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Dual degrees spur venture

Dr. Thomas Leitner stands in the Madison office of Leitner Law Office Feb 22. Leitner is a doctor of medicine as well as a practicing lawyer, and recently opened a medical malpractice consulting firm. (WLJ Photo by Kevin Harnack)

Dr. Thomas Leitner stands in the Madison office of Leitner Law Office Feb 22. Leitner is a doctor of medicine as well as a practicing lawyer, and recently opened a medical malpractice consulting firm. (WLJ Photo by Kevin Harnack)

Earning a doctorate of medicine wasn’t enough for Thomas Leitner, so he decided to attend law school as well.

Now he’s putting both degrees to work with the upcoming launch of his business MDJD, a medical malpractice consulting firm based in Madison that will include his existing estate planning practice. Leitner, 46, seeks to be a comprehensive resource for plaintiff’s attorneys considering medical malpractice litigation, as well as for defense attorneys representing doctors and other health care providers.

“Physicians are paid to give medical opinions, not to understand the law,” he said, “and unless attorneys know the right questions to ask, their case is dead from the beginning.”

Leitner graduated from medical school at the University of Chicago in 1994 and went on to complete his residency at the University of Michigan, where he practiced internal medicine. Leitner also served as an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Nevada from 2004-07.

After tiring of his work in medicine, Leitner went on to earn his legal degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 2010. He plans to launch MDJD in the next month, he said.

Though legal consulting isn’t a novel trade, Leitner said, his dual perspective will separate him from others. Leitner declined to disclose what specific costs he will charge clients, but said his business model centers on charging a modest case evaluation fee at the outset to assess the merits. Then, depending on the result, a consulting rate would be charged for the duration of his service on a case.

“You don’t make a lot friends charging a lot of money for evaluations and then saying, ‘Hey, there’s no case here,’” Leitner said. “In that sense, it’s a bit of a shared risk.”

Despite his well-educated background, some questioned the value of Leitner’s business proposal, particularly for the defense.

Hinshaw & Culbertson attorney Michael P. Malone said representing health care providers offer free advice from physicians or other industry professionals to help guide a case.

“It’s hard to conceive of a situation where defense lawyers would need such a consultant,” he said.

Malone suggested, if affordable, Leitner’s consulting service could be more attractive for plaintiffs’ lawyers who may not have the same resources available in terms of medical expertise.

Plaintiff’s attorney Thomas R. Jacobson said he has on several occasions employed consultants with both medical and legal backgrounds. In his experience, Jacobson said, there is a benefit to paying for expertise from someone who is skilled in both fields.

“You want to be sure you are representing someone who has a case that should be pursued,” Jacobson said. “Often, that requires expert evaluation and you have to pay for that.”

Standard of care and causation issues are complex determinations in a case that often exceed an attorney’s scope of knowledge, he said.

Jacobson’s firm, Lommen, Abdo, Cole, King & Stageberg, (www.lommen.com) employs a paralegal who is a registered nurse and a lawyer who previously worked as a nurse.

“I do discuss cases with them,” Jacobson said.

For those attorneys without internal staff to bounce cases off, some prefer to rely on consultants that have a proven track record.

Milwaukee plaintiff’s attorney Merrick R. Domnitz of Domnitz & Skemp (www.domnitzlaw.com) relies on his own stable of as-needed qualified consultants and experts in medical malpractice cases, rather than those who advertise.

Someone advertising their services as both a legal and medical expert, Domnitz said, could prompt credibility challenges in cross examination, which is a hassle most would prefer to avoid, given the heavy burden of proof already on plaintiffs in medical malpractice cases.

“It seems to me cross examination of a person with medical and law degrees is pretty wide ranging,” he said. “I can imagine the difficulties that might present and I don’t want to be saddled with any additional fodder for cross examination.”

Leitner said he has no intention of consulting on cases outside his realm of medical or legal expertise, and his estate planning practice will remain separate from his new business.

Initially he will work as MDJD’s sole consultant, Leitner said, though he plans to do some expert witness work and could expand his staff in the future to include more medical professionals.

“One of the things I’ve seen in medical malpractice cases is they get bogged down because there is a lot of technical language,” he said. “Sometimes attorneys just don’t know where to take the case or its merits, so I hope to be a resource to guide them back to the meat of a case.”

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at jack.zemlicka@wislawjournal.com.

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