We are all familiar with nurses and lawyers, but the term “nurse-attorney” can raise questions. First of all, you might think that a “nurse-attorney” is just a nurse who happened to go to law school, just as a business major might happen to do or a teacher. Yet we don’t call them “business-attorney” or “teacher-attorney.” How is it different for nurses who become lawyers?
The answer is simply that the background of nursing provides a tremendous platform for those nurses who choose law as a second career. That is true whether the nurse attorney decides, like me, to continue as a “patient advocate” or works in another area of law.
As past President of the Connecticut Chapter of The American Association of Nurse Attorneys, I have been in the fortunate position of being able to interact with nurse attorneys in a wide array of practice areas and to better understand the importance of their background. Many nurse attorneys become elder law specialists, using their nursing training to better communicate and understand the needs of older clients. Some nurses use their background and training effectively to become risk managers at health care facilities, while other nurse attorneys decide their best role is in defending health care providers. Whatever path the nurse attorney chooses, the key difference between her or him and other attorneys is the broad usefulness of the nursing training and experience.
For myself, there was never a question as to what practice area I belonged. The nursing school lesson that had always struck closest to my heart was this: “You are the patient’s advocate, and it is your most important role.” I followed that rule for the 20 years I was a nurse before law school, and it was my inspiration for going on to study law. Now, as a plaintiff’s attorney focusing on medical negligence, I am continuing to advocate for patients and for upholding the standard of care.
In this role, my nursing background assists me on a daily basis. I have a good basic education in human anatomy and physiology that allows me to recognize and understand even the most complex medical situations right from the start, before there is access to an expert in the correct specialty. It also assists me in dealing with those experts, first, at the beginning of a case when we are first determining exactly what went wrong, and later, as the case develops along its usual path.
Perhaps the most important nursing skill that I have transferred to my law practice is the ability to listen. Nurses are trained to hear what their patients are saying, whether it said in words, body language or facial expressions. As nurse, I needed to understand my patient, even when he or she could not speak. I have found that the skill of “listening” is equally important as an attorney and helps me continue to put my client first.
In past years, the career of nursing was considered a “vocation,” a calling, and it was commonly said: “once a nurse, always a nurse.” The practice of law is also considered a vocation so when one is called to both professions, the unique designation of “nurse-attorney” seems most appropriate.