A passion for health law
Phebe Hong’s passion for health law began in high school.
“I was probably unlike a lot of students in that I came into HLS with a very strong focus in one particular topic, which was healthcare law,” she said. “But I’d also say my interest in legal topics has broadened.”
She was initially drawn to health law via the first townhall debates over the Affordable Care Act, which she watched with great interest during her senior high school year. “That discussion about what kind of healthcare system we wanted to have going forward was what really sparked my interest,” she recalled. “I grew up in that era, when we were discussing the possibility of something more universal in terms of health care.”
As a Harvard undergraduate, she approached health from the scientific side, majoring in stem cell biology.
Though she found this rewarding, she ultimately gravitated toward law. “I wanted to learn more about the pharmaceutical industry, but didn’t necessarily want to be in the lab. I became more interested in learning about the regulatory aspects of healthcare.”
I was probably unlike a lot of students in that I came into HLS with a very strong focus in one particular topic, which was healthcare law. But I’d also say my interest in legal topics has broadened.Phebe Hong ’21
Prior to HLS, she did consulting work for pharmaceutical and biotech companies, during which she learned more about the drug development process and reimbursement schemes. “The projects I worked on were very varied. It ranged from therapeutic strategy, like deciding which diseases to target, to learning more about insurance systems and reimbursements.”
She said she chose to come to Harvard Law School in large part because of Harvard’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation (CHLPI) and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics.
As a 1L, she attended events sponsored by the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, which motivated her to apply to be a fellow during her 2L year. “Even as a 1L, I was able to stay engaged in the topic by attending events on emerging healthcare topics and meeting similarly interested students,” she said.
She was involved in the Harvard Health Law Society, an organization comprised of students interested in health law. The organization connects students with health law professionals, invites speakers advancing health law issues, and coordinates groups across Harvard working to advance reforms in healthcare. “Through Health Law Society, I have learned more about various career paths in the field,” she said.
Additionally, she was involved in the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology, which covers all aspects of technology law, including intellectual property and biotechnology. She later became article editor and worked on a piece about medical artificial intelligence.
Throughout her time at HLS, she said she has been grateful for the broad variety of health law classes she has been able to take while at HLS, including Professor Glenn Cohen’s “Health Law, Policy, Bioethics, and Biotechnology Workshop,” where students explored cutting edge scholarship from leading experts in the field.
During her 2L year she was a student fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, and she was a research assistant at the Program on Regulation, Therapeutics, and Law (PORTAL).
As a Petrie-Flom fellow, she was charged with writing regular blog posts and with taking on a major research project, for which she chose the topic of pharmaceutical innovation. She conducted an independent research project and also wrote regular pieces for the Center’s blog, “Bill of Health.” “The Petrie-Flom Center provided amazing support to its fellows to pursue scholarly projects, in addition to fostering a community of health-focused students across the various Harvard graduate schools,” she said. “The fellowship experience for me was different than being a research assistant because I had more freedom to pursue and research my own independent project.”
Beginning in her 2L year, she participated in Harvard’s Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation (CHLPI), HLS’ health law clinic, for four semesters. CHLPI advocates for legal, regulatory, and policy reforms to improve the health of underserved populations, with a focus on the needs of low-income people living with chronic illnesses and disabilities.
“My decision to continue with CHLPI over multiple semesters was motivated primarily by the desire to engage in a long-term healthcare litigation project. It has been rewarding getting to be involved in multiple stages of litigation and learning in-depth about a specific topic. I have also enjoyed getting to know the clinic staff and being a part of the broader CHLPI community.”
In the fall of 2021, she enrolled in “Health Care Rights in the 21st Century,” with Litigation Director Kevin Costello, a course where students engage in debates and role play on healthcare rights provisions in the broader context of civil rights jurisprudence.
During winter term, she took a course titled “Food and Drug Law” with Peter Barton Hutt, former chief counsel for the FDA, in which she learned about federal regulation of products including food, drugs, animal feed, biologics and blood products, medical devices, and cosmetics.
One of her courses during her 3L year was “Drug Product Liability Litigation” with Lecturer on Law Peter Grossi, in which students discussed product liability lawsuits filed against prescription drug manufacturers. “All these courses and professors have pushed me to explore varying aspects of health law that have better prepared me to enter the profession,” she said.
In her CHLPI research she was focused on the treatment of hepatitis C and the related issues of health inequity. “One thing I’ve learned is how class action litigation can really increase healthcare access for some populations. And I think that’s an issue that has been reframed by COVID, because they are both viral and infectious diseases. But we have a curative medication for hepatitis C; we could completely eradicate this disease. So why are certain populations more at risk, and why are they having to fight harder or not have access to the medication?” The answer, she says, comes down partly to Medicaid restrictions and partly to stigmatizing of prisoners and drug addicts.
During her 3L year, she was a student leader, serving on the Board of Student Advisers, a more than 100-year-old student organization charged with providing several essential services to the Harvard Law School community.
She also served as co-president of the Harvard Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA). Her social conscience led to continued work with APALSA, whose mission has evolved somewhat during her last year of law school. “When I started as co-president, the main issue was affirmative action, a very big issue in the Asian-American community. But with the rise of Black Lives Matter, we had discussions about how we could best be allies to the Black and Latino populations, and discussing anti-Blackness in our own communities.”
Then came the rise of anti-Asian violence in the wake of COVID. “It was hard because we were all remote, but we were getting reports from students in our community who were being harassed. A lot of students were scared, and rightfully so. I’m proud that we were able to raise money for organizations looking to help support and protect our communities, and also to bring this issue to the forefront.”
The year, she admitted, was a challenging one for community leaders. “I think for many people coming to HLS, you have that feeling of imposter syndrome, like you don’t really belong. My parents are immigrants and not in the legal field, but I’ve found that HLS can be a very supportive community — even if I couldn’t imagine it ending in this particular way.”
“I like to think that later in the future, I’ll be able to tell my grandkids that their grandma made it through law school in a pandemic. But I think it’s been less glamorous than that — because a lot of this year has been in front of my screen, in my pajamas or my sweats. And I know that some of my peers are facing mental health issues. So, it’s been a challenging year, but I’ve been grounded in the fact that I can log into a room and have a robust discussion in class, and still be learning despite the challenges in the backdrop.”
After graduation she joined the Boston office of Latham & Watkins, where she focuses primarily on litigation.