Health law is a vast field, and its sub-specialities are seemingly limitless. Practitioners might be developing public health policy, representing clients seeking medical care, prosecuting medical malpractice, litigating anti-trust issues, conducting transactions between large corporate entities, enforcing patent rights, or ensuring that health care providers comply with legal regulations.
Of course, this broad scope also means that practitioners have to navigate a wide range of issues.
The legal questions that arise in the domain of health law intersect with ethical questions, policy questions, economic issues, social issues, and cultural issues, says William Winslade, director of the University of Houston Law Center's Health Law & Policy Institute.
But despite its complexity, Winslade says that people are attracted to the field because of its connection to real-life dilemmas.
"These problems are challenging, complex, and controversial," he says, and they make for a stimulating legal practice.
Margot Brazier, professor at the University of Manchester School of Law, agrees that the human interest element of health law makes it a fascinating field in which to work.
"Because health law is at a relatively early stage in its evolution, you can be involved in policy issues," says Brazier. "That really engages me."
It is also worth noting that the job market for health lawyers is still strong.
"Because the health care industry is so large and so complicated and so highly regulated, there is a great and consistent demand for individuals that understand the business environment, the legal environment and the regulatory environment that affects that industry," says Lawrence E. Singer, director of Loyola University Chicago School of Law's Beazley Institute for Health Law and Policy.
While hiring in other areas of practice has slowed in recent years, Singer reports that hiring in health law has stayed consistent.
Will an LL.M. help?
If you are interested in pursuing a career in health law, you may be wondering whether an LL.M. would help you along toward your career goals.
Like in many other fields of law, an LL.M. is not essential. But there are some reasons why you might consider investing the time and money.
First, spending a year or two studying health law will give you the chance to gain a broad understanding of the health care system and the legal, policy, economic, and ethical issues surrounding it.
Second, if you have come from a general law degree, you may not have had access to specialist health law courses. An LL.M. can provide a useful opportunity to focus your legal knowledge, and fill knowledge gaps so that you can come to a prospective employer with a working understanding of the relevant legal issues.
"If you immerse yourself in an area of law with people that have worked in that area, you really come out head and shoulders above someone that hasn't (had that experience)," says Singer. "For lawyers that have been in practice for a few years and want to reposition their career, going back for a graduate degree is immeasurably helpful."
But it is probably best not to assume than an LL.M. alone will carry you to career success.
"It depends on what you make of it," says Eleanor Kinney, director of the Hall Center for Law and Health at the Indiana University School of Law.
"If you don't really know what you want to do, and you're just shopping around, I'm not sure that graduate study is particular useful," she says.
Instead, Kinney says students should also see it as an opportunity to demonstrate academic ability, gain knowledge, hone practical skills, make contacts, and even start publishing.
When looking for an LL.M. program in health law, there are a number of things that you should consider. Manchester's Margot Brazier points out that some schools favor an applied or technical approach to health law, while others include a greater theoretical component. Prospective students should give some thought to the kind of course that they are interested in.
Lawerence Singer at the University of Chicago advises prospective students to look for programs with a strong practical component, "because health law is an applied field, and while it is important to understand the academic underpinnings of the law, it is as important to understand how that law relates to the industry."
According to Singer, courses will ideally call upon students to apply their knowledge with case studies, transaction documents, and regulatory problems, and the school will facilitate externships so that students can round out their experience with real world knowledge of health law work in hospitals, associations, or firms.
Meanwhile Eleanor Kinney advises students to consider what kind of access they will have to the faculty.
"Some schools offer a lot of courses taught by adjunct professors," she says, and while there are merits to having a teaching staff involved in professional pursuits outside of the law school, the downside is that these professors will be less available to students. Afterall, she adds, "it is really the contact with professors that will give you the edge you are looking for."
A dynamic career
Taking up a career in health law means working in a legal landscape that is subject to constant and often dramatic change. The growth of public health infrastructures in developing countries, the monumental reforms to health care provision in developed countries, and the introduction of new medical technologies are just a few of the factors that act to reconfigure the way that health law operates.
"New legal and ethical issues are coming into focus as a result of the aging populations in western societies," says William Winslade.
"The health care industry is growing because people are living longer, and conditions that used to be fatal have now become chronic conditions diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and so on," he adds. "This growth creates ever more legal and ethical issues."
But, as Lawrence Singer observes, it is an exciting time to work in the health law. As an example, he points to the US health reform legislation "a monumental change" that will have implications at every level of the health care industry. Lawyers that can get on top of these changes and understand their implications, he says, will be in very high demand for the foreseeable future.
"People that are coming into the field now are going to have the chance to shape this, both on the policy level and the legal level, and that is a pretty exciting opportunity."
All this change, however, can be frustrating, according to Margot Brazier.
"Sometimes I look at the morning newspaper, and I put my head in my hands, thinking, 'well I've just written an article, and now I have to rewrite it,'" she explains.
"On the bright side, it prevents any risk of boredom."