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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


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