Nurse attorney: an oxymoron?

Nurse attorney: an oxymoron?

Ruthe C. Ashley

One day in March of 1985, I turned on the television and caught an episode of the Cosby Show. Several of my girlfriends and I had taken the weekend off from children and husbands to have an emotional support session at the Los Angeles Hilton hotel. After checking in, I flipped on the television, and there they were: Cliff and Clair Huxtable and those irascible kids. At that time, I had been a nurse for 15 years and was at a crossroads in my career. I was toying with several choices: going back to school for a doctorate in nursing to allow me to become a full professor at the baccalaureate program where I had taught, getting my license in family therapy counseling, returning to the bedside, or going back to public health nursing. None of these options seemed attractive to me.

At the age of 37, I was in the midst of full-blown midlife crisis, trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. That’s the state of mind I was in when I saw the character of Clair Huxtable on television for the first time. My view of reality was tainted by a lack of direction for the future. Clair seemed to have a double PhD in child psychology, a degree in interior design, a side job as a model for Vogue magazine, and she never cooked. On top of all of that, she was a lawyer. One scene depicted Clair telling her husband, Cliff, about a case she was arguing in court. That scene changed my life. At the end of that half-hour episode, I announced to the sisterhood that I was going to be a lawyer.

Clearly, becoming a lawyer was not a well-planned decision; however, it was actually one of the best decisions I have ever made. When I began law school, I did not know who a plaintiff or defendant were, and I thought a tort was a pastry. I knew nothing about the legal process, a nurse’s legal duty, or the liability that was attached to a nurse’s professional practice.

Many people have asked me if being a nurse attorney is an oxymoron. In some ways, what makes a good nurse is in complete conflict with what makes a good lawyer. The toughest part of the transition from nurse to attorney was changing my way of thinking from a nursing approach to logical, analytical, and legal thinking. Instead of a nursing assessment, diagnosis, intervention, and evaluation, I now had to look at the facts and the law to determine what was the best argument on behalf of a client. Yet, the 2 professions do have many similarities. Nurses and lawyers are both service oriented, providing a service to patients and nurses, respectively. In addition, both career paths are extremely challenging and require many areas of expertise.

Nurse attorneys provide a unique perspective of the law. So much of healthcare is directly connected to legal concerns. Nurse attorneys are involved in many different areas related to the law, including, but not limited to, risk management, personal injury, healthcare law, professional liability defense (when healthcare professionals are sued), workers’ compensation, in-house counsel for healthcare entities, professors of law, and medicine, just to name a few.

Nurse attorneys are well equipped to understand how to represent healthcare professionals in legal matters and are able to effectively communicate to professional nurses the rule of law and how it fits into the facts of their case, because nurse attorneys speak the same language as their clients. Nurse attorneys understand the liabilities that nurses face 24 hours a day, beyond the “scope of employment,” and they can untangle the gray areas of “scope of practice” concerns.

Now that I have piqued your interest, perhaps you are wondering how you can become a nurse attorney. Law school programs can be completed in 3 years by full-time students or in 4 years by part-time students. The minimum requirements are an undergraduate degree (bachelor degree in nursing) and passing the Law School Admission Test (commonly known as the LSAT). After meeting these 2 requirements, you will need to send an application that includes transcripts, letters of reference, and a personal statement to the Law School Admission Council who, in turn, will send an application packet on your behalf to the law school of your choice.

The number of nurses in law schools is increasing. In fact, The American Association of Nurse Attorneys (TAANA), based in Baltimore, Md, is a professional association of nurse attorneys, nurses in law school, and attorneys in nursing school.

As a nurse attorney, you will have many career options, and this powerful combination of degrees can lead you to a great second, third, or fourth career path.

Ruthe C. Ashley, RN, MSN, JD

Ruthe C. Ashley was a nurse for 15 years before becoming a lawyer. Her legal experience includes trial work in both large and small firms, in which she represents healthcare professionals in medical malpractice, employment, and licensing actions. She presents malpractice seminars to thousands of nurses every year across the nation.

COPYRIGHT 2004 American Association of Critical-Care Nurses

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