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January 6, 2021

Court room not board room

Joseph Zajchowski, M.D., JD, medical director, Southwest Memorial Hospital Emergency Dept.
Joseph Zajchowski, M.D., JD, medical director, Southwest Memorial Hospital Emergency Dept.

Joseph Zajchowski, M.D., JD, says he felt a little like a sheep in wolf’s clothing when he entered law school in 2007. He had been practicing emergency medicine for nine years and was employed with Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix at the time he enrolled at Arizona State University to pursue a law degree. "I’d been taught to try to dodge lawyers," says Zajchowski. Soon, however, he became comfortable in this unfamiliar educational venue and grew to enjoy the three years he spent attending school full time while also working full time. "My degree incorporated a certificate in health care law, which is unique to ASU and a few other programs around the country," says Zajchowski. "Most of my classes, besides the core work that every lawyer has to have, were focused on health care law."

Doctors getting law degrees

"Law school is an amazing experience for anyone, and especially for someone a little older," he says. "For so much of what they teach, I wouldn’t have had a point of reference when I was 20." Having been in practice, Zajchowski was able to contribute real-world anecdotes during class, which he says both professors and fellow students seemed to appreciate. "There were things I was familiar with like making sure there was no malpractice or negligence and adhering to EMTALA laws," says Zajchowski.

Managing a full load of classes while also practicing was relatively easy for Zajchowski, in large part because of the flexibility inherent in his specialty. If he had classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, he’d schedule hospital shifts on the alternate days. That’s not to suggest it wasn’t a balancing act, especially given the fact that Zajchowski and his wife had no children when he entered law school and four by the time he finished three years later - one baby followed by a set of triplets. "I had to split my time but devoted enough to both. It was our intent to have a family, and we’re all doing well," says Zajchowski. The children are now 3 and 2 years old, and Zajchowski’s wife, Kathryn, a naturopath, plans to resume her career once the little ones are in school.

How to use a law degree in medicine

Zajchowski is making good use of his law degree. He’s medical director of the emergency department at Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez, Colo., where his knowledge of the law is useful when it comes to risk management and quality assurance issues. He also recently started a medical-legal consulting business, QuantaMed, P.C. ( "I do medical-legal consultations, determine the merits of potential malpractice cases, and provide expert witness services," says Zajchowski.

For physicians interested in expanding their horizons beyond providing direct patient care, Zajchowski says options are plentiful. "More universities are tailoring degrees now. Focus on your passion," he says, "whether that’s a law degree, an MBA, an MPH, or some other post-graduate program." Physicians considering an additional advanced degree should realize, however, that doors don’t automatically open upon graduation. "It’s just like medical school," says Zajchowski. "You have to make an effort to apply it once you’re done."

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