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Disability Law Section finds formula to keep afloat

Legal News Reporter

Published: November 6, 2015

Many Akron Bar Association members say attracting and maintaining people to participate in a bar section or committee remains one of the biggest challenges.

In fact, just two years ago the Disability Law Section neared the brink of being dismantled according to Bradley Spencer Scott Dunn, former chair of the section.

The talk of eliminating the section happened because participation reached an all-time low, he said. But instead of calling it quits, Dunn said the section’s leadership joined hands with the bar’s executive director, C. Allen Nichols and member engagement coordinator, Thomas Christos Petropoulos to revive it.

“We began by paying special attention to member attendance,” said Dunn, reconsideration supervisor for the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and a part-time sole practitioner. “Every time there was a meeting, I took notes about what was discussed, how people were involved, what conclusions were drawn and what the plan was for the next meeting.

“We made sure these notes went out to all the members to show them what was taking place and encourage them to participate.”

Dunn said the efforts paid off with the numbers slowly increasing at the meetings.

“We still have a ways to go,” he said. “We found the bridge and now we are working on crossing it.”

Now headed by Shannon Sorensen, the section, which began in June 2009, bolsters 33 members.

“We typically meet during the lunch hour on the last Tuesday of the month,” said Sorensen, an associate at Shifrin Newman Smith. “We do not meet the months we have a CLE scheduled, as the CLE takes the place of the meeting.”

Last year, Dunn said the section offered one CLE seminar to members, this year Sorensen exceeded that number, holding two since September.

On Sept. 29, the section featured a one-hour CLE at the Akron Bar Association entitled “How Different Disability Benefits Affect One Another.” Then on Oct. 14, Shifrin Newman Smith paralegal Denise Ratchford presented a CLE called “Medicare/Medicaid & How Different Disability Benefits Affect Coverage.”

 Sorensen said workers’ compensation, social security and the laws/programs that pertain to veterans often intersect.

For example, she said if a worker suffers an injury on the job that results in a long-term or permanent disability, he/she could be entitled to both workers’ compensation and social security disability.

“If the worker is a veteran, he/she could also be entitled to veterans benefits,” said Sorensen, a member of the section since 2010.

Sorensen said the section encompasses members who handle everything from social security and workers’ compensation to ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) and appellate claims.

“The diversity in practice areas is one of the great things about membership in the section,” she said. “It provides attorneys access to lawyers from all parts of the disability law arena, which means if you practice workers’ compensation and have a question about social security disability, you know who to call.”

Born and raised in Milwaukee, Sorensen moved to Ohio to attend The University of Akron School of Law. She began working at Shifrin Newman Smith as a law clerk in 2009 landing a job offer after graduating in 2010 and passing the bar.

“I was introduced to disability law as a law clerk,” she said. “I really enjoyed helping people in need get benefits. I don’t know of any other area of law that provides such instant gratification daily.

“As a new lawyer, it was extremely helpful to be able to network with more experienced attorneys,” said Sorensen. “It was also a good opportunity to hear from local judges who were called on to do some of the CLEs.”

She said her goal as chair is to offer more compelling events to increase participation at the meetings, especially among new attorneys.

“We are looking at holding a three-hour CLE in February that deals with the fundamentals of social security disability,” said Sorensen. “We are also planning a social event during the spring. During our events, attorneys are welcome to bring their children. We want to do what we can to get them to participate.”

Vice Chair Kristopher Immel joined the Disability Law Section in February.  An associate at Roderick Linton Belfance, Immel focuses on social security, criminal defense and civil litigation.

“The idea of disability law first presented itself at my former firm, Barr, Jones & Associates,” said Immel, who graduated from The University of Akron’s J.D./Master of Taxation program. “Many of my clients were receiving social security or veterans benefits.  I decided it might be interesting to learn more about that area of law since it seemed like a way to assist more people.”

When he became a member of the section, he said he was offered the chance to be vice chair, an opportunity that he enthusiastically accepted.

“Our section strives to bring in more newer attorneys,” said Immel. “One of the goals of the section is to get lawyers to understand how all the various laws like workers’ compensation and veterans benefits, can work together to help clients.

“It is also important to raise awareness that disabilities can be mental as well as physical. My mother worked in the Wooster City School District for years in the multiple handicap unit. When I was in college I used to help her out in any way I could when I was not in school. I think that’s where I first developed an affinity for this area.”

Secretary Julie Wagner is also new to the section, becoming a member in the winter of 2015, less than a year after opening the Law Office of Julie A Wagner.

“I handle a lot of estate planning and appointed guardianship work,” said Wagner. “A large part of what I do is defend against guardianships for younger people who may have mental disabilities like autism and schizophrenia.

 “I have always had an interest in disability law,” she said. “I have done a lot of advocating for people with Autism and I liked the work.”

 A native of Greenville, Pennsylvania, Wagner graduated from The University of Akron School of Law in 2007. She began her legal career at Rotatori Bender Co. where she focused on labor and employment law.

“Employment law sometimes crosses into the disability law area,” said Wagner. 

Prior to opening her practice, she worked as of counsel for the estate planning firm Bates & Perry Co. in Medina.

She said membership in the section allows her to compare “notes” with other attorneys in the area. As secretary, Wagner said her goal is “to promote disability law. This area of law touches so many people’s lives and our section is a great resource for people who have chosen to handle disability-related law.”