What Health Care Law Is and How to Choose the Right Program


Aspiring health care lawyers should understand that the health care industry is an enormous and lucrative portion of the U.S. economy, experts say.

The amount of money that U.S. consumers pay for health care is increasing rapidly, and federal projections indicate that U.S. annual health spending will add up to nearly $6 trillion by 2027. In 2018, nearly 18% of the country’s gross domestic product was devoted to health spending.

Rapid growth within this industry translates to a high level of demand for attorneys who specialize in health care law, experts say, adding that the coronavirus pandemic is likely to increase the need further. The recently passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act – an intricate piece of federal legislation commonly known as the CARES Act – could spur many health care organizations to hire more lawyers.

Florida-based health care lawyer Maria D. Garcia says one benefit of focusing on health care law is that it provides an attorney with a highly marketable skill set. Garcia – a partner with the Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton law firm and co-chair of its health care practice – notes that her graduation from law school was around the same time as the 2008 recession, so she was eager to enter a recession-proof legal career. That is one reason she chose to become a health care lawyer.

“I wanted to practice in an area where I could see the practice growing regardless of how the economy looks,” she says.

Garcia notes that local, state and federal governments frequently change their health care policies, and there is ongoing bargaining between insurance companies and health care providers – providing a steady stream of work for health care attorneys.

What Health Care Law Is and What Health Care Lawyers Do

Health care law is a broad specialty because it encompasses all of the numerous types of legal disputes that come up in the health sector, experts say.

“If someone is generally a litigator, but handles a good number of health care fraud and abuse cases, or that person generally handles mergers and acquisitions, but for hospitals, that person might very well consider himself a health care lawyer,” Mark Ison, an adjunct instructor in health law at Belmont University’s College of Law in Tennessee, wrote in an email.

“Because the delivery of health care in the U.S. is so highly regulated, I tell my students that a great health care lawyer is really just a great lawyer who plies his or her trade in or for the health care industry,” explained Ison, a practicing attorney within the health care group of the Sherrard Roe Voigt & Harbison law firm in Tennessee.

Kelly L. Dingwell, principal attorney with the Dingwell Law health care law firm in California, says a common misconception about the work of health care attorneys is that they only tackle medical malpractice cases. However, they can handle a wide array of cases ranging from labor disputes to controversies over experimental drugs to privacy violation allegations, Dingwell says.

“You can connect almost any interest you have with health law,” she says, adding that someone concerned with “mental health equality” or fascinated by tax policy could pursue that interest as a health care lawyer.

Health care lawyers have both the opportunity to develop technical knowledge and the flexibility to “pivot” throughout their careers, Dingwell says. “As a health law practitioner, that is the beauty of health law; it is an intellectually challenging area that is always changing, but provides almost endless possibilities for meaningful work,” she wrote in an email.

Because many individuals and organizations are connected to the health system – including clinicians, patients, insurers, hospitals, government agencies and pharmaceutical companies – health care lawyers can represent a variety of clients.

“Health care law ends up being a massively broad subject,” explains Jamie Hargrove, founding partner of the Hargrove Firm in Kentucky and president and CEO of the NetLaw legal services company. He notes that some lawyers are experts at figuring out how health care regulations interact with other regulations, such as rules regarding mergers and acquisitions.

“So, to some extent,” Hargrove says, “health care law can be a general practice of law, because under the broad category of health care law, a lawyer tends to do a lot of things that are not necessarily specific to health care. They’re specific to being a lawyer.”

How to Choose a Health Care Law Program

When assessing and comparing law schools, future health care attorneys should check to see whether those schools offer classes about health care rules and regulations, and note how many of these types of courses are available, experts say.

According to the U.S. News Best Health Care Law Programs ranking, the following half-dozen law schools offer the most exceptional training available within this legal discipline:

Besides consulting general and health-specific law school rankings, future health care lawyers should also consider other factors. A solid curriculum in torts and contracts is essential, says Debra Geroux, a shareholder with the Butzel Long law firm. Geroux, who is based at the firm’s office in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, notes that a concentration in health care law is a plus although most law schools do not provide it.

A health care law clinic would be ideal but is rare, Geroux says, noting that pro bono law school clinics sometimes address medical malpractice cases, which can provide valuable learning experience.

Experts say it’s beneficial when law schools permit J.D. students to take courses at their university’s affiliated health schools, because this helps future health care lawyers gain a solid understanding of how the health system operates. An introductory health law course would also be valuable, according to experts.

“For an aspiring health care lawyer in the U.S. trying to pick a health law program, I would suggest looking for one with a foundational course providing an introduction to the health care delivery system in the United States and an explanation of the relationships between providers, pharmaceuticals, plans and patients,” Dingwell wrote in an email. “This will allow the aspiring lawyer to become familiar with the language of health law and find solid footing for an exciting practice.”

However, it’s possible to pursue a career in health law without concentrating on that specialty during law school, Dingwell says, noting that many of her colleagues did not focus on health law while pursuing their J.D. degree and nevertheless work in that field today. Lessons taught in core law courses such as criminal law and constitutional law are relevant for future health care lawyers, Dingwell emphasizes.

“As long as you have a solid foundation generally, you can be successful in this field.”


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