When people ask me what’s it like to be a medical malpractice attorney, I sometimes tell them this story:
A man is walking along the beach when he notices a boy picking up starfish and throwing them back into the ocean.
“What are you doing?” he asks the boy.
“Throwing starfish back into the ocean,” the boy replies. “The sun is rising, and the tide is going out. If I don’t throw them back, they’ll die.”
The man laughs to himself and says to the boy, “There are too many starfish on this beach. You can’t possibly make a difference.”
The boy bends down, picks up another starfish and throws it back into the ocean.
“I made a difference to that one.”
Being a medical malpractice attorney is like being that boy on the beach, surrounded by starfish. Our work matters a lot to the people that we take under our responsibility. It’s human work, and the most rewarding part of the job is to serve people when they truly need help.
My staff and I routinely interact with people who have just had devastating events happen. We’re often meeting and talking with people at the worst times of their lives. I only wish we had the time and resources to help more.
Medical error is the third leading cause of death. Add to that the people who survive medical errors with life–changing injuries, and the number of people harmed by medical negligence is staggering.
Medicine is a business, and many health-care businesses put financial performance above all else. For large health organizations, the business model demands as many insurance and government dollars as possible for shareholders and for the growth and expansion of the practice. In an environment like this, patient care falls from “the single most important factor” to “one of many business interests.”
It’s not uncommon for primary care doctors to see 60-70 patients a day. How can they understand their patients’ medical problems in a six-minute encounter? Throughout the care spectrum, health care providers stretch their practices thin in the name of maximizing throughput and increasing profits.
Outside of litigation there is little accountability for medical negligence. Doctors don’t compete on price in the marketplace. They serve their insurance networks alone. There is almost no financial incentive to be more careful or to practice safer medicine except for the threat of malpractice litigation hanging over their head. It’s a strange time to practice medicine, with the influences so weighted towards business and away from patient care, and perhaps it is these same forces that allow malpractice to be the third–leading killer in America.
On the other hand, despite all that is wrong in American health care today, we still owe it to the medical profession to be honest brokers as attorneys. Malpractice cases have a real impact on the medical professionals getting sued, and on an individual basis, most medical providers are well-intentioned. We as society want the best doctors we can have. So, we take our responsibility seriously as a firm to bring suits only when we have a meritorious case.
For the few we do take on as clients, being a medical malpractice attorney is a lot like being a detective. As in most crimes, the people responsible don’t readily admit the truth. Often our cases feature elements of a coverup, with disappearing records, falsified records, withheld documents, and lying witnesses.
We gather evidence through medical records, billing department records, phone records, emails, depositions, and electronic fingerprints like metadata — so that we can scrutinize it all and piece together what happened, and how. We pry the truth from the hands of those who hide it. This work requires diligence, suspicion, cynicism and a nose for what is missing.
My advice to any aspiring malpractice attorneys then, is to learn the rules of road for malpractice. Follow the rules vigorously, and insist that your opponent follow them as well. You should also throw yourself into being a lifelong student. There are many great resources — whole trials videotaped through Courtroom Video Network and many other sources of information where you can watch other trials and see what other lawyers are doing. Take as much of it in as possible, in becoming a student of medicine, law, trial and litigation.
We can’t throw back all the starfish, it’s true. But for the few that we do, it matters.