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Develop Your Lawyering Skills Now and Your Health Law Job Will Follow

Posted Oct 24 2010 7:42pm

aslmeOn Friday I attended the Fourth Annual Student Health Law Conference: Taking the Health Law Career Path co-sponsored by Seton Hall Law School and the American Society of Law, Medicine & Ethics (ASLME).  Originally I planned to attend only the morning session both for my own benefit as a possible health law practitioner and because I’m a research assistant at the law school’s Center for Health & Pharmaceutical Law & Policy but I found the panelists to be so engaging that I stuck around for the afternoon session and the networking reception.

Despite some recent good news concerning the job prospects for law students, especially for those in New Jersey , recent graduates and third or fourth year law students don’t need a Magic 8-Ball to tell them that compared to the hiring fests of 2005 and 2006,  the present “outlook [is] not so good.”  So what about health law jobs?  There are regular reports on how the healthcare industry has weathered the economic storm better than others (see Michael Ricciardelli’s blog posts on the continued growth of the healthcare industry here and here ).  Peter Leibold, Executive Vice President & Chief Executive Officer of the American Health Lawyers Association , delivered a great keynote speech at the Conference emphasizing, among other things, how the field of health law is growing and, in particular, which areas of health law are flourishing.

Still, in the current clime finding a job as a health law practitioner fresh out of law school can seem like a rather daunting challenge.  But should it be?  Not so, said the panelists.

I attended five panels (out of 18) addressing the career opportunities available for those interested in “When a Medical License is at Stake,” “Health Information & Technology Practice,” “In-House Counsel: Pharmaceutical Companies,” “Government Enforcement of Health Care Fraud, and “Hospitals & Medical Groups: Compliance & Risk Management.”  The panelists represented a variety of employers, including the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, the New York State Office of the Medicaid Inspector General, the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, Bristol-Myers Squibb, sanofi-aventis, Saint Peter’s University Hospital, and Saint Barnabas Health Care System.  Three panelists had worked for boutique or large firms but eventually branched out on their own.

Many of the panelists relayed a mixture of humor and frankness in their discussions about the current job market and their own past experiences in job searching.  Several noted that their current job came from prior work experiences that had built upon one-another.  Others outlined networking strategies and urged students to apply for internships.  However, one piece of advice could be heard over and over again: develop your lawyering skills now and your health law job will follow.

Maybe you want to work for a law firm specializing in health law. Maybe you want to be in-house counsel for a pharmaceutical company.  Or maybe you want to work for the government.  Regardless of which career path appeals to you, a recent law school graduate may hit a wall with potential employers looking for experienced candidates.  Both in-house counsel panelists acknowledged that pharmaceutical companies tend to prefer people with a few years of work experience. So if it’s in-house pharma you really want, you’ll just have to work your way there.

So while you search for a health law job, focus on developing a solid set of skills by taking that first job even if it isn’t in health law and learning how to be an effective lawyer.  That way you will have a marketable set of skills at the ready when a health law job does come your way. Always working towards the goal.

If you’re a recent graduate but you haven’t found a job, it’s suggested that you try the small firms, solo or dual practitioner offices– where you’re as likely as not to have complex files and entire cases dropped in your lap– amounting to invaluable and marketable experience. Barring that, look for freelance work or volunteer your legal services with an organization.  It’s better for you to have some legal experience on your resume than none at all.  For example, the Division of Law within the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General has a Volunteer Associate Program which enables recent graduates, deferred associates, and similarly-situated attorneys to hone their skills.  Participants must commit to 20 hours per week for 3 months.  Search around the internet or contact your career services office to find other organizations and government agencies offering similar programs.

Below are some other tidbits of information I gathered from the Conference.

Make yourself an expert and then use social media to market yourself. It is never too early to start making yourself an expert in a particular area of health law.  As a health law student or as a recent graduate, you can write articles on topics covered in class and then get your name “out there” by submitting those articles to blogs and other health law news sources.  If your articles are published, make sure to maintain a portfolio that you can present to prospective employers and update your resume accordingly.  If your articles are published online, you also can create a Twitter account and then make links to those articles. If you doubt the value in that, look up in the right hand corner of this blog and see in “Places Cited” where articles from Health Reform Watch have been cited– everything from the Health Care Blog to the New York Times and Washington Post and Maggie Mahar’s Health Beat. In addition, Seton Hall Law student Jordan Cohen presently holds one of the top rated google searches in America for “Accountable Care Organization.” Not a bad accolade or writing sample to bring a prospective employer.

Intern while you’re in school. Internships are key in this economy.  Internships help you develop lawyering skills, add work experience to your resume, provide work references, and give you additional contacts for your job search.  Note: if you are interested in working for the government, focus on internships with state and local agencies as well as federal agencies.

Remember your cover letter. To get your foot in the door for an interview, pay attention to your cover letter as well as your resume.  This is especially so if your background does not exactly match the position to which you’re applying (e.g., person with public interest background applies for a hospital compliance officer position).  Your cover letter presents the best opportunity to answer any questions that might arise in a prospective interviewer’s mind.  Be sure to check for typos.

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