Kari Lou Frank – Shareholder and Leader
of the Workers’ Compensation
Practice Group, PennStuart
Kari Lou has almost 20 years of experience in representing employers and insurance carriers in the area of workers’ compensation and related litigation. As a shareholder and leader of PennStuart’s workers’ compensation practice group, she works with employers and carriers to create safer work environments, and helps develop policies, programs, and cultures that promote and encourage safety.
In this in-depth interview, Kari Lou discusses her experiences in the workers’ compensation industry and the guiding philosophies that have helped her succeed over the years.
Getting Started In Workers’ Compensation
Before joining PennStuart, Kari Lou worked at NASA Langley Research Center for six years, while she finished her undergraduate degree and obtained her master’s in public policy and law degree. She worked in the Office of Education, assisting with the design, development, and implementation of math and science programs for elementary and middle school youth.
Kari Lou began her legal career as an intern at PennStuart and instantly fell in love with the firm and the people in it. She recounts that the original position she was hired for was not in workers’ comp, but there was a demand for help in that growing department, which led her to migrate over and she has been practicing in this area ever since.
‘I have been practicing workers’ comp for almost 20 years now and it has been a real joy to be in this industry, watch it evolve, and evolve along with it.’
Kari Lou deeply believes that anyone who works in the workers’ comp industry at any level can make a difference for those that are injured, and improve the worker’s journey after an accident. In addition, those working as defense counsel also have the ability to reduce lost time costs for employers by working with them to improve the culture of safety and their post-injury/return to work programs.
‘The importance of improving outcomes has become even more profound during the pandemic, a time when fear, loss, illness, and isolation have affected every industry and every person differently.’
Recalling her first clients, Kari Lou gives all credit to her firm, and says she had wonderful mentors who were willing to introduce and share their clients with her. The workers’ comp industry is largely based on relationships and reputations, and Kari Lou expresses her gratitude for clients that she has had the privilege of working with for decades.
‘I am blessed with some of the same clients that I had almost 20 years ago. I am proud that I can call many of those clients my friends. They know that I care not just about this one case, but I care about their business, their employees, and their families. I hope when my clients face difficult times, they know that they are not alone, and we will figure out how best to proceed and overcome those challenges. This is how we practice, and this old-school meets new-school approach is reflective of the type of attorney that works at PennStuart.
Key Benefits Of PennStuart
Talking about her firm’s practice areas and clients, Kari Lou states that in workers’ compensation, her team represents insurance companies, but also self-insured entities and employers in various industries such as construction, healthcare, and retail. PennStuart also serves clients in the areas of commercial litigation, insurance defense, business and transactional law, real estate, employment, and estate planning.
Being a multi-disciplinary law firm, Kari Lou is passionate about ensuring that current and future clients know all of the legal services the firm can provide to them:
We work as a team to make sure that our clients have all the information they need and are getting the best service possible on every case. We regularly roundtable difficult cases or issues and work together to find the best solutions for our clients. We pride ourselves in getting to know our clients and their business extremely well.
Talking about the achievements of PennStuart over the years, Kari Lou states that the company is steeped in tradition, but at the same time they are always willing to evolve to best meet their clients’ needs.
Standout Moments As A Business Leader In Workers’ Compensation
For Kari Lou, a standout moment was realizing that she did not have to fit the mold. There is a stereotype that defense attorneys want to deny, delay, and antagonize, which she does not believe is accurate. For Kari Lou, it was a powerful moment when she recognized her unique skill in finding different solutions to difficult problems.
At PennStuart, Kari Lou states there is no cookie-cutter defense work. Instead, the approach for every case is based on the unique facts and needs of the client.
‘I realized PennStuart was a different kind of law firm, and it has been a great match for this different kind of defense attorney.’
Another standout moment for Kari Lou was being named the leader of the workers’ comp practice group at her firm in 2021.
I work with an incredibly talented group of attorneys, paralegals, and staff – they are all top notch in their field, and amazing people. For this firm to put faith in me to lead this practice group, particularly during such challenging times for our clients, I was very humbled and honored.
Top Philosophies And Core Values In Business
- Always remember to listen. There is a value-added to listening and that means listening to clients, to judges, to the injured worker, and to the attorneys that might be representing that injured worker. All of that is important.
- Always be prepared. Do the legwork and the preparation that is necessary to effectively represent clients and address their particular concerns in every case. Preparation also means knowing the law and keeping up to date on how the law evolves, how the codes are changing, and being prepared to navigate clients through those changes.
- Do not make the easy cases hard or the hard cases harder. In almost every case, you can review the file and pinpoint the moment things began to go astray. It is often a moment where one of the parties felt unheard or disrespected. Learning how to prevent those moments in future cases is key and can reduce unnecessary delays, costs, and acrimony.
Kari Lou states that there will always be cases to litigate – cases where there is a dispute about the facts or a question of how the law applies to a particular situation. These cases need to be litigated, but it is also important to find reasonable resolutions for clients whenever possible. She says that it is important to remember that when someone gets injured at work, it is in the injured worker’s best interest to make a full and meaningful recovery, but that is also in the employer/carrier’s best interests. That means the goal for all parties is often the same, even when a case is in litigation. Remembering that maximizes the chance of a favorable outcome for everyone.
Advice For Those Entering The Legal Profession
Reflecting back to when she first became an attorney, Kari Lou remembers that she would call her parents after a day’s work, and they would often ask her, “Did you do justice today?” She says she has never forgotten that, and the importance of “doing right” by those she encounters.
‘Twenty years later, I still ask myself this question at the end of many days, and it grounds me in a larger purpose. I also think it helps me be a better attorney. I recommend that all of us who have the privilege and responsibility of practicing law take the time for this sort of reflection.’
Kari Lou admits that burnout is real, and the cure is often called “work-life balance,” but she admits it is more of a juggle:
‘Balance involves staying still. Juggling is dynamic and responsive to changing conditions. That seems a more appropriate description. My favorite role in this world is that of “mom” and I will always give that 110%. Every time I think I have figured out how I will balance my work and my life, something changes and I need to adapt and reconfigure.’
She says we cannot be afraid to challenge preconceived notions. Young attorneys can have a meaningful work and personal life, but that may mean doing things differently. Figuring out how to make all the important components of one’s life work together is a challenge.
‘My advice to people who are entering the law, or any profession for that matter, would be to have the courage to chart your course and to figure out a way that works for you to achieve all of your goals.’
Vision For Future Of The Industry
Kari Lou is encouraged that the workers’ compensation industry is looking towards a more holistic approach to claims. That means looking beyond a snapshot moment in a claim, to understand how the injury impacts the individual worker, because no one should just be defined by their injury. Similarly, an employer should not be defined by a single accident that happened on their worksite.
She believes a more holistic approach keeps the focus on prevention because the best injury is the injury that never occurs.
‘One of my hopes for the industry is that it becomes more proactive than reactive.’
She also noted that a more holistic approach puts more of an emphasis on preserving relationships between all the parties involved in a claim. She stated that she has seen more than one case where relationships have been torched through the claim and litigation process.
‘Understanding the relationships that exist in each claim is imperative to structuring an approach that is in the clients’ best interests, not only regarding the current dispute, but also concerning their long-term business needs.’
Leadership Lessons Learned Throughout Life
When asked about the traits of a good leader, Kari Lou highlighted the importance of being good to your team and treating everyone the way you would want to be treated. That includes being honest, fair, reliable, and committed to not only the project at hand, but to the team as a whole. Be prepared to take full responsibility when things go wrong and to share all the kudos when things go right.
‘Even when things are the most stressful, do not take that out on your team. And if you slip, which we all do, acknowledge your mistake, apologize, and do the personal work needed to be better next time.’
She reflected on how proud she is of her team, and said she was grateful to work with people who support, encourage, and lock arms around each other when times are difficult. Kari Lou ended by saying:
‘If at the end of this professional journey, I can look back and know that I did two things: 1) Treated each person I encountered with care and respect and 2) Fostered a rewarding and supportive workplace, I will retire happy. That is a professional legacy I would be proud of.’