Kirsten L. Kaiser Kus – Capital Member
at Downey & Lenkov LLC
While Kirsten has vast experience in many areas of the law, her specialties are Workers’ Compensation and General Litigation Defense. Kirsten is a finalist for the 2022 Influential Women of Northwest Indiana Award because of her contribution to the legal profession and empowering women. Here, Kirsten talks to me about her growth in the legal field and the full perspective she has gained from going to the plaintiff side to now vigorously defending her clients on the insurance defense side.
Starting Out In The RCM Domain
Kirsten began her career in workers’ compensation at a previous law firm while in law school. She was tasked with working for plaintiffs in areas such as workers comp, general liability, and Social Security disability. Kirsten also gained valuable experience in criminal defense. Kirsten joined that firm after graduation and being admitted to the Indiana Bar.
‘I ended up working at that firm for my first 7 years of practice on the plaintiff side and I enjoyed helping the injured workers obtain the benefits they deserved.’
Kirsten is a firm believer that the successful lawyer is the one that is better prepared than the other side. At her previous firm, Kirsten experienced situations where a number of plaintiffs were not being truthful with her about their injuries, which required her to research her own clients to avoid being blind-sided at hearings with surveillance and social media posts. She decided it was then time to make switch to defense and joined her current firm specializing in work comp and general liability defense.
One of the most satisfying experiences for Kirsten in being a defense lawyer is establishing and maintaining longstanding relationships with her clients. This allows for her clients to know the quality of the legal service Kirsten provides and trust in her advice while in turn Kirsten can get to know all her clients particular needs.
Kirsten also supports the recent shift in the mindset of the workers comp industry in that it is now more focused on workers’ rehabilitation. To that point, Kirsten is a firm believer in trying to get employees s back in the workplace by finding creative ways to help them return. This fundamental shift is key as a positive mindset helps an injured employee rebound faster and it that is always the best solution for all parties.
Current Business Structure And Organization
The enthusiasm is evident when Kirsten talks about bringing on new clients. Business development is an important part her success as a partner, which translates to success for her entire firm. This involves Kirsten personally conducting client meetings that allow her to get to know the prospective clients, their organizational structure, and their specific needs. That personal touch is crucial in obtaining new clients as well as ensuring current clients are taken care of. While this involves a lot of travel for Kirsten, it is necessary, as it is an important role for her to fill for her clients and her team.
Currently, her firm Downey & Lenkov has a broad range of great clients that keeps them busy. Kirsten personally speaks with the majority of her clients on a daily basis including discussing the details of current claims she is handling or investigations in new claims.
Downey & Lenkov has offices located in the states of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, with a central office in Chicago. The firm specializes in various areas including workers’ compensation, general liability, employment, and insurance coverage work. The firm has about 30 attorneys and is quickly expanding with new offices being opened. Business development and client satisfaction are at the forefront of this expansion.
It goes without saying that all of this culminates into voluminous work. Being no stranger to hard work, Kirsten recognizes the need to having work/life balance for her and her team. Talking about things that help her manage her work, she states that remote working has been a huge help in balancing her home and professional roles. The ability to be flexible is huge in managing it all.
‘I believe one of the benefits of Covid is that we became more relaxed overall on in office attendance and that hearing a child or dog in the background isn’t a bad thing – it is real life. You learned you can trust in your people to get the job done just as well at home, while saving commute time.’
She also credits the support of her staff, attorneys, and family in being instrumental in meeting her obligations, especially when traveling. Kirsten has a very active 4 year old son, Jack, and early morning travel to airports is never easy so she depends on her village to get the job done.
Standout Moments As A Business Leader
‘I am proud of my transition and accomplishments in a relatively short amount of time.’
Kirsten joined her current firm in 2014 as an associate who had never done defense work, billable hours, or developed business in the insurance industry. Yet, she was given numerous opportunities and support by her firm partners and was promoted to Income Member partner after 3 years and then Capital Member Equity owner in only 7 years.
In 2021, Kirsten won CLM (Claims and Litigation Management Alliance) Outside Defense Counsel of the Year, as nominated and picked by her peers, which was a particularly proud moment as it further validated her successful transition and influence in the insurance industry.
Talking about her firm, Kirsten loves the attentiveness they provide their clients and the way they creatively think outside the box to give clients options to close their claims.
‘We value our clients and I believe we have a great reputation in the work comp community for how we handle our cases and ourselves.’
Business Plans For The Future
A major aspect of the firm’s growth is based on quality of work, networking and referrals. Kirsten credits her ability to communicate, identify her clients’ needs and her passion for helping them in growing the firm. Her current client focus is on insurance companies, TPAs, and risk managers that manage workers’ compensation or general liability defense claims.
Moving forward, Kirsten wants to focus on providing every opportunity possible for the firm’s attorneys to grow. Introducing them to existing clients and potential clients helps the attorneys develop further and establishes their own network while giving the client multiple help points at the firm.
‘I want to help our attorneys grow, develop, and become successful in obtaining direct assignments. Continued growth helps our clients and attorneys so much.’
Top Philosophies And Core Values In Business
The most important factor is communication, within the firm and with the clients. Kirsten prides herself on a quick response to client concerns or if she is not available, to let them know that she will respond soon. Clients should know they are important enough to be heard and answered quickly. She also prefers having conversations on the phone to stay connected with her clients rather than shooting emails back and forth.
The same goes for communication within the firm, especially with remote working. Emails are impersonal and do not communicate the care and appreciation that the firm and Kirsten feel.
‘I like to value everyone for their different skill sets and how important they are to us.’
Advice For Newcomers Starting A Career In Workers’ Compensation
A good mentor is highly valuable. You need a mentor that is approachable to ask questions and that you are able to observe in action. On the defense side, newer attorneys are not only learning workers’ compensation defense but billing as well, which are two large hurdles.
Get involved in professional organizations from the start of your career. CLM is such a great organization for networking and learning. They have done wonderful things for giving me opportunities for expanding my network and career. There are so many wonderful organizations to get involved in, so get outside of your comfort zone and do so.
Downey & Lenkov has a good training program with individual training sessions on set topics of workers’ compensation and shadow training as well. During the shadow training, new attorneys observe multiple partners and senior associates. This allows them to see the different working styles and what to expect instead of just being thrown into it at hearings, pre-trials, and depositions.
Key Benefits Of Services At Downey & Lenkov
The key benefits are immediate attention and action on the client’s file and prompt resolution. The firm teaches their attorneys to think creatively to give the clients various solutions for moving their cases towards closure.
‘In our initial recommendation, we provide the chance of success at hearing and how much it’s going to cost to either settle it at this juncture or litigate. We let them know the active steps that will need to be taken to work up the defense on the file right away. This allows our clients to make a fully informed decision. That’s what we pride ourselves on and that is how we train our attorneys.’
Vision For The Future Of The Industry
Kirsten states that some plaintiff’s attorneys have taken an abrasive approach with nurse case managers, and it is hampering the progress of cases and recovery of workers. Plaintiff’s attorneys are extremely aggressive in their production requests from nurse case managers because they are wrongly accusing nurse case managers of influencing the doctors. The nurse case management companies are being added as parties to the cases and are being pulled into litigation before the Indiana Workers’ Compensation Board more frequently, which is rough because nurse case managers are so important to a file, and it causes unnecessary delays. A good nurse case manager can help move that case along, help with the communication between the plaintiff and the doctor, and also help attorneys understand what is going on with the treatment. Their intentions are constantly being questioned and it really hurts their morale and slows down the movement of the file.
Case handlers need to keep in mind that plaintiff’s attorneys are requesting email correspondence between the attorneys and the nurse case managers. So be cognizant that most of the documents are going to get produced in Indiana that involve the nurse case management of the case.
Repetitive injuries are another hot topic. The trend is that doctors are saying that it is not the length of time that a worker has been on the job, but rather the intensity and frequency of the work. We are finding more cases that are compensable with shorter amounts of time that the worker has been employed on that particular job. It is important to train the employers and employees on proper training, safety equipment, and ergonomics to prevent those types of repetitive injuries.
Leadership Lessons Learned Throughout Life
‘People are going to make mistakes. We are human. But what is important is how you rebound from it and how to make it a learning experience.’
People want to feel valued. Everyone is going to make mistakes. Communicating with the team is important and so is having empathy. A team needs to know that they can come to their leader if they made a mistake and will receive help to learn and grow.
‘When you have good employees, you need to value them and keep them happy. We strive for a good work-life balance, showing them how much they are valued and respected and believe this will result in happy and loyal employees.’
Follow Kirsten Kaiser Kus on: LinkedIn