Though many recent law school graduates have struggled finding employment, experts predict one area will be expanding: health care law. That's thanks to the Affordable Care Act, the health care overhaul signed into law in 2010.
"One of the nicknames for the Affordable Care Act is the 'Lawyers Full Employment Act'," says Alan Meisel, director of the health law certificate program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. "There's just so many possibilities for legal issues to arise."
The changes will likely create more law-related jobs that allow attorneys to help companies avoid fraud, do compliance work and write and enforce new regulations at federal agencies, experts say.
These new regulations may lead to legal disputes, which in turn could lead to a need for more J.D. graduates.
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"I don't see anything but growth in the demand for health lawyers," Meisel says.
Beyond the Affordable Care Act, legal experts say health care is usually an industry that's ripe for lawyers because heath care in the United States is constantly changing.
Many schools offer opportunities for studying health law, but the curriculum varies from place to place. Prospective law students interested in this field should choose wisely when deciding which schools to pursue. Experts suggest students consider three factors when applying.
1. Number of health law courses: Some schools offer one or two health law courses, while others offer more than half a dozen. Students should go for the latter option, experts say.
"In today's market I think it's important to have a broad exposure to the various components of health law," says Thomas Greaney, co-director of the Center for Health Law Studies at St. Louis University. Courses like antitrust law, tax exempt organization law, fraud and abuse law and insurance law are examples, he says.
If prospective students are certain this field is the one they like, they should look for schools that specialize in it, says Peter Leibold, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the American Health Lawyers Association.
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"Students should look for health law concentration programs," he says. Experts say few law schools offer this focus. Saint Louis University is one that does, and University of Pittsburgh lets students pursue a health law certificate.
2. Access to health classes: While it's obvious that law students should take law classes, those interested in health should attend a school that lets students also take courses at the campus' medical school or another health department, experts say. These classes can give students a better understanding of administrative issues that come up in health care.
University of Pittsburgh offers J.D. candidates the chance to simultaneously get a Master of Public Health degree, and St. Louis University law students can also do a joint degree with the school of public health in health administration or public health. "They learn the business and management side of health law," says Greaney.
3. Opportunities for experiential learning: Real-world experience in health law can be critical for getting a job in the field, experts say. Students should focus on schools that maximize these opportunities.
"One of the components of a successful certificate program is that there be some kind of experiential learning, which might involve either a clinic or a practicum or an externship," says Meisel from University of Pittsburgh.
Students can take advantage of this kind of learning by working at an insurance company, hospital or health system, he says.
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Experts agree that while the job opportunities in health law are many, the field is also challenging. The health care system in the U.S. is very complicated compared with other Western nations, says Meisel.
"We failed a hundred to 125 years ago to do what most other industrialized nations did, which was to create a government-run health care system to provide health care to everyone," he says. The U.S. has tried to thread together federal health care in pieces, by implementing Medicare and Medicaid one decade and adding the Affordable Care Act many years later, for example, he says.
Keeping up with the changing system isn't always easy, but it also makes the industry vibrant.
"It never stands still," says Leibold. "You're not going to get bored with it."
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