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Why can’t a doctor also be a lawyer?

Decades ago, as a young medical student, I used to hear anecdotal stories about a senior professor of internal medicine viz Dr K B Kunwar, who had decided to train as a lawyer still functioning as a medical professor and managed to procure the foremost honours in the second vocation with the Lucknow University. He never actually got around to enrolling himself as an attorney, which I suspect was because of the very stringent Bar Council regulation that still persists; one cannot be enrolled as an advocate if he/she is actively involved in another profession.

Dr Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
Dr Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

When I relocated abroad, I came across a remarkable colleague at the Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, London where I was working as a lecturer. Dame Rosalind Hurley was one of the foremost microbiologists in the United Kingdom. I was flabbergasted to learn that she had been called to the Bar at the Middle Temple and was in a habit of arguing her own legal cases whenever possible.

England, however, already had a tradition of individuals trained both in medicine and law who aspired to become coroners. Ros Hurley clearly did not fit the bill and her foray into the legal profession was primarily to gain insight and erudition into another professional field. I also discovered that the then General Secretary of the British Medical Association at the time, Dr John Havard was also a qualified barrister.

Delving into history, I discovered another of my favourites, viz Louis Blanqui, a French gentleman who enunciated the principles of socialism considerably before Karl Marx (and in my view in a much clearer manner) was also dually qualified as a physician and a lawyer.

My family’s association with the legal profession goes back to the 18th century on my father’s side and 19th century on my mother’s side. And it had remained uninterrupted — my late father himself was a judge — until I decided to opt for the medical profession. Perhaps it was to ensure this continuity that I decided to train as a barrister on a part time basis at the Lincoln’s Inn and later on worked to obtain a Masters in Mental Health Legislation from the Harvard Law School.

I can confidently say that having this additional qualification has always been a help as it serves to provide me with a new perspective. It enabled me to assist in the development of the Mental Health Act in Seychelles. It has also helped me in my human rights campaigns for the mentally ill.

I note that one of the most popular fellow columnists on this portal viz Dr M C Gupta is also dually qualified. I always follow his columns with interest. As he is an Advocate on Record with the Supreme Court, I think he may have given up his medical practice.

Admirers of Erich Segal’s unputdownable books would recall that one of the prime characters in his well-researched bestsellers ‘Doctors’ is Bennett Landsman, an Afro-American surgeon who has to give up the surgical profession because of a hand injury and becomes a very capable attorney after additional training as a lawyer.

Fiction apart, there is an instance which, I believe, has no parallels. Josiah Bartlett was a physician in New Hampshire who became the Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court (in 1788) and some of his landmark judgements are still cited not just in the United States but all over the world. I would stand corrected but to the best of my knowledge this is the only instance of a physician heading a Supreme Court in a democratic country.

Holding a dual qualification in medicine and law is always profitable not just for those aspiring careers as coroners or forensic pathologists or members of the medical indemnity organizations but even for run of the mill medical practitioners. At least three medical schools in the United States have already commenced a joint MD/JD programme where students after successful completion emerge both as physicians and attorneys.

I should be most interested whether replicating that in India would be meaningful. At least we should have a serious debate on the matter.

by Dr Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

5 Comments

  1. Neetu Neetu Friday, May 11, 2018

    If politicians can practice as advocate why not doctors allowed after doing llb

  2. Hari Ram Hari Ram Saturday, September 9, 2017

    I retired as Ayurvedic Medical Officer on 31/10/2016.I passed L.L.B.PROFESSIONAL Three year degree course from Punjabi university Regional Centre Bathinda in 1998 with permission my compenent Authority. I want as enrolment of Advocate in bar Council of Punjab and haryana. But bar Council put condition on me for cancel registration certificate as Ayurvedic Medical practitioner first.If I want as enrolment of Advocate

  3. Pradeep arora Pradeep arora Friday, July 21, 2017

    These day a practicing doctor is saddled with so many regulations and onerous laws that there is no choice but to to familiarize with elementary knowledge of law in order to practice without fear. Some medical practitioners find it conducive to make switch over to law as it becomes easier to find fault with the medical service. Such switch over however should be complete and irreversible. The switch over always takes direction from medicine to law and never in reverse. These days even in one profession you are a dabbler if you do not chose to specialize in a niche area. So one can not imagine it is possible to do justice professionally with both law and medicine simultaneously. An average person while attempting it , may end up as a quack in both professions. So there is lot of sense in forsaking practice of medicine if you have chosen to switch over to law.

  4. R N Sen R N Sen Saturday, July 15, 2017

    It is disheartening to note that, after such a beautiful article of 24/6/17, no one from medical fraternity has commented in this public domain on this burning issue. I think, apart from jurisprudence, there should a short course included in the final year of graduation, which, make students aware of legal aspects, and thereby may reduce complaints of medical negligence.

    Congrats Dr. Prasad for such beautiful, timely article.!!!!!!

  5. Dr.Ashok Jahnavi Prasad Dr.Ashok Jahnavi Prasad Friday, July 7, 2017

    I have received four emails vis a vis this column about omission of a name that some felt should have been there. Orison Swett Marden was the original self-improvement guru and ace motivator. I myself had read several of his books and was greatly influenced by them. In his days he enjoyed a following much greater than Dale Carnegie and Deepak Chopra did in their later eras. I knew that he was dually qualified in law as well as medicine but the omission was conscious. I was aware that the younger lot today would not have heard of him. But that probably applies to Josiah Bartlett as well. Hence I have to admit it was a lapse on my part! My apologies!

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