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A Day In The Life Of An Expert Witness By Louise Martinez

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1. How did you get into this field of work?

Having worked in the NHS in various settings, for over ten years, I was finding myself more and more involved in investigating complaints as part of my role. Whilst this was not what I trained for, I found I was good at objectively reviewing and analysing the evidence and had the communication skills required. I had an increasing sense that my clinical skills were not being ‘stretched’, and that my role, although rewarding, did not offer enough opportunities to be challenged in the ‘right’ direction. In addition, I also loved report writing, and remembered from my university days thinking my perfect job would be being remunerated for writing essays, which certainly helps! Wanting more from my role and being able to commit to more time when my youngest child was more independent, eventually led to some online investigation. I soon came across expert witness work, and when I attended a talk given by an expert witness during a conference I was able to ask questions and saw that my skill set was a good fit for the role.

Expert witness work has most certainly provided me with all the opportunities and challenges I was missing within the NHS and I have never looked back!

2. Is there a typical working day?

A typical working day for me, would be an early start to miss the traffic to drive to an assessment. I try and book most of my assessments in the morning, so that in the afternoon I have some time to gather my thoughts and jot down any key issues or detailed observations whilst they are still fresh in my head. This helps when preparing the report. I also find that reading witness statements and some of the key medical evidence useful to prepare in advance for the assessment, as it saves time during the assessment, allowing you to focus on the most important issues. I enjoy driving and the journeys to and from my assessments can frequently take me through interesting places and beautiful countryside.

I am usually around to make the kids their tea, sit with them whilst they do their homework and spend some quality time together, before bed. Sometimes I will do some report writing in the evenings, depending on deadlines and workload. I enjoy the flexibility of being able to fit commitments around my family, although I recognise that I am extremely lucky, as I have a very supportive partner! On days that I am working at home I am strict about my hours, making sure that I am at my desk no later than 9am, finishing at around 6pm. I love arriving at my desk with a cup of coffee, watching the rush hour traffic go past…..and being so grateful that I do not have to commute to the same place of work every day, which somehow feels like a very ineffective way of working. I am all about working smarter, not harder!

3. What are the highs and lows? 

In the beginning, expert witness work takes a huge amount of your time, dedication and commitment. Long hours of report writing, reading reams of medical evidence and the occasional last minute request for a quick turnaround on your report are expected. It is tough, at times, and the learning curve is very steep. You just need to remember that it is most definitely all worth it in the end. It is important to always keep in the back of your mind that your report and recommendations are based on your opinion, and this is your field of expertise.

When working to a deadline, my family have learned that if the office door is closed, I do not want to be disturbed (although this isn’t always a successful strategy, when one of my children has already been given a ‘no’ to something they want, but decide it is essential that they come to me for a second opinion!).

The highs are well worth all the effort. I really enjoy the forensic nature of the work and I enjoy the attention to detail and consideration required. For example, teasing out how much of the Claimant’s current function is due to the alleged negligence, and how much is due to any pre-existing medical conditions.

I find that being challenged on your clinical reasoning (or the thought that you most likely will be at some point during the lifespan of a case), keeps you on your best game. The recommendations you make need to be well argued, robust, and link clearly back to your assessment and the medical evidence made available to you at the time you prepare your report.

Other huge positives are working within a professional, supportive team, both at Somek and within the instructing legal team. At Somek, I love being part of a wider team who constantly strive for the best in what they do.

Expert witness work enables me to put to good use all of my core skills, along with learning many new ones. Regularly utilising activity analysis to examine the impact of a Claimant’s disability upon task components in all areas of their life, including personal care, gardening, DIY, through to leisure is hugely satisfying. The overriding focus within NHS occupational therapy provision can frequently be ensuring patients are ‘safe’ in basic activities of daily living. Whilst obviously an essential element of discharge planning, it is equally important that activities are meaningful, and afford choice and quality of life, the latter of which are carefully reflected within expert witness work.

4. What advice would you give to aspiring Physio's/Nurses/OT's/SLTs/Midwives looking to enter the medico-legal profession?

My advice would be, find out as much as you can before you start. Talk to a few different companies if you need to, to find the best match, bearing in mind that not all expert witness companies will have a strong leadership in your particular profession. As an occupational therapist, I definitely notice the benefits of working with a company with very strong therapy leadership. Ensure that you sign up with a company who offer robust and thorough training. An essential part of the role is ensuring you understand your full duty to the Court, bound by Civil Procedure Rules, Part 35. Somek offer in-house training on all aspects of medico-legal work to Associates, new and experienced, with opportunities to contribute to training provision as you progress.

Finally, try and talk to someone working as an expert witness, to gain a real impression of the challenges and pitfalls. If you want to work in a field where high standards, professionalism and objectivity are essential, then definitely take that first step, you won’t regret it!

To read more about Louise Martinez, please click here.