I was fortunate to be able to enter the field of health law as a law student; most are not so lucky. As such, I meet with students and junior lawyers regularly to discuss health law and how to get into the field. It is my way of paying my good luck forward.
I have been surprised to learn just how many are interested in this area. I have shared the same advice over a few dozen coffees and phone calls and have often thought about writing an article on the topic. So here it is: my tips for how to break into the field of health law.
While an undergraduate student I realized health law was my passion and so I was able to create opportunities early on. One of those opportunities was working in a hospital. I strongly recommend volunteering or finding other ways to get involved with hospitals or other health-sector organizations. The experience need not involve the law; it will expose you to systemic issues and lingo, demonstrate interest on resumes, and almost certainly prove useful in ways you could never have predicted.
Those seminar papers you slaved over should be worth more than a letter on a transcript. Submit your papers to health law journals or other publications. The worst that happens: you get rejected. It happened to me. But the best that happens: you get published! I was thrilled to have my student paper on access to assisted reproduction published in the Canadian Journal of Family Law. That paper was the seed that planted my interest in one of my current practice areas – reproductive law.
As a lawyer, unless you enter academia, it is rare to find time to write those kinds of detailed papers.
The Ontario Bar Association’s health law section publishes articles regularly. Don’t be intimidated that lawyers will read your work: you can write something safe like a neutral case review. It will be reviewed by the editors before being published. You can even contact the editors to discuss topic ideas in advance.
There are plenty of writing opportunities in heath law and it is a great way to build your resume, get your name out there and demonstrate interest in the field.
Networking is an important part of finding a job, receiving referrals, and developing resources. It can also be really fun. I remember my first cocktail party – it was at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP as part of a moot I was participating in and I was incredibly uncomfortable. How do I start conversations with people who I don’t know and are much older and taller than me? But I have learned that being genuinely interested in people takes away the awkwardness and makes networking a really enjoyable activity.
So where should you go and who should you meet?
The OBA and Law Society of Upper Canada run health law programs (they have discounted student rates or volunteer opportunities that allow you to attend for free). If you are a student and your school has a health law club you should definitely join (or start one). Reach out to lawyers whose practice you find interesting and ask how they got there.
Getting social also means social networking. I never appreciated the value of Twitter until I joined, but I have since developed relationships and opportunities through it. Ensure your LinkedIn profile is professional and detailed. It is your online resume and often the first thing that comes up when your name is Googled — make it count!
Take advantage of opportunities
As a student or lawyer your time is usually stretched thin and there are often too many opportunities to seize. But some opportunities are worth prioritizing and, in my view, practical experience is one of them. Some schools have clinical programs such as Osgoode’s disability law intensive and Queen’s elder law clinic.
You can take advantage of opportunities through firm pro bono programs or by contacting your provincial pro bono organization. Many health care organizations are non-profits with limited budgets and therefore require pro bono legal assistance.
Lawyers can join boards of non-profits in the health sector to network, make a meaningful difference, learn about health, charity, and corporate law, and, again, expand that resume. You can find a board through BoardMatch.org.
There are also opportunities to join research ethic boards, though these positions can be harder to find as they are often word-of-mouth opportunities (another reason to network!).
These experiences can help you grow as a lawyer, focus your interests, and make you stand out from other health lawyer wannabes.
Watch, listen, and learn
Contact the Consent and Capacity Board, Health Professions Appeal and Review Board, or Health Services Appeal and Review Board to inquire about attending a hearing as a member of the public. You will have a better sense of what health law advocacy entails and may get a chance to speak with lawyers there about their practices.
One reason it is difficult to enter health law early in your career is because it is such a diverse field. Some health lawyers are litigators, while others focus on corporate/commercial work. Some health law is practised by patent lawyers, employment lawyers, or charity lawyers, versus people who identify as solely health lawyers.
Some lawyers work in private practice while others work in-house at government, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, or regulatory colleges. Many of these places do not hire articling students but positions open up for lawyers a few years after their call to the bar.
Having skills is paramount. Much of health law, such as knowledge about privacy law or regulated health professionals, can be added to your existing skillset. Focus on becoming a good lawyer and keeping a foot in the health law door by implementing the suggestions above. When the time is right, you will be able to work your way into the field.
Lisa Feldstein is a health lawyer with a focus on family health law. Her firm’s web site is www.familyhealthlaw.ca, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter @lisafeldstein.