Frenemies—The Doctor Lawyer Dynamic
March 17th, 2017
Lawyer Jokes—I’ve heard them all. It’s not the most beloved profession. The predominant reason for that is because in any lawsuit—best case scenario—a person will only like 50% of the attorneys involved. Makes sense, the other lawyer is trying hard for a result that in many cases is counter to your best interests. In custody cases, where another lawyer is appointed as a Guardian Ad Litem or Child Advocate, that percentage can drop to 33%. An unsympathetic Judge? 25%. You get the picture.
And this is generally speaking. In Divorces involving Doctors, I feel the Lawyers need to be even more proactive in establishing a strong attorney—client bond. I have found Doctors to be invariably predisposed to distrust (a euphemism) lawyers and the legal profession. Add to that the raw emotion of a marriage ending, and things can spiral downward quickly.
The Malpractice Problem
Doctors routinely deal with the most asset anyone can imagine--our life, or the life and health of the people we love. And when dealing with something so fragile and complex, it is understandable that things will go wrong, despite the best efforts of the physicians involved. Grieving people then lash out in the only way they can—they file lawsuits. Doctors (especially surgeons) find themselves unfairly embroiled in the legal systems at a significantly higher rate than the rest of the public. It is said that there are only two types of Physicians: those that have been sued, and those that will be sued.
For these reasons, Doctors have to carry malpractice insurance. The financial burden this imposes is not something the rest of us genuinely appreciate. Most people don’t need that kind of insurance/protection in their profession. Lawyers do carry malpractice insurance, but it is no where near as costly as it is in the medical profession.
So, you have a surgeon, pediatrician, obstetrician, ER doctor, Infectious Disease Specialist, etc. trying hard to serve the public. All the while in fear of potential retaliation from the very same patients they are trying to help. Obviously, this can lead to resentment. Attorneys and Judges become the personification of this fear and resentment—sometimes fairly and sometimes not.
Will they shake my hand?
I see it often. My Wife, and several of my family members are physicians. When I introduce myself to other Doctors, and I mention my vocation, I jokingly say “I’m not the kind of lawyer who sues doctors.” It’s a joke and icebreaker, but I do it to address the 800-pound gorilla in the room as well. The tension dynamic is legitimate, and I can empathize.
Divorce proceedings exacerbate the tension tenfold, especially if my client isn’t the one who initiated the separation, or filed the Petition for Dissolution. The Doctor—my client—finds himself or herself sitting across from another “evil lawyer.” Even worse, this lawyer is sitting next to his or her spouse, trying to take money out of his or her pocket.
A difficult reality for some Doctors going through a divorce to stomach, is the very real probability that he or she will have to pay a significant portion of their spouse’s legal fees. In marriages where the Doctor is the main bread winner, the Courts will frequently order the Physician to pay the legal fees of the lesser employed spouse. The amount is usually close to what the Doctor’s Attorney was paid—this is commonly referred to as “leveling the playing field.” The logic is sound when you consider it dispassionately. The fees are theoretically communing from marital property (property belonging equally to each spouse). More importantly, the Court doesn’t want the party with the money to bury the other party in litigation and legal bills that he or she can’t afford. Or outspend the other spouse until they can’t afford proper representation.
Nothing is more displeasing than writing a check to someone for the work they did against you. That is why you and your lawyer need to be aware and prepared for this move by opposing counsel. It will usually come in the form of a Petition for Interim Attorney’s Fees. And It should never be considered a foregone conclusion that the Physician is going to pay all or some of opposing counsel’s bill. These issues can, and should be litigated in many instances. It is a matter of gathering the appropriate and persuasive financial evidence. The other side will usually present raw gross income numbers. Carefully presented accounting of income, expenses, and collections can clarify the issue for the Judge. Many physicians only collect a percentage of what they bill, and overhead and insurance are huge in the medical field. This data needs to be collected and presented by the Attorney.
Anyone going through a divorce, especially a complex one, should make sure they have a good and open relationship with their lawyer. A divorce is the most personal form of litigation. It exposes the personal lives of the parties involved. It often deals with custody issues. If you can’t open up to your advocate without feeling self conscious, you are at a disadvantage. I truly believe that my client is my most effective tool in my representation of him or her. The last thing I want is for the client to feel judged by me. I want them to be open and comfortable in sharing what they hope to accomplish through the proceedings.
The Complications of a Medical Divorce
The reality is that divorces involving Doctors are unique unto themselves. They present many issues that aren’t present in marriages involving other professions. The lawyer must be ready to address issues like massive student loans; valuation of the medical practice; when the other spouse is also a physician; visiting/parenting time that fits around a Doctors call schedule or crazy hours, spousal maintenance that exceeds the guidelines, as well as child support issues unique to physicians. We address these more specifically in my blog 10 Special Considerations When Doctors Divorce.
f you find yourself in need of counsel, or would just like to discuss your options, please feel free to call, and schedule a free consultation with one of our attorneys. We are more than happy to sit down and answer questions without any cost to you. It is best for everyone that you decide what is best for you before you commit yourself financially to a dissolution of marriage.