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
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.