Speaking and Thinking Like a Public Health Attorney

posted on Fri, May 5 2017 10:24 am by Sarah A Wetter

In the midst of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, I entered law school to study the role of law in advancing the public’s health. Early in my experience, I gained some advice that would prove valuable through the next several years: learn to speak and think like a public health attorney. This entails understanding existing and emerging issues, identifying key players in each arena, and furnishing viable solutions and approaches. While public health may not be the vernacular of most law schools, through some digging, I discovered several opportunities to gain meaningful public health exposure as a law student. I found the following steps most valuable:

Build a professional public health law network: Like learning a foreign language, immersion is key. For me, student organizations, school programs and networking events all proved worthwhile channels. Through ASU’s student-run Health Law Society (HLS), I met professionals from health and public health law entities all over Phoenix and Arizona. Through HLS, I discovered and became a student researcher for the Public Health Law and Policy Program at ASU Law. The Program also houses the Western Region Office of the Network for Public Health Law. With the support of the Network, in the Fall of 2016 I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Network’s National Public Health Law Conference, where I met public health law professionals from all over the country.  The Network also has a Student Network that offers opportunities and resources like mentorship and career webinars.

Gain hands on experience: Internships, externships and clinics offer insight and experience into public health law practice. Through an externship with the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, I saw law’s effect on the health of individuals in the community. During the summer of 2016, I interned with CDC’s Public Health Law Program in Atlanta, Georgia. While I was not assigned to a Zika-related project, I witnessed how a federal agency responds to such a crisis in real time. My ability to speak and opine on the health impacts of law has come to hinge on these firsthand experiences.

Develop expertise in a hot topic: The language of public health law is constantly evolving with each emerging event, outbreak, and crisis. Students and young professionals are presented with a multitude of opportunities to break into the field. In 2014, Berkeley, California enacted the nation’s first tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). Fascinated by the potential to curb SSB consumption and improve childhood obesity rates, I researched and wrote extensively on SSB taxes, and ultimately published a related paper. I gained expertise that allowed me to contribute meaningfully to the literature and the conversation.

The ability to speak and think like a public health attorney brought me from the networking event, to the interview, to the job, to publications and presentations. Now, as I prepare to graduate and launch a full-time public health law career, I will transition from speaking and thinking like an attorney to actually being one.

This blog post was prepared by Sarah A. Wetter, J.D. candidate and Senior Legal Researcher, Public Health Law and Policy Program, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, ASU.

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 post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.

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