With respect to retaining and working with experts, what makes for a good medical-legal attorney?

By: Michael Lavinger, Esq., Director at Medilex

As Director of Medilex, I have worked with thousands of attorneys over the years in medical malpractice, pain & suffering, wrongful death, mold, excessive force, DUI, child abuse, STD, criminal, lead exposure, and other types of matters. Here are the factors that make the better attorneys stand out. 

1. Time Management

This is a such a fundamental requirement and it is frequently overlooked.

I’ve worked with hundreds of attorneys who have materially compromised their cases by failing to timely engage a medical expert (or to request subsequent work).  Maybe worse, I’ve worked with thousands who’ve nearly done so. Many times, we’ve been able to undo the damage caused by the delay. That said, just because one has played Russian roulette, it doesn’t mean that it was a good idea to have done so, or that it should become one’s modus operandi. Even when we’ve been able to help these attorneys, they sometimes have boxed themselves into engaging unneeded experts, typically due to expert disclosure deadlines or having to oppose summary judgment motions. Proper planning is critical. It’s important to foresee what is reasonably foreseeable. For example, that critical materials may be missing, that the irreplaceable expert may be on vacation, that a newly discovered issue will necessitate review by another specialist, etc. The best advice is to get cases reviewed early.

2. Thoroughness and Detail Orientation

Even without knowing all the medicine, attorneys who are careful and meticulous will do better. They will look for issues—and trouble—because it’s always better to find problems rather than to be surprised by them.

3. Willingness to Learn

Some medicine is easy to pick up. Some can border on the arcane. A good attorney knows there is no substitute for knowledge. They learn sufficiently not only to navigate the medical issues during paper discovery and deposition, but also to be able to simplify concepts for the jury at the time of trial.

4. Knowing When Not to Delegate

A small minority of attorneys take a hands-off approach, ordering a subordinate to make attorney-level decisions.  When questioned, many of these subordinates retort with, “Well, that’s what my boss told me to get … so that’s what I want you to give me.” Unfortunately, those are the very same people who will then refuse to listen to why their choice is premised on incorrect assumptions about medicine, physiology, anatomy, medical specialties, etc. Sadly, such attorneys are usually unpreventably headed for disaster.

5. Familiarity with the Medicine

Whether the knowledge predates the case or is accumulated “on the fly,” the more medical knowledge the attorney has, the greater their chance of prevailing. Initially, a strong medical knowledge base helps the attorney to be more discriminating about whether to handle (or settle) a case. That benefit continues through deposition, when the opposing attorney assesses whether to continue or settle. Ultimately, the attorney’s facility with medicine becomes apparent to jurors who instinctively know that the medically savvy attorney is typically the one that is right—and so is the one to be believed.