From JD to MD
California Lawyer

From JD to MD

October 2013

Shilpa Mathew

As I carried my study set box of human bones home from the anatomy lab in the blazing Sacramento heat, it occurred to me that my life had changed very drastically. Just a few weeks earlier, I had turned in my last assignment as an associate at a San Francisco law firm. I had been practicing law for five years. Now here I was in my thirties, starting over in medical school.

As the only attorney in the class of 2015 at UC Davis School of Medicine, I'm always asked the same three questions, usually in this order: What inspired you to change from law to medicine? Are you done with the law? And the most popular question: Which is harder, law school or medical school?

Why did I make the change? The truth is that I loved Loyola Law School. The professors were amazing and the study of law very interesting, but I felt that I was being called in a different direction. For example, during a field trip to a crime lab, an autopsy was underway. Most of the law students hid behind a partition for fear of nausea, but I watched in awe. I found myself much more intrigued by the story that a human body tells about homicide through its organ and chemical pathologies than by the relevant criminal law. Still, I set aside my doubts about being a lawyer, got my JD, and passed the bar in 2006.

Then in my second year of practice, I found myself on a conference call with opposing counsel arguing over which conjunction should be used in the terms of a contract. Was this what I wanted on my tombstone? "Here lies Shilpa, champion of the words and and or."

By this time, I had a gut feeling that I should be pursuing something in the health care profession, but I wasn't ready to give up my law firm salary yet. During my free time I began volunteering at an emergency room at a Daly City hospital and taking evening science classes at UC Berkeley. Then I switched firms as an associate and began focusing on regulatory compliance in the health insurance industry.

I spent my days poring over medical ethics laws like the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and my nights exploring my fascination with medicine. I truly enjoyed working in the health law field. But I realized that I loved medicine more. After completing UC Berkeley's post-baccalaureate premedical program, I shadowed physicians and traveled to Honduras to do international medical mission work. I decided to go to medical school, and began my first semester in August 2011.

Now that I've experienced both law and medicine, I realize that a lot of the animosity between these two age-old professions is rooted in misunderstanding. In this era of health reform, I think I can help since I speak both languages: I've made it my mission to be a liaison and remain integrated in both fields.

So I'm not done with the law. I've written articles explaining legal issues to doctors, and I've helped implement a trivia game to teach my medical classmates about laws that affect the practice of medicine. I volunteered time to the California Medical Association's legal department and represented UC Davis on the state and national stages as a student delegate to meetings of both the California and the American Medical Associations. Most recently, I have been assisting Davis's medical school administration to develop a health policy track where medical students can take classes, complete internships, and get exposure in the health law and policy fields.

This leaves the third question: Which line of study is harder? The reality is that both law school and medical school are extremely intense. One cannot "do" law without an aptitude for reading and writing, and one cannot "do" medicine without an aptitude for science, so they are each equally tough in unique ways. Both require excellent communication skills, a robust work ethic, and passing daunting licensing exams. I am determined to have a definitive answer to this question by the time I finish my medical program, but I am still figuring it out. For now, I have to answer with a traditional lawyerly response: It depends.

Shilpa Mathew is a third-year medical student at UC Davis in Sacramento. Previously, she practiced law for five years in San Francisco.

Reader Comments

Arnold B - October 1, 2013
Well it seems that at least MDs really do something beneficial for society. So I think she made the right decision as far as societal concerns. I just couldn't stand chemistry so I became a CPA and 25 years later went to law school. Good luck to you young lady!!
Chris W - October 23, 2013
Thanks for sharing your experience. I've been toiling to commit myself to graduate school since I graduated college in 2010, but I just can't seem to make a decision between law or medical school. Both professions have appealing qualities and job characteristics; however, I haven't finished taking the necessary steps required to put myself in an ideal position for entering school (for various reasons). I'm finally getting there, and your article helps answer some of the chronic questions i have dealt with between which is better for me: law or medicine.
Arnold B - October 28, 2013
Chris W. You really have to ask yourself and be true to yourself about MD or JD. Don't consider the $ in your choice as it will jade you and you'll be unhappy in life. Both are great professions but if you really want to help people then MD. Law is billable hours, business clients who are often unethical,law partners who act like G-D to you and lots of unhappy associates about to be terminated in the near future. Medicine today though with Obama care --- who knows where its going. But the country will have a shortage of primary care doctors and they are the first line in medical care in the U.S. Good luck to you 2!!
Reeve Chudd - January 3, 2014
The biggest difference time. There is a greater commitment of time to become a practicing physician, but only attorneys work without a client in front of them. For a practicing physician, other than medical record-keeping, which is nearly all digital and quick these days, and continuing education, physicians don't do much work unless a patient is in front of them. While many physicians actually visit hospitalized patients on the weekends and in after-hours, attorneys, if successful, work all the time. With electronic communications today, clients are contacting us non-stop. The human body is relatively the same for all of us, so a physician can go on vacation and have another on call for him/her, but an attorney who goes away often doesn't have that luxury -- I went for a 5-day camping trip with no e-mail and returned with 600 unanswered e-mails and 50 phone messages. That doesn't happen to a physician, and that's the difference.

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