Julie Armstrong (MN '90) has not always taken the path well-traveled in her professional career. She began her career as a new diploma nurse working at NPI (now the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Institute).
Quickly realizing that she needed more education to grow her career, she first obtained a BSN from Cal State Dominguez Hills and then went on to obtain an MN in Psych Nursing at UCLA. "I was among the first nurses in California to obtain the Clinical Nurse Specialist certification – my license number is #004!" Later she obtained a Psy.D. and after several years as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, she more recently developed a successful civil forensic psychology and nursing practice.
Early in her career, she uncovered a unique (and what has ultimately turned out to be lucrative) opportunity – serving as an expert witness. "I started out working in the worker's compensation field and became the psychologist or "neutral doctor" for these cases. It's my job to find out what the story is – no preconceived notion, just the facts, as I understand them. When an individual files a worker's compensation claim that has a psychiatric element to it, I have to determine if there is a psychiatric case and if so what caused it – is it related to work or to other issues? "
Soon thereafter, attorneys began approaching her for expert witness work. Over the past decade, Julie has served as a nursing and psychology expert witness on hundreds of legal cases.
Now she has started a company, AG Seminars, to train nurses to succeed as expert witnesses. In this new endeavor she has joined forces with a fellow psychological expert witness, who happens to also have experience as an attorney, along with two seasoned trial lawyers. "I really believe that nurses have far more knowledge and expertise than they give themselves credit for," she explained. AG Seminars offers a short introduction to civil forensic work and a comprehensive 2-day seminar.
"There really isn't any civil training like this in California for professionals who want to feel comfortable in the courtroom and to understand what's going on before they take on their first case. So many people have seen an episode of Law and Order and see the attorneys rip apart an expert and think 'I don't want to have that happen.' We want to educate clinicians so they know what to expect and help them increase their knowledge about the process, and in turn shore up their confidence. Your expertise presented with integrity and confidence is gold to an attorney."
Over two days, participants will learn the most important aspects of expert witness work. The first day provides an applied overview of the litigation process ranging from explanations of legal terms to report writing to handling an initial phone call from an attorney The second day focuses on preparing for and handling depositions and trial testimony. "The two days will provide you with the tools nurses need to feel confident about their expertise and role as the expert." Classes are offered in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and San Francisco.
The training stresses the importance of maintaining the highest level of ethical and professional integrity. "The fact is, that most attorneys are hiring you for your objective expertise. They really want you to be straight with them-to let them know if their case has problems. They don't want to be blindsided in a trial."
Nursing expert witness appear with increasing frequency. For example, nurses who work as sexual assault examiners may be involved in a case from the meticulous gathering of evidence in the initial examination, through trial testimony in court. Nurse administrators often testify as to policies and procedures in place, as well as standard practice in a given circumstance. While just about any nurse can serve as an expert, at a minimum people should have a bachelor's degree and several years of nursing experience. "Experts' knowledge and experience help judges and juries sort through and understand complex cases. Nurses are so important. They often have much more knowledge of what happens in a clinical setting and spend much more time with patients than a physician does. This up close knowledge can be invaluable in a legal setting." Armstrong also stresses that the nursing process is exactly the process used in analyzing a case.
Armstrong's work as an expert has also led to an interesting side opportunity – she has appeared on thirteen episodes of the popular Investigation Discovery tv show Wicked Attraction, where she provides psychological profiles of perpetrators and victims and relationships between them.
"Nurses are uniquely qualified to work as expert witnesses. We have invaluable knowledge of the standards of care, attention to detail, and valuable critical thinking, assessment, and problem-solving skills."