Mary D. Mulkeen, RN, was a driving force in her husband’s life and work during their 37 years of marriage and her 35 years as a nurse at Overlook Hospital in Summit, N.J. Today, she continues to inspire his work, even after her death from cancer two years ago. William J. Mulkeen, an attorney, credits his wife for his passionate interest in nursing and the law.William J. Mulkeen
Early in his career, Mulkeen’s cases often involved injuries or standards of health care practice. He would ask Mary to read legal briefs, knowing she had the training and experience to interpret and analyze medical issues. Later, Mulkeen began designing educational programs that combined nursing with the law.
His most recent project is the Online Professional Certification in Nurse Paralegal Studies program, which will be offered beginning in April through Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J., where Mulkeen is the paralegal program director.
A nurse who graduates from the 45-week program will receive a certificate and have sufficient legal training to work as a nurse paralegal or legal nurse consultant (LNC). Mulkeen believes the beauty of the program is that it is taught online, allowing busy nurses to complete the work according to their erratic schedules.
“Nurses drained by long hours often can’t sit in a classroom,” Mulkeen says. “Having a viable online program allows them to further their education.”
The course costs $3,920, not including textbooks, and new sessions will begin three times each year in the winter, spring, and fall. Students entering the program must have an associate’s degree or higher, a current RN license, and at least 2,000 hours of nursing experience. Diploma school RNs without college coursework and LPNs may apply for individual consideration.
Nurse paralegals vs. LNCs
Though some roles of the nurse paralegal and LNC overlap, there are substantial differences. The paralegal requires more legal training than the consultant. The nurse paralegal is usually a full-time employee working for a law firm, corporation, or other entity and is trained to handle legal cases from the initial client interview all the way through discovery (investigation of the case), trial, and even appeal.
The consultant is usually an independent contractor who is hired by a lawyer or other entity to provide legal/medical services to fulfill a specific task. A law firm might hire an LNC for a limited period of time to review medical and legal records and write a report analyzing whether standards of practice were followed. While a nurse paralegal can serve as an LNC, an LNC does not have sufficient training to serve as a paralegal.
Still, the two have a major commonality, says Mulkeen. Both professions depend upon the foundation of solid medical knowledge and experience the individual nurse brings with her.
Deborah Sue Dolan, RN, MSJ, LNCC, a member of the program advisory board for the online nurse paralegal course and the director of risk management at Trinitas Hospital in Elizabeth, N.J., agrees. As an independent LNC since 2000, she has been able to bring her clinical practice expertise into the courtroom as an expert witness in medical malpractice trials. She also has been hired as a consultant to review medical and legal records and prepare nurses who are named as defendants in liability cases.
Nursing and law intertwined
Dolan and Mulkeen cite the continuous interaction between nursing and law as a reason for all nurses to learn more about legal issues. There are legal issues involved in the dispensing of medications, signing of consent forms, and requesting the release of patient information via telephone calls, Mulkeen says.
“The environment has become more legal and highly regulated,” says Dolan. She believes it is helpful for nurses to understand risk management and legal issues. “Today,” she says, “nursing practice is incredibly technical.”
The online nurse paralegal program takes that into account. The comprehensive curriculum consists of six courses structured in five-and 10-week formats. Nancy Wilson Soga, RN, who has maintained an independent LNC practice in Morristown, N.J., since 1990 and is the editor of Legal Nurse Consulting, Principles and Practice, Second Edition, teaches the first 10-week course, Introduction to Nurse Paralegalism. Other courses include Torts, Legal Research and Writing, Litigation, Administrative Law, and Introduction to Technology in the Law. The program is approved by the American Association for Paralegal Education.