Sara Huffman ’14

Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by PG&E and Latham and Watkins LLP, UC Hastings Medical-Legal Partnership for Seniors Clinic

 
 


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

Yes. For me, personally, it means addressing legal issues to optimize my clients’ overall health and well-being. That’s pretty general, but I think a lot of people don’t realize that legal issues can be health issues as well. For instance, problems with housing can really affect your health, and stress levels can affect your health, and not having the proper benefits can affect your health. I see my role as a health lawyer as eliminating some of those barriers to optimal and better health.

I work for a medical-legal partnership and I occupy a unique position in that I work with healthcare providers to provide more holistic services to their patients/my clients. It is a very unique way to take care of individuals and also to take care of populations of individuals.

 

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

I thought it was huge and vast. Health law is anything from working with laws and regulations on health care systems, or health care delivery, to working for hospitals. You can work in malpractice, for public health agencies, or for the government. There are so many areas where the law and health overlap. I had an interest in health law coming into law school and I thought there would be more of a clear path to go down, but then I discovered that it was just enormous.

I took as many health law classes as I could and the ones that really spoke to me, and the ones I really liked and enjoyed working in, helped me narrow in on my interests. I took classes in public health, women’s health and science in the law.

 

What most excites you about your work?

"I also like how varied my work is. I do different things all the time. I get to work with many different types of clients."

A couple of things. I love my job. I leave work at the end of the day feeling really good about what I am doing because I can see that I am helping people.

The other really great thing about my project is that I’m expanding the Medical Legal Partnership for Seniors to a population of senior veterans of the VA who have a lack of access to this type of service. Historically, seniors have a harder time accessing legal services. If someone has a mobility problem and has a hard time getting around, physically going to a legal aid or service office can be hard to do. Or if someone has a hearing problem, calling a legal services agency to get help just may not be an option. Through the medical legal partnership model though, my clients get easy access to legal services through their doctors and can even make an appointment with me on-site where they get their health care. This is such an innovative model and I’m getting so much great feedback from the clients and from the doctors and social workers. Everyone is really excited about this project because it is a needed service and people are very grateful to have it, which makes me thrilled to be a part of it.

I also like how varied my work is. I do different things all the time. I get to work with many different types of clients. Most of them are veterans or spouses of veterans, so there’s a certain amount of similarity there. But they are all different types of people with different needs. I’ve gotten to work on housing issues, benefit issues, and estate planning issues.

I also get to work closely with medical providers and social workers, which is great because I get to wear different hats with different people. And in addition to working with clients and providers, I do a lot of research, draft documents and potentially go to court hearings. A lot of lawyers don’t necessarily get to work with such an assortment of people and matters, which is a unique part of the medical-legal setting.

 

What is the biggest challenge in your work?

There are two. One is a bigger picture challenge.  I’ve never worked within the VA system before. It’s a huge system and it’s really overloaded. Getting benefits can be a very long and cumbersome process for veterans. It’s hard enough for me to figure out what they need to do sometimes, let alone for them to figure it out on their own. So, a challenge is familiarizing myself with the VA world, the benefit system, and the federal regulations within the Veterans Administration. This 2,000 page book on it is just the tip of the iceberg.

As for the more personal challenge, it’s really hard to see those senior veterans with a high level of need who are very low income and who don’t have a family or friends. I can step in as a legal advocate but things can still be very hard for those in that situation. They may need twenty documents to complete one application, but getting each single document can be a challenging and lengthy process.  For instance, if someone needs help to call an agency or needs to show a current ID, which they don’t have, just to get one of those documents, it’s a huge stress.  I can step in and help with some of these things, but for someone with no resources and no personal support system, seemingly small challenges can be and feel overwhelming.

 

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

When I was a student, I also worked in the Medical-Legal Partnership for Seniors Clinic and worked with seniors at the UCSF Geriatric Center offering the same type of service. So I was already familiar with the type of legal services that I’m offering now. I think that was the biggest help in preparing me.

Also, when I was an undergrad, I took a lot of public health classes and got a macro view of how health care is treated in the US, and how it is regulated, and how populations of people don’t get quality health care for whatever reason. They don’t have access. They don’t have money. There aren’t doctors to serve that population. This macro view of public health gave me a really great idea of something I was passionate about, and something that made me mad, and something I wanted to work on.

This is my second year of practicing law. Last year, I was at a small boutique law firm where I worked mostly on pro bono elder law.  We did a lot of impact litigation against nursing homes for doing very bad things. I was doing that and then the director of the Medical Legal Partnership for Seniors approached me.  She and I had been in touch and they were looking for someone to help expand the clinic to the VA. The Equal Justice Works Fellowship application period was open and we talked about it, and it was a perfect time and fit for me. So I decided to apply for the fellowship and luckily got it and now I’m here. This type of work health law work is my passion and it was just being at the right place in the right time, which ultimately led me to where I am now.

 

Tell me about a day in the life of you.

On Mondays I am at the VA. That day is very different than the other days. The Geriatric clinic has its own medical providers and medical fellows, who meet their patients on Mondays. And before they meet their patients in the afternoons, the providers have a pre-clinic conference where they get together and talk about difficult medical cases or other issues or policies they are working on. I generally go to that conference where I get to interface with the providers so they know who I am and they know they can refer their patients to me to get help.

On Mondays afternoons, I see clients. Some are already pre-scheduled, or the doctors may have a patient who they realize has a legal issue so they walk them down the hall and say, “here's this free lawyer who may be able to help you with that.” Or the doctors will come in and ask me legal questions about their patient’s situations, or just general legal questions. So, I’m at the VA all day.
On the other days of the week I have client appointments either at my office or at a client’s house if they are homebound. I do a lot of work on the phone calling clients and government benefits agencies. Otherwise I am working on client’s cases, doing research, and sending a lot of emails.

 

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?

My work/life balance is really good right now.  I work on a regular schedule from 9 to 6 everyday, which is great. I very rarely work on the weekends or in the evenings. If I do, it’s because it’s something I want to do or want to get done. It’s not because it’s expected of me, which makes a huge difference. I do know some people who work in large firms who are expected to be available at night and on the weekends.

I went back to law school a bit later, so I wasn’t a traditional person coming out of law school looking for a law firm job. The work I found is very important to me. I prefer public interest work.

 

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 would say a couple of things. Take as many classes related to health law as you can, and figure out the areas that really interest you, and then do summer internships in those areas to further figure it out. Also, find professors who are working in the area that you’re interested in, take their classes and work with them as a research assistant. If they have a clinic, work in the clinic. One of the most beneficial things to me were the relationships that I had with my professors. That’s how I found both of my jobs and that’s how I got connected with other people who have rooted for me in finding jobs.  So, as a student that’s probably one of the best things that I think you could do.


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.