Doctors who became lawyers: What they want you to know

January 1, 2009

MD-JDs offer practical advice and insights to physicians on how to avoid and cope with malpractice suits.

Orthopedic surgeon Barry Lang was furious at attorneys when he was sued for malpractice in 1988. So after 23 years of medical practice, Lang went to law school and became an attorney, intending to represent physicians.

When no defense law firm or insurance carrier would hire him, he started representing plaintiffs. Now, the same physician who once claimed that attorneys "put sharks to shame" by their ability to sense blood in the water, has a very different view from the other side of the fence. Ironically, he now advises doctors that the most effective way to deal with a lawsuit is to "calm down and not take it personally."

Some of their viewpoints on medical malpractice have changed dramatically since they earned their law degrees. Their advice to doctors contains few "Eureka!" revelations; the continuing surprise to them is how often doctors still fail to heed these important messages.

Mixed in among the advice are shared insights and beliefs-some substantiated by research, others based on anecdotal evidence. Chief among them is the assertion that whether you're sued-and, often, whether you prevail-generally has more to do with your bedside manner, demeanor, and attitude than with the actual care you provided.

The power of explaining poor outcomes

"People can understand and accept mistakes," says Armand Leone, a radiologist-attorney in Glen Rock, NJ. "But if they think a physician is avoiding them or covering something up, they seek out attorneys. The first thing most of my potential clients say is, 'The doctor didn't come see me. He wouldn't talk to me.' "

"For example, a woman wanted to sue her doctor for missing a diagnosis of breast cancer," says Leone. She'd had a mammogram and was told everything was fine. Two months later, she felt a lump, returned to the doctor, and a biopsy confirmed cancer that the mammogram didn't show. A 2-month delay didn't change the treatment, prognosis, or outcome.