By Desiree Goff • June 30, 2020•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence
We have focused on several different areas of law which intersect with science and technology. However, we haven’t spent any time discussing one of the more patently obvious areas - medical malpractice. This area of law practice relies heavily on litigation and trial work, which women are frequently steered away from. However, studies are showing that the women that do make it into the courtroom routinely outperform their male colleagues. These women are termed “phenoms” for their ability to get past the double glass ceiling. They work harder to get into the field and then fight to get into the courtroom. They are less likely to take a losing case through trial and work cheaper and faster yielding better results. On average, female partners win 70% of the time over male partners who win 57% of the time at trial.*
In the field of medical malpractice, no undergraduate degree or training is necessary in medicine. However, an understanding of and ability to comprehend voluminous medical documents, depose parties and communicate the problems is necessary to work in this area of law. In addition, depending on the state in which you practice, relationships with medical professionals willing to testify is a necessity. Unlike patent law which is practiced at a federal level, and federal trademarks and copyright, a practice in medical malpractice depends heavily on specific state statutes and regulations. Due to this, depending on what state you find yourself in, there will be different requirements to even file a claim for malpractice. For example, in the state of Tennessee, attorneys file an expert witness statement at the time of filing the complaint attesting to the good faith basis for the malpractice claim. Additionally, medical professional liability claims are required to be reported each year under T.C.A. § 56-54-101.
If you have no undergraduate training in technology or science, but you want a legal career involving it, working in the medical malpractice field may be a perfect fit for you. Some attorneys in this field may have extensive medical experience - for example, Lawrence Schlachter, a brain surgeon at 52 who decided to attend law school** - but this is not required. Furthermore, expert testimony will generally be more valuable to a case than the lawyer’s actual medical experience, although medical understanding of terms and treatment will help you sift through the thousands of documents that will be dumped on you with each claim and identify the issues.
Certain law schools capitalize on this by offering joint JD/MD programs. For example, Vanderbilt University offers a joint JD/MD program which offers both degrees after 6 years of study.*** In order to be accepted into both schools, you must have the prerequisite undergraduate training for the MD program as well as taking both the MCAT and LSAT. This is not necessary to work in the field, but there are lawyers who obtain both degrees.
Leading malpractice attorney Sandra H. Robinson began her career as a psychology counselor before transitioning into law. She believes that this background taught her the most important attribute for her practice and life: knowing when to keep quiet. "In this business, you've really got to be able to listen," she says. "Not just to identify what the issues are in a legal case, but to help comfort people in pain."**** This attitude has propelled her to numerous honors and awards and a distinguished career. In one year, she won over $20 million in jury awards on behalf of victims of medical malpractice.***** A colleague, Laurie Amell, who also practices medical malpractice, is a nurse turned lawyer who believes her medical background gives her an edge. In her case, she uses it to show the jury that she is more knowledgeable and understands medicine. Medical malpractice “is not like it used to be 20 years ago, where an attorney would come in and be all blustery and a showman. People don't want to see that anymore. They want litigators to come into the courtroom and teach them the medicine and be honest with them. Sandra [Robinson] embodies that."****
Keeping an intellectually curious mind while showing empathy for our clients are attributes we can all aspire to in our respective practices.
*Women Lawyers Significantly Better, Study Finds. Cision. PR Newswire. Apr. 3, 2018.
**Allen, Marshall. When A Brain Surgeon Becomes A Malpractice Lawyer. ProPublica. Feb. 16, 2016.
****Wasserman, Elizabeth. The Queen of Malpractice. SuperLawyers. June 10, 2009.
*****The Cochran Firm <https://www.medicalmalpracticelawyerswashingtondc.com/attorney-profile/>