Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

W&L Law Professors Help Prepare New Doctors for the Witness Stand

The inaugural graduating class from the Virginia Tech Carilion Medical School received some special training recently from Washington and Lee law professors, namely, how to be an effective witness.

The presentation, led by Black Lung Clinic director Tim MacDonnell, was titled Law and Medicine: Physicians and the Courtroom and focused on the events most likely to bring a doctor into a courtroom. One of these is a malpractice suit, which most doctors are likely to face at some point in their career. But MacDonnell also addressed the role of doctors as expert witnesses in a variety of scenarios.

MacDonnell began his talk by recounting for the new physicians the important role doctors have played in his experiences as both a prosecutor before joining W&L and in his work representing coal miners and their surviving spouses as they seek to get black lung benefits.

“I have been running the clinic for more than 5 years and each case can be fairly described as a battle between doctors,” said MacDonnell. “Both as a prosecutor and a plaintiff’s attorney I have seen how important doctors are in litigation and that sometimes it does not matter who is the better doctor or which doctor knows more. A big part of a doctor’s effectiveness will turn on how well they perform as a witness.”

MacDonnell had two goals with his presentation. The first was to provide the medical students with an overview of what to expect during the trial process. The second was to instruct them on how to be an effective witness when providing testimony in a case.

For example, MacDonnell reviewed effective oral communication techniques involving eye contact, facial expressions, and gestures. He also cautioned the medical students to avoid the use of medical terminology as this often indicates that the doctor is uncomfortable. The expert witness’s primary role, MacDonnell told them, is to be a teacher.

The class was then broken up into four groups, and MacDonnell, along with W&L law professors Mary Natkin, Jon Shapiro and Dan Evans, ran them through direct and cross examination exercises based on a fact pattern that the medical students had received earlier. The scenario gave students the opportunity to practice the skills necessary to being an effective witness and then to receive feedback on how they could improve.

Natkin said that the medical students were quick learners when thinking through the issues they will face in practice when asked to provide an opinion in a case.

“I think that doctors feel challenged when lawyers ask them questions about the foundations of their opinions when it is an essential part of the litigation process,” said Natkin. “This was a start to help them consider how to present themselves in a legal setting.”