Doctor by day, law student by night

I am a middle-aged, full-time emergency physician, and part-time law student. Usually, I practice medicine during the day and attend law classes in the evening. Sometimes I have law classes in the afternoon or early evening then work in the emergency department all night.

So, what’s harder: medical school or law school?

Absolutely the most common question I am asked by physicians, attorneys, and students at all levels of training.

The other most common questions are: why are you doing this/are you crazy? My gut feeling is that lawyers and law students hope I will say law school is more challenging, while med students and physicians are fairly certain I will respond that, of course, med school is much harder!

My politically correct answer is always the same — they are both challenging in different ways, and my experiences in med school and law school have been at such different stages of life that it’s impossible to compare. I started med school at age 21 after finishing undergraduate studies in three years. I was single, childless, and had $196.00 in my bank account.

I started law school at age 48, married with three kids, three board certifications, and well, let’s just say my bank account and retirement savings were pretty solid compared to my med school and residency days. Long hours of studying and sacrificing free time and sleep are just different when you know you have a day/night job to fall back on.

The real answer: nothing could compare to the mental and physical exhaustion of every third or fourth-night call and 36 hours in a row at the hospital as a medical student, knowing that this endurance test was going to continue or worsen during my five years of residency training. Not to mention the terror of possibly harming a patient because of my sleep deprivation and inexperience. I believe today’s medical students and residents endure a slightly more humane schedule. My law professors (all of whom I greatly respect and admire by the way … far too many exceptional IU law professors to mention and thank here, hopefully, they know who I am referring to) emphasize that to be a competent lawyer you always have to understand both sides of an argument. So, the flip side of the need for more humane work hours and kinder environments for medical trainees is that the level of experience and continuity of care for really sick and complex patients is seriously compromised.

Second most common line of questioning: Why are you doing this? Are you crazy? Followed by insinuations or blatant comments that I must (understandably) be burned out and ready to leave the increasingly miserable practice of medicine. I genuinely still love medicine, but I have had a sincere interest in law since undergrad. Truth. I considered an MD/JD path, but at age 20, that was just too much to commit to (too many years of study and a bottomless pit of school loans I was just not ready to jump into). Kudos to the few with the ambition and energy to pursue the combined MD/JD degree.

In my teens, I volunteered and shadowed at hospitals and thought I had a good idea of what physicians did. I was the first in my family to attend college, and my parents hoped I would keep my high school job at JC Penney and just climb the ladder there, or even better meet a nice boy and be a stay at home mom (I still resent them for their “support”).

I never met a lawyer until after residency when I was a defendant in a malpractice suit. The experience made me more interested in law but repulsed by our cumbersome legal system at the same time. I stayed interested in law and legal aspects of medicine throughout residency and beyond. Most of my teaching efforts as an emergency medicine faculty physician have focused on legal topics.

I have reviewed cases for both malpractice plaintiff and defense attorneys, as well as malpractice insurance companies. I frequently volunteer to do peer support calls and meetings to help physicians of all specialties from all around the country when they are enduring a medical malpractice claim.

I have continued to work full-time as a physician by day (and often all night), and part-time law student. I have been struck by the deep respect (and occasional hostility) that exists between doctors and lawyers. Many law school classmates have told me about a sincere interest in a medical career that was derailed by a particular math or science class. I have been surprised by multiple attorneys who sound genuinely puzzled when they ask me, “Why would a doctor want to go to law school?”

Doctors usually have a nearly opposite response: of course, you want to go to law school!

They often view it as a logical and interesting exit strategy to an increasingly frustrating medical career. Countless physician colleagues have cheered me on in my pursuit of a law degree and confided their sincere interest in the law.

They often express interest in going to law school and even inquire about what they would need to do to pursue a law degree. When I tell them about my schedule as a “part-time” law student, they quickly lose interest: instead of three years, I am completing 90 credit hours in four years.

Usually, I have class 11-14 hours per week, and for each hour of class, there is about three hours of preparation time (11-14 hours of class = 33-42 hours of prep time, and much, much more during finals, law clinics or when papers are due). Without a doubt, law school is incredibly challenging and extremely interesting (in my biased opinion).

Law school has provided so many unique opportunities, and I will never regret the experience no matter where my future career path goes. For example, as a physician, I often encounter legal issues; child abuse, immediate detention of psychiatric patients, duty to warn, AMA, EMTALA, serving as an expert witness, and, oh yes, malpractice lawsuits. Law school training emphasizes the ability to “argue both sides.” We often spend as much time on dissents of legal opinions as we do on the majority decisions. As any good legal or military strategist would say: “it’s always good to know what the enemy is up to.”

During the summer after my third year of law school, I had two interesting experiences with malpractice attorneys.

One morning I was being deposed while serving as a defense expert in a malpractice suit, and my answer to a question about my opinion was an appropriately vague “not at this time.” The response of both the plaintiff and defense attorneys was: “You sound just like a lawyer” — and they meant it as a compliment! I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry! On another evening that summer I met with an attorney who sues doctors for a living. She gave a presentation to one of my classes and offered to meet with any student for mentoring; I took her up on that offer. I know that sounds like the start of a bad joke: a doctor and a malpractice plaintiff attorney walk into a bar … but it happened, and it was a great personal and educational experience. Our conversation shattered some stereotypes I had of malpractice attorneys who don’t care about truth but only care about winning.

Law and medicine are interconnected in so many ways. We really need people with both an MD and JD who can speak the languages of medicine and law and can apply that knowledge to work for change in our flawed legal and health care systems. Although I have yet to figure out (suggestions and job offers welcome!) how to blend a career in law and medicine, I will never regret the pursuit of both degrees.

Many lawyers have a sincere interest in the health care field, and many doctors are fascinated by the legal field. The intersection between law and medicine is my favorite thing to talk about, so I am happy to continue the conversation with anyone who is interested.

Melanie Heniff is an emergency physician.

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