Seven Reasons Why Women Attorneys Thrive in Health Law

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By Mary Anne Pazanowski

Health-care law is a thriving field for women, and the reasons why vary from the wide range of practice types that make up the field to the mentorship and support supplied by more-established attorneys.

Women make up nearly 50 percent of all law school classes, although the numbers go down between the first year and graduation, according to the latest American Bar Association statistics. Additionally, only about a third of practicing lawyers are women.

While there isn’t any breakdown by practice area, women have a noticeable presence at events sponsored by the two biggest health lawyer organizations, the American Health Lawyers Association and the American Bar Association’s Health Law Section, suggesting that it is a highly attractive field for female attorneys.

There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure women join and remain in the health-care bar, but according to four top female health-care attorneys who talked to Bloomberg Law, there are several reasons why health law practices attract and retain talented women.

1. It’s a New Field

Health law is a “new entry into the legal community,” Lisa Diehl Vandecaveye told Bloomberg Law. When she decided at the beginning of her career to practice health law, people “were shocked,” because it wasn’t a recognized field of law at the time. Vandecaveye is now general counsel for the Joint Commission, the nation’s oldest and largest standards-setting and accrediting body in health care.

Times changed, and the need for lawyers specializing in health law coincided with a rise in the number of women attending law school. There was a “convergence” between the increasing opportunities in the field of health law and the expanded number of women entering the legal profession, Vandecaveye said. That circumstance helped drive women into health law, and provided an opportunity to help improve patient safety and quality of care.

2. Lots of Ways to Practice

There are “lots of ways to practice health-care law,” Hilary H. Young, the chair of ABA’s Health Law Section, told Bloomberg Law. Young is a founding member of Joy & Young LLP, a health-law firm in Austin, Texas.

There are opportunities that fit each personality type, from the skilled negotiator to the most-bullish litigator. No matter what skills a lawyer brings to the table, there will be a place for her in health-care law, Young said.

Health-law practices generally fit into three broad categories: transactional, regulatory, and litigation. Transactional practices attract dealmakers, Young said. Regulatory practices, like Young’s firm, counsel hospitals, providers, and provider groups on how comply with state and federal health-care regulations. This area demands good problem-identifying and solving skills, she said. Litigation attracts people who are comfortable with conflict, Young said.

3. It’s Not Boring

“You will never be bored in health law,” American Bar Association Health Law Section Chair-Elect Alexandria Hien McCombs told Bloomberg Law. That’s because health law encompasses so many different issues, including antitrust, labor and employment, contracts, compliance, government investigations, and patient rights. The practice can vary even on a day-to-day basis, she said. McCombs is assistant general counsel at Humana Inc. in Irving, Texas, where she acts as chief counsel for Humana’s care delivery organization, among her many duties.

An attorney can find her specific niche, Kathleen L. DeBruhl told Bloomberg Law. With so many issues facing the industry, an attorney can find something she likes to do, she said. DeBruhl founded her own regulatory-focused firm, Kathleen L. DeBruhl & Associates—The Health Law Firm, in New Orleans.

Health-care lawyers can be found at virtually any size practice, DeBruhl added. There is a good representation of women in big law firms, but being in a small practice has never hurt her when it comes to attracting business, she said. There is plenty of room in the practice for small and regional law firms, she said.

4. Diverse Client Base

There is a lot of diversity in the health-care industry. Women make up the majority of the health-care workforce, although the highest administrative positions are held by men, Vandecaveye said.

Health-care businesses are making “a conscious effort” to see more women take on “positions of influence,” McCombs said. There are already some “incredible women leaders” who are committed to advancing women in the industry, she said.

This commitment is influencing the legal world too, as more businesses “are demanding outside firms” include women on their legal teams, McCombs said. They “want to see a diverse slate of attorneys” addressing their legal concerns, she said.

5. Collegiality/Inclusiveness

The health-law bar “is pretty collegial and supportive of one another,” Young said. In her experience, colleagues are willing to help with difficult problems.

Women also are very involved in the AHLA and the ABA’s Health Law Section, and that involvement is “crucial,” Vandecaveye said. Both groups offer great networking opportunities for women, she said.

McCombs said her involvement with the ABA’s Health Law Section made her a part of larger network and gave her a chance to interact with other attorneys in the field, something her position as an in-house lawyer didn’t provide.

6. Visible Leadership Positions

It is “inspiring to see diversity in section leadership,” McCombs said, referring to the ABA’s Health Law Section, where several women have preceded her as chair. McCombs will be the first Asian-American to serve as chair in the section’s 20-year history.

The AHLA also has a history of promoting women into leadership. Thirteen of its 28 governing board members, including the immediate past president and president-elect, are women. Women’s voices are heard, DeBruhl said.

These organizations are committed to promoting diversity all around, not just gender diversity, Young added. The ABA’s Health Law Section always has had a “very great awareness of the need for diversity,” she said. The section, for example, adopted a requirement that every panel include women before its parent organization did so.

7. Mentorship

The number of well-established, successful male health-care attorneys willing to mentor and promote women has been an important element in women’s success in the field, the attorneys said. McCombs, for example, said she had a very dynamic bioethics professor in law school who encouraged and sponsored her interest in health law.

Men have been “incredibly compassionate and inclusive,” McCombs said. They haven’t hesitated to introduce female colleagues to powerful people who could help their careers, Young said.

Women attorneys, too, have become valuable mentors for younger women. Vandecaveye, for example, said she is enjoying giving back the benefits she earned through her professional relationships by mentoring the next generation of health lawyers, women and men. She also enjoys working on addressing patient safety and quality issues at the Joint Commission.

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