It was a long and winding road that led me to a career in public health law, and my path was more of a happy accident than intentional direction. Here’s my story:
I was a legal assistant/paralegal at an academic health center while attending law school, and was introduced to/peer pressured into the J.D./M.P.H. program by our law clerk who was also a classmate of mine. After my first class I was hooked. However, I still didn’t know what public health law was or where it would lead. As I progressed through the program I began to recognize how the work in my office related to public health. It was in my Public Health Law and Ethics class that I really got it. The light bulb went off when the professor started every class with “All health is public health. All law is public health law.” In this class we were required to bring in news stories and tie them to public health law. Sometimes the links seemed protracted, but ultimately the connection was always there. At that point I knew I was exactly where I should be.
As graduation approached I thought, “now what?!”
Then a twist I didn’t expect, I was hired by the state health department to manage a statewide public health program. I knew when I entered law school I didn’t want to practice law and that I could do a variety of other things, but being a public health practitioner was something that hadn’t occurred to me. The work was interesting, wonderful, difficult, fascinating, and above all, an educational experience I will never forget.
Working at a state/local health department is an invaluable experience because it’s the embodiment of public health law. Public health law defines public health practice, and health departments are the only organizations that are mandated to provide public health services. Other organizations provide services and support, but ultimately it is the legal responsibility of the health department to protect the public’s health. Getting an insider’s view of how and why that happens and the related government mechanisms is incredibly useful.
I was eventually lured into public health academics and currently focus on research and project coordination. So what does that mean? It means I research public health issues related to interventions, academia, policy, and coordinate the implementation of projects related to public health. These projects range from providing public health law research to public health officials, participating in drafting and editing academic assessments, and collaborating with a medical-legal partnership to measure its individual and population based effects. Working in an academic setting has given me the opportunity to learn more about research methods, policy, public health law, and combine these to create and examine dynamic projects that strive to improve public health.
Going to law school doesn’t mean that you have to practice law in the traditional sense. You can do a myriad of other things with a law degree. For myself, I have found that having a J.D. and M.P.H. has given me an edge and enabled me to act as a translator (for myself and others) when working with two different disciplines. I am fortunate that my academic path led me to the field of public health law. If you remember nothing else from this blog post, remember that there are various ways to work in law and your unique background can bring a lot to your practice as a public health professional.
This blog post was prepared by Liz Gates, J.D., M.P.H, Project Coordinator at the Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
The Student Network for Public Health Law is a Network program that collaborates with graduate schools around the country to connect students interested in public health law with resources and professionals in the field. For more information on the Student Network please visit the Student Network webpage.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. The views expressed in this blog do not represent those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.