What Is a Medical Malpractice Lawyer?

Definition & Examples of a Medical Malpractice Lawyer

Female medical malpractice lawyer meeting with clients.
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Medical malpractice lawyers represent clients who are suing medical practitioners for professional misconduct.

Learn more about medical malpractice attorneys and what they do.

What Is a Medical Malpractice Lawyer?

Medical malpractice attorneys litigate lawsuits on behalf of their clients, who may be patients or surviving family members of patients. These clients are suing medical practitioners for malpractice.

Malpractice is a term that refers to professional misconduct on the part of a medical professional or lawyer. In the medical field, malpractice involves the negligent conduct of doctors, nurses, dentists, therapists, technicians, and other medical professionals and healthcare providers.

Medical malpractice cases can arise from surgical errors, birth traumas, medical misdiagnoses, anesthesia errors, unreasonable delays in treating a diagnosed condition, failure to obtain informed consent from a patient before treatment, and more.

How Medical Malpractice Lawyers Work

Medical malpractice lawyers perform many of the day-to-day tasks of a typical civil litigator. Civil litigators work on cases where there's a legal disagreement but no criminal charges are involved. Civil litigators spend time interviewing clients, conducting investigations, drafting motions, developing trial strategies, and litigating cases.

Medical malpractice lawyers also perform additional tasks such as:

  • Working with medical experts to develop case theories, expert reports, and testimony to support the plaintiff's case
  • Taking depositions of medical experts, medical personnel, and other third parties
  • Gathering and analyzing medical records
  • Setting up independent medical examinations (IMEs) to obtain an objective evaluation of the injured plaintiff's condition
  • Performing medical research relating to the plaintiff's condition
  • Working with legal nurse consultants to analyze case merits, review medical records, and decipher doctor's notes

A medical malpractice attorney often specializes in specific types of medical malpractice cases such as birth injuries, surgery mistakes, nursing home abuse, or dental malpractice.

Salary Expectations

As of 2019, the median salary of an attorney was $122,960 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The exact salary a medical malpractice attorney can earn varies depending on the area of specialization and the number of cases the attorney takes.

Like most personal injury lawyers, most medical malpractice attorneys charge on a contingency fee basis which makes the services of an attorney affordable to those who can't afford upfront payments. Under a contingent fee arrangement, the lawyer takes a percentage of the plaintiff's net recovery. While this might sound lucrative, keep in mind that 30 states have a cap on the damages that can be awarded in a medical malpractice suit. This limits the amount you potentially could be paid.

Another factor that impacts compensation is that more than two-thirds of medical malpractice cases from 2006–2015 cases were dropped, dismissed, or withdrawn, according to a study by the American Medical Association. Another 23% of cases were settled and just 7% were decided by a trial. Out of the 7% of cases that went to trial, 87.5% were won by the defendant (the medical practice or professional) and not the plaintiff.

Six states have caps on the total damages that can be awarded. Twenty-four states have a cap on non-economic damages, which are losses other than lost earnings and medical expenses, but no cap on economic damages.

Requirements for a Medical Malpractice Lawyer

A medical malpractice lawyer must complete the same educational requirements as any lawyer: seven years of post-high school education. It starts with a bachelor's degree, which can be in any subject.

Law school is the next step, which typically takes three years. In most cases, law school applicants need to take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) to be considered. In law school, students can choose a specialization. For medical malpractice, students should have a solid understanding of civil litigation including trial alternatives, as many cases never go to trial.

Law students may also want to pursue internships with respected medical malpractice attorneys. Once law school is completed, prospective lawyers need to take the bar exam in any state where they want to practice.

To stand out, a medical malpractice attorney can obtain board certification from a certifying organization such as the American Board of Professional Liability Attorneys (ABPLA). To obtain board certification, an attorney must exceed rigorous requirements in areas such as experience, ethics, education, and excellence in professional liability law.

According to the ABPLA, candidates must pass a written examination in either legal or medical professional liability. They must also have completed at least 36 hours of continuing legal education (CLE) in legal or medical professional liability and submit a list of references that include judges and attorneys who practice in legal or medical professional liability.

Key Takeaways

  • Medical malpractice lawyers represent clients suing medical practitioners for professional misconduct (malpractice). 
  • Medical malpractice attorneys perform general civil litigation tasks and work with medical experts, analyze medical records, and conduct medical research. 
  • Medical malpractice lawyers must go to law school and pass the bar in any state where they want to practice. They can also pursue board certification from organizations like the American Board of Professional Liability Attorneys.