Sonia Nguyen ‘15

Industry Contracts Fellow, UCSF


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

I do consider myself to be a health lawyer, but probably in a different sense from what most people think of when they think of health law, because I don’t directly represent doctors, or patients, or a health plan. I work for UCSF and the work I do supports the amazing medical research that takes place on our campus. I consider myself a health lawyer who is working for a leading medical institution. I work directly with the UCSF doctors and researchers who do this research, and I put in place contracts with other companies and other universities. By having these contracts in place for the cell line or drug that they need, the researchers can do their research. A lot of the work I do also has a lot of crossover with IP law because our contracts discuss who will own the IP rights in possible inventions that may be discovered during the course of research.

Being a health lawyer means being able to interpret and analyze complex healthcare laws, rules and regulations and see how they apply to whichever part of the healthcare industry you’re working for, in order to help things run smoothly. At the end of the day, my work affects the development and delivery of healthcare, and it ultimately affects patients, and that is really exciting.


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

I think that many law students initially think of bioethics when they first think of health law.  Maybe before they came to law school they wanted to be a doctor, or a nurse, or they have a lot of people in their family who are in the healthcare industry. I almost went to medical school and come from a family of doctors, and I always envisioned working in some kind of healthcare setting. But what I learned when I was at UC Hastings is that healthcare law is much broader than just bioethics. It intersects with so many different fields. Bioethics is an exciting part of it, but health law can also overlap with elder law, administrative law, and corporate law.


What most excites you about your work?

The fact that my work supports a lot of really amazing research being done here. We have researchers who are doing groundbreaking research on Alzheimer’s, brain trauma, and breast cancer, and the fact that my work putting these contracts into place makes it possible for them to proceed with their research is exciting. I’m really glad to be supporting this broader mission. We do our best to turn the contracts around as fast as we can, and also to make sure they have terms that are favorable to our researchers. As an academic institution, we want to be able to freely disseminate research results and data because that’s the point of doing the research.  We want people to reap the benefits of the research that our doctors and PhDs do. So I think it’s great being able to support that.


What is the biggest challenge in your work?

Learning how to manage all of the different agreements. Even as a fellow, I generally have about forty active contracts at once, all in different stages of negotiation. Staying on top of my workload and making sure I am responding to different parties in a timely manner, as well as that I am on top of editing and reviewing all the contracts, is a challenge. Also another challenge is working with people with very different personalities. The PIs are our clients, and I need to make sure that the support I offer is what they actually want. Managing the PIs’ expectations while balancing it with UC policy can be a challenge.


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

"Honestly, I didn’t see any other law schools that had as extensive of a health law program"

I have a science background and I think it’s definitely useful here because having an understanding of what our PI's are talking about is helpful, generally, and it’s also helpful in building credibility. I took a lot of health law classes at UC Hastings and these classes gave me a general understanding of how the healthcare system works in this country, in terms of the laws and the structure. I also took a couple of IP related classes too, which helped me understand some of the terms and the broader applications. Our PI's are amazing, brilliant and accomplished, and you need them to trust you. If you can’t communicate effectively with them, the relationship breaks down and it makes your job more difficult.

In terms of other aspects of my background, I was pre-med in college. I had a conditional acceptance to medical school and I decided, sometime at the end of my junior year, that medical school was not the right fit for me. I was at USC for undergrad and USC has an amazing gerontology school. I took a couple of classes there and I really liked it. And then I interned at a public interest elder law firm and loved it. That’s when I thought that I could turn my interest into something geared more towards health policy. I took a couple of years off after college. I worked for a little bit and then I got my Masters in Gerontology from USC. I wanted to get a masters first because I wanted a broader understanding of aging and all of the different disciplines that it relates to.

Then I came to UC Hastings for its health law program, for the Consortium, and the clinic: the Medical Legal Partnership for Seniors. Honestly, I didn’t see any other law schools that had as extensive of a health law program. I thought it was amazing that UC Hastings partners with UCSF and there were opportunities to mingle with other UCSF professionals. My whole focus in law school was on health law.


Tell me about a day in the life of you.

I come in the office and check my email. I try not to respond to all of them all at once. I first organize them in the different folders so that I know where to find them. I respond to the ones that are super urgent.  And then I look at my to do list. I always have a to do list from the day before, which I make at the end of each day. I look at that to refresh my memory about what is the most urgent. Sometimes we have meetings. For instance, every Tuesday morning, we have our team meetings. Wednesday mornings we have our staff meeting and they’re both in the morning. After meetings, and usually before lunch, I try to edit a couple bigger and more time-sensitive agreements. In the afternoon, I respond to more emails and execute agreements that are ready to be finalized and review a couple more contracts. At the end of the day I always write my to do list for the next day.


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 feel very lucky. We have a really great work life balance here. Most people are in the office by 9 and leave by 5. You can work from home fairly easily as long as you give a heads up to your team. During the holidays, I flew home for a couple weeks, and I worked remotely from home when I was there. I don’t think you can ask for a better work/life balance.

I have other friends in law who work a lot more.  I think my work/life balance is specific to this office, to this department, and to our bosses. I have great bosses here who are really approachable and understanding and they want you to have a life too, which makes a difference. I don’t think this is common. I feel really lucky.


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?

Yeah. I have a lot of different thoughts on this. One of them is that health law intersects with so many different fields including business, biotech, IP and patent law. I think for people who have some interest in health law, but also interests in other areas, it is a really exciting field to be in right now.  Also a lot of different companies are investing money in healthcare because they know that this is a growing field.

I think that there’s a lot of potential for growth and innovation and with all of these different healthcare startups popping up, they’re going to need lawyers who understand the law, the rules and regulations, and how it’s going to affect their work.

I don’t think of health law as something that’s narrowly concentrated on hospitals and doctors and care. It’s so much bigger than that, with so much potential to keep expanding and crossing over into other areas and it’s exciting.  So I think I would like to encourage students to keep an open mind and to have a broad view of what healthcare is and what health law can be.


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.