Public Health Presentations Cap First Class of Network for Public Health Law Mentorship Program for Young Attorneys

Aug 29, 2013, 11:30 AM


Laws and policies that impact public health can create healthier conditions for entire communities—a more cost-effective approach than treating one person at a time, and then only after they’re sick. Last week, five inaugural Visiting Attorneys in Public Health Law presented on their efforts over the past year as part of a program hosted by the Network for Public Health Law and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The attorneys focused on public health law around:

  • The legality of tobacco “power walls” that put colored cigarettes boxes directly in the line of vision of children
  • The impact of environmental noise on heart disease
  • Displacement of residents through gentrification
  • The challenges and promise of “health in all policies”
  • Legal avenues toward reducing sodium intake by the public

The post-JD program is designed to help develop exceptional skills in practice-based public health law than can help lawyers to advance their public health law careers. During the program, the five attorneys were each located at a host site under the mentorship of a renowned public health legal expert. This year’s mentors included Doug Blanke, founder and director of the Public Health Law Center at the William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota, and Clifford Rees, practice director of the western region of the Network for Public Health Law.

Angela McGowan, JD, MPH, RWJF senior program officer Angela McGowan, JD, MPH, RWJF Senior Program Officer

“This fellowship is one that we developed in conjunction with the Network for Public Health Law to help to build the field of public health law and to allow bright, new attorneys with an interest in public health, to be able to experience working in [that] setting while being mentored and coached by leaders in the field,” says Angela McGowan, JD, MPH, RWJF’s senior program officer.

McGowan says RWJF hopes this type of experience will highlight that public health law is an exciting career option, as well as show the value of engaging new professionals in this practice as a way of making meaningful impacts at the local, state and federal levels of public health. McGowan added that the Visiting Attorneys were able to really be engaged with the real work that public health and law practitioners face daily, and to apply their legal knowledge to solving public health problems.

“Whether through answering specific questions about a public health challenge, attending public health or other meetings, making presentations or sitting down with their supervisors and mentors to discuss a legal issue, the Visiting Attorneys were in the middle of everything and I hope had a well-rounded experience and had some great practitioners of public health law to guide them and answer questions,” says McGowan.

All five young attorneys now either move back to the positions they held before taking up the fellowship, or, as with Shari Dawkins, move on to new positions. Dawkins is now a staff attorney at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Max Gakh, JD, MPH Max Gakh, JD, MPH

“To me, this fellowship has provided an opportunity to learn about the intersection of law and public health through practical, hands-on experience,” said Max Gakh, who spent his time as a Visiting Attorney at the American Public Health Association. “It has been a chance to work side-by-side with a seasoned public health attorney and multiple public health professionals in a supportive and collaborative environment [and] …has helped me appreciate the public health community and…helped connect me to attorneys and public health practitioners who share an interest in public health law.”

Gakh’s project was a comprehensive look at the growing field of health in all policies. He looked at the opportunities of the field—such as authorizing and permitting collaboration, as well as setting priorities, and with time, changing norms around how different departments work together. He also looked at challenges that, according to Gakh, include process but not outcome changes and the fact that the policies are of potentially limited duration. He says that, “after studying and having many discussions about the social determinants of health, the relationship between our health and environment, and chronic disease, I wanted to learn more about what the law could do.”

Applications for the next round of Visiting Attorneys will be announced in September on the home page of the Network for Public Health Law. McGowan says the next round of Visiting Attorney fellows will be placed in state and local public health agencies, so while a new pilot, they will continue to have this real-world experience of the inaugural class while being part of a supportive and diverse team. 

“I would recommend this fellowship as a quick way to gain real-world public health law experience and a chance to sample work involving various public health law issues,” says Gakh.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.