1. Describe any childhood or non-law experiences which have affected your practice.
From the time I started school, my father who was from Spain, said I should either be a doctor or a lawyer and I could not stand the smell of ether, so I became a lawyer.
2. When did you first know that you would be a lawyer some day?
October of my second year of law school, I was in legal aid and tried my first jury trial–a traffic case in Louisville–won it and decided that I could do this.
3. What was your undergraduate degree at (identify school) and how has it helped you in your practice?
I was from Gunnison and the school’s “guidance counselor” said I was really smart and as a result could go to the University of Colorado. I went there and had a distributed major in Economics, Classical literature( Greek and Roman), and English literature. The literature taught me to read rapidly, critically, creatively and–lots. Within two weeks of the decision I read every workers’ compensation case at ICAP, Supreme Court and Court of Appeals case from the time I started doing work comp in the early 1980s until I retired at the end of 2010. I also read all of the rules and statutes each year and for every case I tried I reread the statutes involved before the hearing. I used economics in running my law office.
4. What are your memories of law school at (identify school)?
I went to the University of Colorado and have three important memories. The first day of class in criminal law the professor said all the discretion is with the prosecutor, not the defense attorney. Within the first couple of weeks I asked a question in contracts class and the professor looked at me found my name and said “You know the answer to that question Mr. Mendez, every student here knows the answer.” Everyone in class including me sank down in their chair not wanting to be called. He then said, “Everyone is presumed to know the law”–that is the last question I asked in law school. The third memory is my first jury trial.
5. What was the nature of your practice before you went into a workers’ compensation practice and how has it helped you in the latter practice?
I had a general practice and learned that we needed to file all correspondence in the correct file immediately and return all phone calls as soon as practicable.
6. How did you get involved in workers’ compensation?
I had a man come in with an amputated finger and I did not know what to do. I went over to watch compensation hearings for most of a day and discovered what I believed to be a “Good Ole Boys” network. At the end of the day I went in to the clerk’s office and asked who the chief claimants’ good ole boy was. They said Doug Phillips and I called and asked him to co-counsel. We did a number of cases together and I was in the network.
7. What is the breadth of your experience in worker’s compensation (years of experience, number of cases handled, types of clients, etc.)?
I did about 35 years of workers compensation cases almost all for claimants, tried more than 2,000, worked on about 8,000 and early in my career tried about 200 a year. My personal record was three maximum permanent partials and two permanent totals in a day. I had a number of appellate cases that I did with Jean Dubofsky, and the ICAP with Michelle LaForett of my staff. I also attended almost all rules hearings for more than thirty years.
8. With what firms/organizations have you practiced in your law career?
I opened a solo practice after graduating from law school, then went to the U.S. Attorney’s Office and became a Special Assistant and Assistant US Attorney. One year I tried thirty-five criminal jury trials and ten appeals to the Tenth Circuit. I got burned out and traveled around the world for about two years. After returning to Denver I was in several partnerships and ultimately started my own office. Eventually I had four lawyers working for me and a number of staff.
9. Describe your activities in the workers’ compensation arena.
I was a member of the workers compensation bar, a member of the Workers Compensation Educational Association, and lectured on compensation issues several times a year. I started and coordinated settlement week when there was about a year’s wait for hearings. Also I was editor of the workers compensation section for the Colorado Lawyer. I drafted a number of rules, some of which passed.
10. Describe your activities outside of work.
My family was my life outside of work, I used to fly fish, tie flies, and my wife and I love to eat and drink good wine–we wrote a cookbook for our children. It has the recipes that we used when they were growing.
11. What have you found rewarding about workers’ compensation practice?
I enjoyed helping injured workers. One story, I had a woman call me crying, she had five children, had been to seven lawyers, not one of whom would help her. Her husband had been killed and after resolving her case for six figures–I did the probate, in her county, a long distance from Denver. The judge had me come into chambers to discuss the case and I told him I wasn’t taking a fee and that I did not want any of the local lawyers which did not help her originally earn a fee to do the probate and annual accounting and I said I would come annually to do the accounting. He called her into chambers and told her to come in each year and he would help her with the accounting. I have a number of other tales about injured workers.
12. What have you found challenging about workers’ compensation practice?
When I first started I could do five or six hearings in a day–that has changed and when I finished it was difficult to do five hearings in a week. I determined that it was time to retire when an injured man in a very gray beard came into the office, and I asked him how he got my name and he said “You did my father’s and grandfather’s injuries.”
13. Describe your perceptions about how the practice has changed since you first entered the workers’ compensation practice.
The first few years I used to receive several calls a week from employers (before they had attorneys) telling me the injured worker was a “good guy” and to get him as much as I could. In the last ten years I got less than one call a year. I believe the employers do not think their workers are human but a tool to be exploited and when used up to be discharged.
14. What do think are the greatest challenges to the workers’ compensation system currently?
I believe the greatest challenge to the system is getting judges, insurance companies, attorneys and staff to understand that the injured worker is uneducated (I had fewer than twenty in my practice that had four year college degrees or advanced degrees), has a hard time recalling events and in what order, and is not as articulate as the boss–that is the reason he is boss. In my experience getting everyone to believe the injured worker is human is the greatest challenge.
15. If you were “the boss of all things comp”, how would you change the system?
I would make all judges and attorneys, try a case for the claimant, and one for the insurance company, and explain to a crying claimant why she lost and I would make all attorneys act as judges on at least two cases. That should make attorneys ask relevant questions and not ask them twice, and the judges act humanely. Further, I would require everyone to undergo education yearly (Including those over 65), and would require the reading of the rules and statutes yearly.
16. What advice would you give law school graduates today about the practice of law generally?
I would tell them to use their law degree and go into business. I think the practice of law will be computer driven within fifteen years. I would also tell them to start putting money into a retirement account as soon as possible and if they start their own practice to create a pension and profit sharing plan as quickly as possible and put the maximum in the plan since they will probably live to ninety and only have the mental and physical capacity to practice until their late sixties.
17. What advice would you give an attorney just entering workers’ compensation practice?
Remember that you are going into the practice to help people, both on the claimant’s side and the insurance side. Further, the attorney should create a trial manual with the rules, statutes, cases and lists of questions which are relevant for specific issues. I would tell them to go and check out hearing transcripts from the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court to get the questions.
18. What advice would you give seasoned workers’ compensation practitioners?
I would tell them the same thing as the rookies.
19. What are your passions currently?
My interests presently are investments, and if I knew twenty years ago what I know now I would have retired then. I am interested in wine, travel, and good food. I hope to visit almost all of the National Parks before I turn eighty. I read about a book a week and have a ten year plan to read the great works of the western world. I like to walk about two miles a day with my wife and enjoy bird watching. I don’t see well so my fly fishing is limited.
20. What do you hope people will say about your contribution in the workers’ compensation arena?
I will let them decide on their own without my input.
Pepe Mendez – 11/15/2015
Cairns & Associates, P.C.
3900 E. Mexico Avenue
Denver, CO 80210
Phone (303) 481-6345
Fax (866) 277-0355