Pros and Cons of Becoming a Healthcare Attorney
Healthcare law is a large specialty that can encompass areas as diverse as hospitals, insurance, government, biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry. Find out the pros and cons of a career in healthcare law before making up your mind about this occupation.
|Pros of a Healthcare Attorney Career|
|High earning potential (lawyers earned an average salary of $133,000 as of 2014)*|
|Healthcare is one of the brightest growth areas in law**|
|Wide range of employment settings, including law firms, government agencies, healthcare organizations and companies***|
|Opportunity to combine healthcare with other marketable specialties, such as intellectual property or litigation****|
|Cons of a Healthcare Attorney Career|
|Seven years of higher education required to earn bachelor's and law degrees*|
|Law students graduating in 2011 had average debt of more than $100,000**|
|Must have at least one state license to practice*|
|Law school admissions are highly competitive*|
Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **U.S. News & World Report, ***American Health Lawyers Association, ****Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
Essential Career Info
Healthcare law is a sprawling field with a wide range of specialties and practice settings. Healthcare attorneys represent hospitals, nursing homes and other health facilities as well as HMOs, insurers, biotechnology firms and pharmaceuticals companies. Others work in federal, state and local government offices and academia. Still others represent individual doctors, patients and benefit seekers.
The cases and areas that healthcare attorneys cover are varied, too. They work on malpractice, occupational health and safety, privacy, bioethics, insurance fraud, benefits claims and other issues specific to healthcare. Because healthcare law, unlike other legal specialties, is defined by an industry instead of an area of law, many practitioners are dual specialists. Their job is to understand how antitrust, employment, tax or other separate bodies of law affect healthcare organizations.
Salary Info and Job Outlook
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics calculated that lawyers from all practice areas earned an average salary of more than $133,000 as of 2014; however, salaries can vary considerably by specialty. Data gathered by the American Health Lawyers Association (AHLA) indicates that healthcare law can be particularly lucrative. In its 2011 survey of salaries for in-house attorneys employed by healthcare organizations, the median salary was nearly $176,000, and the middle 50% earned between $138,000 and $224,000.
The BLS predicted 10% growth in employment for lawyers of all specialties over the period from 2012-2022, which is slower than for all occupations on average. Competition will be particularly high for entry-level lawyers due to the excess of law school graduates, which outnumber the available jobs; however, the U.S. News & World Report notes that, thanks to the heavy, evolving regulation of the healthcare industry, healthcare law is among the most promising growth areas in the legal field.
What Are the Requirements?
To become a healthcare attorney, plan on earning a bachelor's degree and a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree. Be warned that law schools, with a continual surplus of applicants, can be highly selective in their admissions. You'll generally need a high undergraduate GPA and a high score on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
After gaining admission, you'll spend three years fundamental and specialized law courses. You'll start off covering basic topics like contracts, civil procedure and constitutional law, and then you'll move on to elective courses pertinent to your field. You can also expect to participate in moot and practice trials, and you may gain practical experience in legal clinics or law firms.
To practice law, attorneys of all kinds have to hold a state license, which is also known as being admitted to the bar. Requirements vary by state, but you must usually hold a degree from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA), pass the bar exam (or exams) and meet character standards. Most states have continuing education requirements as well. Moving or expanding your practice across state lines may require taking another state's bar exam.
In order to serve as a healthcare attorney, you need a strong grasp of regulations pertaining to the field. You also need to have solid research and analytical skills, which are necessary for making sense of complex cases, managing large amounts of data and finding the information needed to resolve legal issues. Writing skills are essential, and being able to work well with non-lawyers at various levels and outside counsel is also an important qualification.
What Employers Are Looking for
Along with requiring a law degree and licensure, job listings for healthcare attorneys typically call for experience in the field, and some employers want you to have experience in the specific functions of the open position. Read through this sample of May 2012 job listings for an idea of what employers were expecting of potential healthcare attorneys.
- A pharmaceuticals and surgical company specializing in eye care advertised for an assistant general counsel in Texas. The job's focus was regulatory compliance in promotion of the company's products. Requirements were a law degree, bar membership in at least one jurisdiction in the U.S. and five years of experience, preferably as in-house counsel for a drug or medical device maker.
- An East Coast law firm sought a healthcare/FDA attorney for its Washington, D.C., office. The projected caseload included FDA regulatory matters and healthcare litigation, including fraud, reimbursement, Medicare/Medicaid and privacy issues. Minimum qualifications were a J.D., law license in at least one state and two years of directly related experience.
- A hospital system in Virginia was looking to hire a lead counsel for several hospitals. Candidates needed a J.D., bar membership in at least one state (D.C. or Maryland preferred) and seven years in healthcare practice, including five years in a law firm, government agency or federal clerkship.
- A company that specializes in managing healthcare reimbursements for clients had an opening for a staff attorney in its problem claims department based in Florida. A law degree and strong conflict resolution skills were among the qualifications.
- A branch of the U.S. Armed Forces sought an attorney-advisor based in Missouri to help service personnel through the process of medical evaluations. Requirements were a J.D., bar membership in a U.S. state or territory and 1-2 years of experience practicing law, depending on academic achievement and graduate education.
How to Stand Out in the Field
Steer You Law Education in the Right Direction
The ABA, the AHLA and various law schools urge aspiring health attorneys to strike a balance between focusing on healthcare law and not specializing too much. Employers want to see evidence of interest in health law, but they also want attorneys with a well-rounded education and skill set.
As such, you can gear your legal education toward healthcare by taking health law electives, seeking externships or clinics that expose you to healthcare practice and writing and publishing articles on healthcare topics; however, you should also take courses in overlapping fields, like business, intellectual property, employment, taxation and insurance law. If you are having trouble finding an externship or entry-level job in healthcare law, consider opportunities in related fields. A few years of experience handling commercial transactions or intellectual property cases, for example, can offer translatable skills and experience for seeking healthcare positions later on.
Get an Advanced or Dual Degree
While not mandatory, you could enhance your credentials by earning a joint degree in law and health or medicine. There are programs combining a J.D. with a master's in public health, which take about four years to complete. Other programs let you earn a J.D. and medical degree in six years, which separately take at least seven years to complete. Alternatively, after earning your J.D., you can earn a Master of Laws (LL.M.) in health law, which normally takes a year of full-time study.
Alternative Career Paths
If law school sounds like too much time and debt, then becoming a paralegal may be a better career choice for you. Paralegals do legal research, draft documents and conduct other tasks delegated by supervising attorneys. The normal qualification is either an associate's degree in paralegal studies or a bachelor's degree with a paralegal certificate. According to the BLS, paralegals earned an average salary of around $50,000 as of 2011 and were expected to enjoy employment growth of 18% from 2010-2020.
If it's healthcare that interests you more than law, then consider working in medical or health services management. Medical and health services managers run healthcare facilities and their constituent parts. They oversee finances, staffing, regulatory compliance and other administrative functions. A bachelor's degree in health administration is the minimum requirement, but many in the field hold master's degrees in health fields or business administration. Medical and health services managers earned an average salary of about $96,000 as of 2011, according to the BLS, and employment was projected to grow by a robust 22% from 2010-2020.