Motels of Comp? (Not in New Jersey)

The Bencher—May/June 2016

By Frank A. Petro, Esquire

The year 1995 was a landmark for the practice of Workers’ Compensation law in New Jersey. It was the year our Inn was founded, and its story is interesting and instructional on how to start an Inn from scratch and make it successful.

No Inn has ever started without one person both  deciding that starting such an Inn would be a good idea and then acting on that idea by discussing it with one or more influential people who were capable of transforming that idea into reality.

The person with the initial idea, Hal Braff, has been instrumental in the organization of almost every New Jersey Inn. Had Braff not acted on his vision of the potential of the New Jersey American Inn of Court landscape, our turf would be nowhere near as fertile or productive as it has been over the years.

Braff decided New Jersey could use a statewide workers’ compensation Inn. He spoke with his law partner, Ira Sukoneck (a well-respected workers’ compensation lawyer), then contacted a group of influential workers’ compensation judges and lawyers. Within a few short months, the New Jersey Workers Compensation Inn was chartered.

While our Inn has had a major impact on the practice of workers’ compensation law in New Jersey, its impact can best be appreciated when compared to our pre-Inn practice status.

Prior to 1995, the practice of New Jersey comp was seen by many as at or near the bottom rung of the civil litigation ladder. Comp court was not a “civil court;” rather, it was a Division of our Department of Labor, not unlike our Division of Unemployment Compensation. While we had judges (formerly known as “referees”), the technical Rules of Evidence did not apply. Discovery was almost non-existent. Comp was a niche practice in which few “non-comp” lawyers had any understanding or interest, notwithstanding that more dollar benefits were awarded there for medical treatment/indemnity than in any other civil court. Comp lawyers often saw themselves as second-class citizens, even though many were excellent members of the bench and bar, as accomplished as our civil court colleagues.

When the initial idea of a comp Inn was pitched, many of us, myself included, had never even heard of the American Inns of Court. An “Inn” of Court? One joke went around suggesting we should more aptly call ourselves a “motel.”
But the timing could not have been better. We were ready to rise up. It was a “feel-good” opportunity for those of us who sought to elevate our practice area but lacked the vehicle to get us there. Our first president, the Hon. Ray A. Farrington, was a highly respected, enthusiastic, and engaging workers’ compensation judge whose vision propelled us successfully forward.

We quickly became one of the largest Inns in the United States. We were proud of our focus and size. Meanwhile, some observers described our comp practice system as a model for the country. We held ceremonies honoring important contributors to our practice, including Hal Braff. We renamed ourselves the Justice James H. Coleman, Jr., Inn in honor of the only New Jersey workers’ compensation judge to be appointed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Personally, I have had the good fortune to serve as president of our Inn, as well as a member and treasurer of the American Inns of Court Board of Trustees. I participated in charter ceremonies for two workers’ compensation Inns, including the Justice Randy J. Holland Delaware Workers’ Compensation American Inn of Court. This was particularly gratifying because Holland was extraordinarily supportive of our Inn during his term as president of the American Inns of Court.

There are great opportunities across this country for the development of any type of Inn. This article was written with one purpose in mind: to encourage you to think that starting an Inn, any type, would be a good idea and a doable one. If you speak to the right person or people, your idea could spawn a thriving Inn.

And if you do that, you will likely find the process one of the most rewarding professional experiences of your legal or judicial career.

Frank A. Petro, Esquire is a Certified Workers’ Compensation Law attorney and a founding partner of the firm Petro Cohen Petro Matarazzo in Northfield, New Jersey. He is a former member and treasurer of the American Inns of Court Board of Trustees and the immediate past president and program chair of the Justice James H. Coleman Jr. New Jersey Workers’ Compensation AIC.

© 2016 FRANK A. PETRO, ESQ. This article was originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.