Nurses with an appetite for both emergency-room trauma and courtroom drama may have a future in legal nurse consulting.
Legal nurse consultants work at the intersection of medicine and law, consulting with attorneys and others in the legal arena on medical malpractice, personal injury, workers' compensation and other healthcare-related cases. Thousands of nurses have already carved out a professional niche in legal nurse consulting, and their ranks are growing.
"Our main role is educating attorneys, and we can be a huge aid to them," says Martha Holley-Jones, BSN, RN, one of three legal nurse consultants at MLCC Medical-Legal Nurse Consultant Company in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania. "We're like their ace in the pocket."
Making the Case
About half of all legal nurse consultants work on staff at law firms, insurance companies and other institutions, where their salaries are approximately the same as those of hospital nursing administrators, who earn about $80,000, according to a 2004 Nursing Management salary survey. The other half of legal nurse consultants work independently, earning $100 to $150 an hour or more.
Legal nurse consulting allows nurses to branch out of the clinical setting while still making use of their experience and knowledge, says Sherri Reed, BSN, RN, past president of the American Association of Legal Nurse Consultants (AALNC). Reed works as an in-house legal nurse consultant for an Indianapolis plaintiffs' law firm specializing in personal injury, medical malpractice, product liability and aviation. She interviews clients, reviews medical records, researches and summarizes medical literature, helps evaluate liabilities and damages, assists with depositions, prepares exhibits, and identifies and retains expert witnesses.
Independent legal nurse consultants perform many of the same tasks as their in-house counterparts. In addition, they sometimes serve as expert witnesses at depositions or trials, where they are called upon to testify about whether nursing care deviated from established standards of care. Many independent legal nurse consultants, including Holley-Jones, still work full- or part-time in the hospital. The demand is higher for independent legal nurse consultants who are currently working in the field and can offer the most informed opinions on nursing issues. "Things change so rapidly in healthcare that if you're out of it for awhile, you get behind," Holley-Jones says.
Growth in the Field
The field of legal nurse consulting has grown tremendously since Reed entered it more than 15 years ago, she says. "I honestly had no idea there was an area like this when I started," Reed says. "It took me two years to realize there were other nurses doing similar work in Indianapolis." In comparison, there are now thousands of legal nurse consultants in practice across the nation, and the AALNC currently has more than 3,400 members.
The number one prerequisite to becoming a legal nurse consultant is clinical experience, says Reed. Specifically, many legal nurse consultants have backgrounds in critical care, intensive care and the emergency department.
While formal training in legal nurse consulting is not required to practice, training and educational programs are available at universities, community colleges, nonprofits and for-profit organizations, such as the Houston-based Medical-Legal Consulting Institute.
You can learn more about careers in legal nurse consulting by contacting your local AALNC chapter. The AALNC also offers books, tapes and a certification program for legal nurse consultants.Articles in This Feature: