Clean Hands & Handshake Deals: Attorney Keri Yaeger talks honesty and hand sanitizer.
An Interview with Keri Yaeger of Century Insurance Group
Where were you born and raised?
I grew up in New Albany—at the time a small town outside of Columbus, Ohio.
What did you want to be when you grew up? If not an attorney, how did you get involved in the law?
I wanted to be a lot of things…. a nurse, a veterinarian, a shop owner (of who knows what). My first major in college was fashion merchandising but that only lasted a few weeks, I think. I eventually landed on marketing and went to work for an ad agency in Columbus after I graduated from Kent State. My big claim to fame is that I was at the absolute bottom of the advertising food chain but lucked into working for some brilliant minds on the product launch for Purell Hand Sanitizer when it was first rolled out in the retail market. That product is of course going stronger than ever, and it was fun to be able to see all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into something like that. So, marketing to law school, I don’t really know what happened there. I enjoyed my time at the ad agency, but realized it wasn’t my life’s passion. I don’t have any great family legacy or personal experience that inspired me to go to law school, it just seemed more interesting than getting my MBA.
You used to work at a personal injury law firm. How and why did you make the transition to working for an insurance company, Century/Ameritrust, which is sort of the other side of the aisle?
I had a great legal upbringing during my years at the Lamkin firm. I started there as a law clerk the summer of my first year of law school, and they threw me directly into the fire— meeting clients, summarizing depositions, writing motions (I remember panicking when I was asked to write my first Motion in Limine…I had not yet had an Evidence class in law school, and had no idea what a Motion in Limine was, but I at least found something I could copy from). We were a small firm, and they were like family to me, both in the courtroom and out. We did a lot of medical malpractice and other big injury and death cases, and when one of us was in trial, it would be all hands-on deck helping out, strategizing, and celebrating each other’s victories. It was an all-encompassing job, and I loved everything it taught me.
My daughter was born in 2006, and as she got older, I started feeling the need to move into a role that would be a bit more predictable and allow me the flexibility to be wherever I needed to be for her. The deciding factor was when she wrote me this really sweet Mother’s Day card, but the last sentence said she just wished I wouldn’t have “so many trails” [8-year-old speak for “trials”]. I came to work for Century in June 2015, and it has been an equally great opportunity to learn how things work on the other side of the aisle, and an equally great group of people to work with.
What do you do now at Century?
I started in Century’s litigated claims unit, and then moved into our Complex Claims unit for a number of years. Given the larger size and various complexities involved in those claims—often involving coverage questions and other critical legal developments—my role required a lot of interaction with our underwriting and upper management teams. Out of those interactions and our years of strategic discussions on various classes of business that we insure, changing legal landscapes, and everything in between, an opportunity arose for me to move into an underwriting role, managing Century’s Excess/Umbrella Underwriting team.
You’ve talked about being able to solve complex legal disputes. What are one or two of the ways you are able to do that?
I think having integrity and a cool head are the two most important factors to resolving disputes. Before I even finished law school, I was watching the patriarch of my law firm, Mr. Lamkin, reach settlements with defense lawyers over nothing more than a drink and a handshake. They all knew he would not go back on his word, and his clients had always given him their blessing to get them whatever he thought was fair. He had integrity on both sides of the aisle, and I was so lucky to be able to observe that in practice, even in an age when most people wouldn’t dream of resolving a case over a handshake. Establishing integrity is a challenge these days when so many communications are electronic and we’re not seeing people face to face as much, but it’s still critical. We have to continue trying to talk to each other on a human level, show some vulnerability, and be honest about what we can and cannot do to help reach an agreement. And we must do those things with civility.
Any real-life examples you can provide?
One of the most surprising things to me when I moved from private practice on the plaintiff’s side to working in-house on the insurance/defense side, was how much both sides actually have in common despite their distrust of one another. Dyed in the wool plaintiffs’ attorneys are often of the belief that defense lawyers and insurance companies are all about saving a dime—that they will do anything to get out of paying what is fair. On the flip side, lifelong insurance adjusters are often of the opinion that plaintiffs and their lawyers are just looking for a windfall, exaggerating their injuries and damages and trying to collect more than they’re entitled to. The reality is that neither of these perceptions is usually accurate.
Good plaintiff’s lawyers (of which there are many) care deeply about doing right by their clients, and part of that means managing their clients’ expectations from the outset—explaining what the law provides for, explaining the facts that won’t play well with a jury, and helping clients know what to expect throughout the process. Those clients don’t come to court looking for a windfall, but rather, looking to be restored to something close to the life they used to have. Similarly, good defense lawyers and insurance adjusters (of which there are also many) have a great deal of empathy for plaintiffs and they spend hours evaluating the evidence, jury instructions and similar cases, trying to arrive at an evaluation of what would be fair compensation for each particular case.
Both sides are so similar—trying to reach a just result based on conflicting information, outside pressures, and lots of gray area in terms of what would happen with a jury or an appeal. For something that all comes down to the dollar, there are so many human emotions involved, and that’s where the cool heads and integrity have to prevail.
How did you connect with Magna?
I will give it to the Magna gang, they have a product and a service level that they’re proud of, and they’re pretty persistent in getting a foot in the door to at least educate you about it.
Century/AmeriTrust had worked with Magna tangentially, as they provided court reporting and other services to some of our panel counsel. Colleagues of mine had also attended Magna’s legal education events over the years, and I attended their Chopped event at some point before the world shut down. It was everything you want packed into a couple of days—you get your legal education hours, you watch some really great attorneys in action, you meet interesting people, you laugh, you get smarter about how to do things like jury research in a cost-effective way.
What projects have you done with Magna?
Magna is now AmeriTrust’s preferred vendor for court reporting and records retrieval. I’ve also used them for jury research and social media searches. Probably my most memorable project with Magna was a mock jury study in a multi-fatality plane crash case we had in Alaska. The fact that we could empanel three groups of Alaskan jurors, all while presenting and watching deliberations remotely, in the height of COVID, was immensely valuable. Some of the conclusions drawn by these jurors were so uniquely tailored to living in Alaska and their particular experiences with flying on small planes, we never would have predicted them. That information was very powerful in our ongoing defense of our Insured, and ultimately helped us negotiate a resolution with all parties the following month.
You were involved with Magna’s Battle of the Experts 2021. What was your role and how did it go?
My role was to help one of the actual stars of the show, Bill Peterfriend, map out his cross-examination of an expert witness. So again, much like my forgettable role in the great hand sanitizer launch, I was more of a behind the scenes contributor, but it is always a great experience interacting and strategizing with other legal minds in a setting like that… Bill did a great job on his cross, as did all the participants and Magna staff who kept things running at a quick and engaging pace.
It looks like you have been in Ohio for a long time. Have you ever thought about moving to another state? If so, where and why?
That is a big YES. I tell my daughter all the time (she’s 15 now), that I am fully supportive if she decides she wants to move west for college:) I’m drawn to the red rocks so northern Arizona or Colorado would probably be my first choices, but there are a ton of beautiful places I’ve not yet seen, so the list is always open for editing. Of course, the logistics of work, and having all “my people” in Ohio will always play a role in whatever decision I make, but I can definitely see myself at least exploring the snowbird path at some point. In the meantime, Ohio is a great place raise my daughter—Columbus is a cool city, and I’m blessed with awesome family and friends here who are all integral threads in the life that has been woven for me thus far.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I’m pretty simple. Maybe boring now that I think about it. I enjoy spending my time outside of work with people I love and balancing that with an adequate amount of alone time to stay sane. I like traveling—seeing new places and revisiting ones that have warmed my heart along the way. I like entertaining and cooking, eating, and drinking delicious things. I am drawn to people who make me laugh and who like to laugh with me, and who are always up for coming along on whatever hair-brained adventure I’m proposing (which may be as simple as walking to the local tavern on the square to get wings and a beer but getting chased by a flock of maniacal geese on the way). I like challenging myself not to die a couple times a week at hot yoga and hugging my kiddo every chance I get.