muir-hover

 

Morgan Muir ‘12
Healthcare Associate, Nossaman LLP

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


Do you consider yourself to be a health lawyer? And what does it mean to you to be a “health lawyer”?

I do. I would actually say a healthcare lawyer. It means a few things. It means that I have chosen a specialty. It also means that I am a generalist, and that’s because healthcare law touches on so many aspects of law: employment, administrative, business, corporations, antitrust, and even criminal law. So while I have to know healthcare law, I also have to know a lot of things about other areas of law in order to do my job.

For instance, one of the things that I do here at Nossaman is represent licensed medical professionals: nurses, doctors, chiropractors, physician assistants and anyone else who is licensed under the Business and Professions code. I represent them when their licenses are in jeopardy, because their respective licensing board seeks to discipline them. In many cases, these processes begin with a criminal proceeding; the reasons for the charges against them by the board are often criminal misdemeanors or even felonies. So, understanding the relevant area of criminal law helps me to defend their case against the licensing board.

Being a healthcare lawyer also means that I am doing something that affects everyone's lives. Everyone has a connection to healthcare in some way or another, whether it’s frustration about their health insurance plan or family and friends who work in the industry. Not to mention it’s in our national news every day. It’s really fun to be able to do something that so many people are interested in, and have stories about.

 

What was your impression of healthcare law back when you were a student at UC Hastings?

When I was at UC Hastings, I saw healthcare law as this ever-changing body of law which was exciting to me for two reasons. One, I thought, this is such an intellectually stimulating area of law and I would never be bored doing it, because the law is constantly evolving. I also thought this would be a great area to specialize in that would set me apart in the job market, because the job market was so much worse for students right out of school then than it is now. The opposite actually ended up being true, because healthcare law is such a specialty area, it was much harder to find jobs for brand new lawyers, because most firms wanted people with years and years of experience. But the first part of my answer holds true. This area of law is constantly evolving which means I’m constantly studying and learning new statutes, new regulations, and new interpretations of the many facets of healthcare law.

 

What most excites you about your work?

Crafting really creative arguments. It’s part of the reason I wanted to become a lawyer. I thought I was going to be a journalist for a long time, but I ended up using writing in a different way and it’s really exciting to me.

In my job I do a couple of different kinds of writing. One is writing that is going to be read by an administrative law judge. I try cases in the Office of Administrative Hearings, so I’m effectively a litigator, but it’s what I like to call litigation lite. It’s the best parts of litigation without the laborious hoops to jump through, like in state or federal court. The discovery process is much shorter and more casual, for instance. I get to write persuasive motions that allow me to write forcefully and to use punchy words, and to be argumentative too. It’s a really fun way to write.

On the other hand, I also write settlement proposals. I just finished a settlement proposal to a Deputy Attorney General who represents a licensing board. In a settlement proposal, you have to be persuasive, but you can’t be argumentative, or at least if you are going to argue you need to lure them to your side in a more gentle way. It’s really nice to be able to switch back and forth between these two types of writing.

"Being a healthcare lawyer also means that I am doing something that affects everyone's lives."

The other thing that excites me is interacting directly with clients. And I get to do a lot of that here. At this larger mid-sized firm, I am thrown headfirst into new client matters and told to get the client on the phone, and figure out the facts, so we can file a motion or develop our case strategy. I love doing this, because, one of the aspects of being a lawyer that’s important to me is the counselor at law portion of it. It’s important to make your client feel as comfortable as possible, especially because something pretty terrible has happened in their life for them to need your help. It’s easy to forget that because you’re so caught up in the work, but it’s important to remind the client that you understand that and you are here to help them, and you are only trying to make it easier. Doing this goes a long way in building the relationship, and it makes your work easier.

The healthcare professionals I work with have devoted a lot of their time and resources to earn these licenses in the first place. And now they have done something, or are being accused of doing something, either intentionally, or not, that has put their license in jeopardy, and they are really scared. They are wondering if they will be able to have a life without their licenses. What would they do for work? How would they tell their families? A lot of the actions against licensed healthcare professionals are public, so even if they were to retain their license, it might be on a probationary status, and then when someone goes to look them up on the medical board website, there it is. Or they have a hard time finding a practice that will hire them because of it. It’s the same thing for lawyers. So being able to tell that doctor or nurse that I understand the gravity of the situation is very important. As is telling them, when they are exasperated with the legal process, or with our fees, that we are here to help them.

 

What is the biggest challenge in your work?

The billable hour. That I have to be accountable for every six minutes of your time might have been something we’re told in law school, but we’re definitely not told how to do that, or if there is a right or a wrong way. You have to learn it on the job and it’s tough. It’s really an art that takes practice. I have been on both sides of it now, having worked both at law firms and in-house, where you don’t bill for your time, and I can say that it is definitely a little less stressful to be in an environment where you don’t have to bill. It’s so much more than just doing the research and writing the argument. It’s the fire that’s lit underneath you the whole time to make sure you're not wasting the client’s money or that you’re spending the amount of time that is expected by the partners of someone at your level. Another somewhat stressful aspect to billing is that we, like most firms, have a minimum billable hours requirement. So you're fighting, on the one hand, to save money for the client, and to be the most efficient practitioner you can be, but you are also incentivized to bill pretty high hours. That’s something that they don't talk about in law school and it’s a tough area to navigate.

 

What aspects of your training or background most inform the work you do now?

I have a customer service background that I think about every day. When I was younger, I worked for a company that sells knives door to door, not unannounced. It might sound funny, but it taught me so much about managing a business, which I did before I came here. I managed my own law firm for almost three years. Selling knives gave me customer service lessons in how to talk to people on the phone and how to write a follow-up email. I only worked there for three or four months, but we were in charge of our own schedules, and had to create a client list, bring in new clients, set up client meetings and follow up.

It is a big metaphor for the work I do now. In talking with doctors, I have to make sure that I am not scheduling meetings or phone calls with them when they are getting ready to go into surgery. Finding times that work well for them, so they can sit down and focus, and answer questions for me, that can help them with their cases.

In terms of my story, right out of college I thought I wanted to be a journalist, and I knew I wanted to live in San Francisco, so I moved here and I was staying with a family friend for a few months who, at the time, was the Director of the Children’s Health Clinic at San Francisco General. I was job searching from her living room and one day she said “look, we need an admin to sit in our front office at the hospital, answer phones and do odd jobs. Why don’t you come and do that and help us out? Get paid a little bit while you continue your job search and as soon as you find something, that’s totally fine, this is a temporary position and we will fill your spot.”

As it turned out, I stayed in that position for two years, with one stint at a magazine while I was continuing to pursue journalism. The longer I stayed at the hospital, the more hats I wore, as they realized I was able to take on more complicated projects. One of the things I did towards the end of time there, was help to start a medical-legal partnership. We brought in an attorney who had just graduated from Stanford and one of our own Pediatric Attendings as the Medical Director. It was similar to the Clinic at UC Hastings. The attorney and doctor function as a team. SF General typically serves a very low income population, including a lot of Latino families. When children came in for their appointments, the whole family would come in with them because the parents would need to take off work to get to the appointment, and they would have all of their kids with them. It was an amazing opportunity to address issues in the families’ lives all at once.

Maybe they had mold in their house and it was exacerbating the child’s asthma. Maybe the parents needed health insurance. Maybe the landlord was coming into their apartment without giving notice. Maybe the family wasn't getting enough food. We had this form where we would ask questions to try and touch on as many of these issues as we could get at, to triage as many issues as possible. Sometimes we could address the problems ourselves and other times we had to refer the family to other services. It was a little bit like being half lawyer and half social worker. It was wonderful, and I loved the work that I was doing, and wanted to keep doing it. I realized that the only way that I could do that was to either become a doctor or a lawyer, and I felt like the ship had sailed on the doctor option since I was a literature major in college. So I decided to become a lawyer. Both because I loved the work, and because I loved the writing I was doing for this program, and thought what a great way to pursue writing and also feel like I was helping people.

 

Tell me about a day in the life of you.

It varies a lot, but I would say that generally I wake up at about 5:30 or 6:00, go to the gym, and I am at work usually by 8am. I've only been in this position for a month and so that’s why I say it varies because everything is really new for me right now. I generally stay until about 6:30 or 7 depending on how much work I have, and then I try to meet up with friends if I can or see a play. Theater is very important to me., too Then try to spend some time with my fiancé and go to bed and do it all again the next day.

In terms of my work, I am one of only five healthcare Associates at Nossaman. The other four are not in this office. I do sometimes bug associates in other practice groups here if I need to talk out a problem. In fact, yesterday I talked with someone who does general litigation about an issue I was having. But generally, I am in my office, with my door open. Everyone is friendly and likes to say hi as they walk by. Most of my work is one-on-one with whichever partner has assigned me work. Usually that’s a partner here in the SF office, but sometimes it’s a partner in Irvine or Sacramento and so I will spend a good amount of time on the phone with them getting the details of the project, calling them for follow up questions. After this, the bulk of my day is spent researching the issue and writing up my findings.

 

Can you say a little bit about your work/life balance and how it might compare to some of your colleagues who work in other areas of the law?

I have a pretty middle on the road work/life balance. And I am comfortable saying that because I have been on the spectrum. Prior to coming to Nossaman, I was at UCSF, and it was a pretty strict 9 to 5, or 9:30 to 4:30 or an even shorter workday depending on what was going on. Hardly anyone stayed passed 5 and it was a very, very relaxing way to live. Because, work was work, and when you were done you left it there. That’s not the case here.

There are ebbs and flows, but I don’t think that my situation is as demanding as someone who works as a litigator in civil or federal court. But there are days where I’m in the office for 12 or more hours. I suspect that there will be ebbs and flows, meaning I think sometimes it will swing far one way and then come back the other way. I get a sense that this firm really values happy attorneys.

In fact, I had a wonderful conversation with one of the partners when I first started here. He sent me an email at 5:30 at night asking me to do something, and to call him at 6:45 after I researched, and before I wrote it up, so we could discuss my findings. He was on his cell phone somewhere and said “what are you doing?” I said “I just finished researching the issue and I would like to talk to you about it.” He said “hold on, let’s take a step back, when I ask you to do something for me, unless I very explicitly say I need this immediately, I assume that you have another life outside of work, that you would like to get to, and I assume that you will get to that life and then come back to my question.” And, he’s like, “if you're excited about this, by all means stay all night and finish it. But when you signed on at Nossaman I don’t think this is what you had in mind, this sort of stereotypical scare story of the partner saying, I need this right now as you are walking out of the office to a dinner party and having to cancel all your plans. It’s not really what it’s about here.”

It was really a thing to hear because leaving UCSF to come here was a big life choice. I knew that it was going to be more demanding here, and I craved that, and that was part of the reason I accepted the offer, but I was worried it might be even more demanding than I expected. So far it’s lived up to exactly what they said it would be, and I have been really happy. The funny thing is that the attitude here has the opposite effect of what you might think: because my time is really respected here, it makes me want to work harder for the firm.

 

Now, more than ever, there is pressure on lawyers entering the workforce. Do you have any advice you would like to give the next generation of law students interested in healthcare law?

I had a really interesting, not at all typical, job hunt and job experience from the time I graduated from UC Hastings until now. It all worked out for the absolute best, but it was kind of a bumpy, scary process.

I think it’s getting better for law students entering the work world now, but I feel it’s important for students to know that they’re probably not going to have a traditional job path, and if they don’t, that it’s totally ok. So many of my colleagues and I have figured out how to piece together skills that we wanted to be able to have on our resumes from a variety of different sources. I think people expect to graduate and start in a job in their field. When it doesn’t quite happen like that, and they spend three months somewhere, and then six months somewhere else, and then ten months in a totally different place, they worry that that looks bad. Maybe it used to look a little bit scattered, but now it’s a very easily explainable career path, because of how crazy the job market has been for attorneys over the last five years.

As for me, I got my first job out of law school as I was being hooded, during my graduation ceremony. Jaime King was hooding me and she said “do you have a job after graduation?” I said “no.” And she said “do you want to write a paper about healthcare pricing?” I said “yes that sounds great!” Right after that I walked across the stage thinking, this is so wonderful, I have a job as I am graduating!

I finished the bar and the very next week started researching and writing with Jaime and Stephanie Kraft for this paper. That took me through to November of that year. Then I passed the Bar, got sworn in, and was kind of like, ok, I have a license, now what? I had been job searching along the way and the UC Hastings Consortium was so wonderful to me, they said, “look we'll just keep giving you work to do.” The paper wasn't quite done so I had some more things to do. I also took up a couple more research projects in the meantime and they said, “until you are ready to go, we have work for you if you want to stay.” It was a really nice way to make sure I didn’t have any holes in my resume.

I found positions that were open in other areas of law but nothing in healthcare. It seemed like firms had the mindset that if they have the pick of anyone then they were going to go with someone with seven to ten years of experience who is looking to switch gears, rather than someone they have to train. I was running into a lot of that, and I thought well, if I am going to be a generalist somewhere, I might as well do that for myself and try to continue to do healthcare work at the same time. So I started my own law firm.

It’s probably one of the craziest things I have ever done, but it was wonderful. I got an office just up the street on California and Kearny. I made sure it was an interior office so that I had something to work towards. I would shut my door, and in this tiny box, with no windows, I would try to figure out how to get clients. It was a wonderful experience, but I was doing little to no healthcare work for the first couple of years. I was helping a lot of small businesses file trademark applications, and deal with copyright infringement issues. But it really wasn't what I wanted to be doing, and so I made sure that I kept networking. Networking for my own practice, but also with an eye towards healthcare.

One of the things I did that was really helpful was I made these glorified business cards. They were a little bit wider than a bookmark. And on them I listed the areas of law that my solo practice focused on. I would go to firms like Nossaman and Foley & Lardner and Hooper Lundy & Bookman and I would give them these. I had contacts there already from law school, and I would say, “here is what I do, if you have clients that come in, like individual physicians or smaller businesses where it doesn’t make economic sense to hire you and vice-versa, you can refer them to me.” I thought it would be great to have this card that said everything I did, so they didn't have to think “what does she do again?” It was a very easy marketing tool to get referrals. And it was wonderful when it started working. I got referrals from Nossaman, from Gregg Cochran actually who is now part of the Consortium. It was great and then shortly after I got my second or third referral from Nossaman, I got a job offer from them when I wasn't even looking!

There was something else I did while I was running my own practice. I was still trying to get healthcare clients even though I didn't yet have any experience. So, I took a contract attorney position at Hooper, Lundy & Bookman for almost a year. I did that and still kept my practice open. I had and office at Hooper Lundy and I was there 9 to 5. Then I would leave do work for my individual clients. It was a great way to get healthcare experience at a firm with a really great healthcare reputation, but also keep my clients, and keep learning the things I was learning on my own: which was a lot of business development and marketing and things that younger associates don’t usually get to learn about until the middle of their associate career.

After my stint at Hooper Lundy, there was an opening at UCSF negotiating clinical trial agreements in their industry contracts division. I saw this as a new and different way to get hands on experience. I got one-on-one experience negotiating research contracts with large pharmaceutical companies. It was amazing to be able to string all of these experiences together and say, ok, now this is who I am and what I have to offer.

So rather than getting my ideal job after ten years of experience, I did it in three years. I loved the path I took, but it was really scary. And now, every time I talk to law students at UC Hastings who wants to do healthcare law it’s been really important to me to say, “find what you want to do, but don’t worry if it’s not the exact path that you thought you would be on. Don’t be afraid to take a three month job here and have something on the side where you are researching for a professor or something else because all of those things together are going to make a really wonderful package to then present when the right job comes around.”

In addition, I have to say it feels amazing to be able to give out career advice, because for the past six years, I have been on the other side of this question, asking whomever will give me five minutes, “how did you do this?”, “what should I do?”, “how do I make sure that I am who they are going to want?” So my answer is to do that, be scrappy, get your face in front of as many people you possibly can and network. I don’t really like that word because we heard it so much in law school that it started to feel like a burden rather than a necessity or a lifeline. But it is so important. You want your face or your name to be the first thing that someone thinks about when there is an opening.

It doesn’t mean meet with someone for coffee once. It means put on your calendar to follow up with them four weeks later. And when you do, find something real in your life as the excuse to reach out to them. Find something that’s going to make them remember you, and what you are looking for. In healthcare it’s so easy to do because every day there is a new healthcare plan, or a new law being changed, and so write and say “is this affecting your practice?” Or,” I am interested in HIPAA regulations and I am wondering, is this really causing you to turn everything on its head? Help me understand how this is affecting you.” Don’t be afraid to get out there, because if you are calling or writing with a purpose, then it’s going to be really meaningful and you are going to stand out.


Interview by: 

Rachel Goodman, MFT

Senior Academic Program Coordinator with the UC Hastings Center for State and Local Government Law. She is also a psychotherapist in private practice in Berkeley, CA.