As you move along your journey to become a medical professional, eventually you are going to come across issues that will require the services of a legal professional. Just as patients should not mistake a Google search for a physician’s degree, neither should you substitute what you read on the internet for legal advice. While there are internet resources that can assist you with learning about laws and procedures, when it comes to legal issues, these “guides” should never be substituted for legal advice directly from a practicing attorney. Below is a basic guide about how to get legal help for issues you encounter.
When should you consult an attorney?
When you practice medicine, it is best practice to consult with a specialist about an issue if you are not an expert. Attorneys are your legal specialists, and it is a good idea to have an attorney review a contract or other “deal” before you execute it. This is true for employment contracts, purchases and sales of real estate assets, or structuring a side business.
Examples of questions where you might seek legal advice include the following:
- What does this contract clause mean?
- How would a court interpret that contract clause?
- What do I need to do to mitigate risk in this situation?
- What are my responsibilities as a board member of this organization?
“I’m going to sue you!”
It is understandable that you are not always going to have the time to consult an attorney before an incident occurs that will give rise to litigation. So, what do you do if someone is threatening to sue you?
First let’s talk generally about the process of civil litigation. The process will start with an incident that is giving rise to the damages being sought against you. You will have had to have done something that harms the other person in a way that was unlawful. This can be in the form of a contractual breach (failing to follow through on a contractual term), a breach of trust or a tort. A tort is a wrongful act, not including a breach of contract or trust, that results in injury to another’s person, property, reputation, or the like, and for which the injured party is entitled to compensation.
In short, something happened, and because of that incident someone wants compensation from you. The person that is claiming harm will send you a demand letter. This demand letter is going to spell out what you did, the harm that occurred to the individual and what compensation that the individual wants to make them whole and release that claim against you. That demand letter should be taken to an attorney to help you understand what the other side is seeking, and what defenses that you have against their claim.
Generally these demand letters are going to say that if you do not pay the demanded sum within 30 days, that the individual is going to initiate a lawsuit against you. I do not recommend ignoring these demand letters and they should be forwarded immediately to your legal counsel.
I do not have legal counsel. What do I do?
You find an attorney to review the matter for you. How does one go about finding and getting help from an attorney?
University and health professional students should first start with their school campus. Does your campus have a student legal affairs office? Often, large universities have taken a portion of your student activity fees for “prepaid” legal help. You should take advantage that resource any time that you have a legal issue. This can include issues with your landlord up to minor criminal infractions such as a public intoxication.
If your university does not have a student legal affairs office, or for whatever reason the office is unable to represent you, how do you find an attorney? If your university student legal affairs office is unable to help you, ask if they can refer you to an attorney that handles the type of matter that you are facing. If you know an attorney in the area, ask for a recommendation based on your issue. You will find most attorneys will have a list of people that they are willing to refer out to.
If you do not know anyone to give you a recommendation, you have a few options. The first is going to be contacting either the local county bar association or the state bar association. These resources will often work to get you to an attorney that can assist you.
There are also advertising companies such as Avvo.com and Nolo.com where you can find attorneys that advertise on the websites and answer general legal questions. Sometimes, these sites have some form of intake that then is sent to several law firms who will contact you with your permission. Again, understand that when it comes to websites such as Avvo or Nolo that it is very likely that the attorney has paid some form of monthly advertising or a per referral fee. As with all things internet, be wary of online reviews. You often do not know the facts and circumstances of either a good review or a negative review when it comes to attorneys.
Some of these websites have the ability to ask general legal questions of attorneys that practice in the area. You should not expect a specific answer to your problem, but they will likely be able to inform you of legal generalities about your matter. You can quickly detect if you need to hire a lawyer by their responses.
How do I work with a lawyer?
Now that you have found a lawyer to speak with, what do you need to take with you? First, if someone is threatening to sue you via a demand letter, take the demand letter along with any and all documentation that you have relating to the incident or contract. Some lawyers may charge you a consultation fee, others will not; this is going to be entirely up to the law firm or lawyer that you speak with and the circumstances surrounding your matter.
If the lawyer agrees to take you on as a client, they will provide you a fee agreement that should clearly state the fees that you are going to be charged. You will need to agree to this fee agreement before the lawyer will represent you. Please note, that like medicine, it is not rude to get a second opinion from a competing law firm or attorney. However, you get what you pay for. Do you want the large firm with a large office and thousands of clients? Or do you want the boutique law firm that only has a few clients? Remember that the lawyer is not going to represent you until that fee agreement is in place. There are a variety of fee structures available:
- “Pro Bono” – because lawyers are physically incapable of saying “Free”
- Contingency – you don’t pay unless you win the case and the firm will take a percentage of the recovered amount
- Flat Rate – it will cost you a set amount to handle this matter
Please note, that in criminal matters, ethics rules will dictate that the lawyer will only be able to charge you either Hourly or Pro Bono.
Managing Your Legal Issue
Once you have retained an attorney, you should defer to their counsel on how to handle your legal matter. That’s why you’ve paid for a specialist. While it can be anxiety provoking to deal with a demand letter or other legal issue, a good attorney will help guide you through the process.