the struggles of working class people. His father worked for Alcoa, the world’s top aluminum manufacturer for 35 years, and was leader of the local union and head of the Job Evaluation Committee. O’Connor’s great grandfather was killed in a mining accident. He was repeatedly told stories about the trials of his grandmother’s childhood of not only losing a father at a very young age but also her family’s only source of income. He had many other relatives who were injured in industrial accidents and had to battle through the workers’ comp process.
“I saw first-hand the difficulties working families faced, and I realized that I could make a difference in their lives and help them as an attorney because I understand that culture and the kinds of struggles they go through,” he says.
When he returned from law school, O’Connor worked for a firm in the area for two years handling real estate and family law. The ongoing itch to do workers’ comp inspired him to launch his own firm, which began with just him and his wife as his part time secretary.
O’Connor’s 22-year-old firm Michael J. O’Connor and Associates, LLC now has eight lawyers and 15 offices throughout a thirteen county area, representing the cases of thousands of fellow Pennsylvanians from Allentown and Bethlehem to Philadelphia, Reading, Scranton and Pittsburgh, against everything from massive Fortune 500 companies to smaller entities.
With a combination of integrity, reliability and trustworthiness, O’Connor and Associates have earned a reputation for the resolution of serious legal problems in the areas of workers’ comp, auto accidents, tractor trailer accidents, birth injuries, dangerous drugs, hip replacements, Social Security Disability, Wills, Estates & Elder Law and Nursing Home Abuse. “Probably the worst kinds of accidents are those that happen in construction,” he says, “in environments where iron workers are putting steel up. Their bodies take a pounding and eventually break down on them. There is so much accumulated physical damage.”
O’Connor was named National and International Chair of the Workers’ Compensation and Workplace Injury Section at the 2010 American Association for Justice (AAJ) Section Elections held in Vancouver at the AAJ 2010 Annual Convention. In this capacity, he monitors every detail of the country’s workers’ comp laws, recommends and conducts seminars at conventions and comes up with innovative new ideas to help people working in highest risk professions. As part of this educational element, O’Connor does regional seminars on workers’ comp and updates on the laws. He also educates by routinely putting new information on his website and its blogs.
On April 29, 2011, O'Connor was named Labor Partner of the Year at the 2011 Lehigh Valley Labor Council Awards Dinner which took place in Northampton, Pennsylvania and was held at the Northampton Memorial Community Center.
While building a staff of lawyers who are among the best workers’ comp attorneys in the state, O’Connor proactively fights to change the laws and attitudes that continue to suppress injured workers today. As a board member of the Workplace Injury Litigation Group (WILG), he works on national and state levels to advance just and fair remedies for victims of occupational injury and disease. With the so-called “Workers’ Compensation Reform Movement” in full force, O’Connor believes it is crucial to protect the rights that leaders of the early labor movement sacrificed so much to secure.
He estimates that 75% of his firm’s cases are related to his lifelong passion for justice in this area, making it clear on his website that he “does not represent employers or insurance companies.” The impact of a workers’ compensation claim goes far beyond hospital and doctor bills. It can also result in lost earnings, benefits and the ability to live as before. O’Connor & Associates represents injured worker's obtaining workers compensation benefits, as well as defending against insurance companies attempting to terminate, suspend or modify lost wage benefits. We also represent injured workers who are not currently in litigation and negotiate lump sum settlements.
When it comes to nursing home abuse cases, his firm engages in trying to get the homes to do right by their physically challenged, elderly patients. One of the biggest issues is bedsores. often the employees of the homes are low paid and not trained properly to take care of patients, so they never move them, causing these often horrific, terribly infected sores that can run down to the bone and often prove fatal. These claims can be filed by the patients themselves, or if they are deceased, by their estate posthumously.
“We have certain criteria which guides the way we choose which clients we will represent,” O’Connor says. “We want to make sure we can be successful for everyone we work with, but we’re very realistic in potential cases where we don’t envision such an outcome. I also know from experience whether someone who comes to us is legitimately hurt or is simply trying to play the system. Choosing selectively gives us credibility.
“I think what sets us apart from other firms who work in this arena is the fact that we’re fighters and we are very aggressive—because we believe so deeply in what we are doing. Our determination comes through in the courtroom and in the arbitration setting, and we have earned the respect of numerous judges and outside lawyers.”
O’Connor believes that one of the keys to becoming a successful lawyer in the personal injury/workers’ comp world is being a true “people person.” He adds, “In seeking out lawyers to add to my team, I like to find people who have a real passion for this kind of work. If someone comes in and says they don’t like dealing with people, they need to find another niche. It’s definitely a people oriented business where clients have strong needs and empathy is important. I’ve always got on well with people who worked their way through law school working in retail or as bartenders and waitresses. They’re more personable and generally more engaging to deal with. We have to know the law, but to be effective, we have to understand and connect on a personal level with our clients.”
A tag line on the top of O’Connor’s website guarantees “No Legal Fees Unless You Recover.” Most of the firm’s cases are contingency based, yet all of his lawyers are well aware of the fact that, as O’Connor says, “if I don’t win for them, they won’t eat that night.” This is where his unique background helps him empathize with his clients; when he was growing up, if his father’s union was on strike, there was no income.
“They’ve usually got a family to feed,” he adds, “so we make it a very personal thing when we go to court, as if we are helping put food on the table. We are making a difference in people’s lives by taking a great worry off of them as to who is going to pay their medical benefits and other bills. They come in worried they might go bankrupt in the process and we’re there to hopefully achieve for them a lump sum benefit so they can live their life. If there is the possibility of healing and recovery, we try to make it so people can go back to work in a job they can do, without putting them back into a situation where they could get hurt worse. It’s the same process with general personal injury cases. We look at the facts, determine who is at fault and what the damages are and figure out how we can help someone become whole again and get them back to where they once were in their lives.”
O’Connor loves working in a place where being an attorney is a profession to be revered, not looked down upon or stereotyped. “We love it when we get client referrals from other clients who are happy with the way we have helped them. We pride ourselves on bringing happiness and a positive, healthy outlook on the future to people who came in thinking it was the end of the world.”