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‘We have the common ground of all getting through this together’

Originally written by Brett Milano and posted on Harvard Law Today on May 18, 2021

For Phebe Hong, health law is a passion that began in high school

Health law has become especially timely in this year of COVID-19 vaccines and revitalized Obamacare. But for graduating student Phebe Hong ’21, it’s a passion that 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.” After graduation she will be joining the Boston office of Latham & Watkins, where she’ll focus primarily on litigation.

Hong’s focus on health law has included four semesters in the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation (CHLPI), which was partly the reason for her choosing HLS. During her 2L year she was a student fellow at the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics, an articles editor for the Journal of Law & Technology, and a research assistant at the Program on Regulation, Therapeutics, and Law (PORTAL).  She’s also been a student leader during this past year, serving on the Board of Student Advisers and as co-president of the Harvard Asian Pacific American Law Students Association (APALSA).

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.” She prepped for HLS by doing consulting work for pharmaceutical and biotech companies. “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.”

Once she’d satisfied the first-year course requirements, she began studying health law from every possible angle. 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.

“I worked in conjunction with faculty at PORTAL, looking at alternate models to innovating new medications that aren’t our current patent-based model, because that has a lot of issues. And it may not necessarily be the most innovative model for addressing healthcare needs. I did that research before COVID, but I’d say that puts a new lens on it.”

In her CHLPI research she’s focused on 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. “There are tools we have available as lawyers to help these populations. And learning that has given me hope: I used to think the only avenues I had were policy focused and raising awareness, but now I see that legal tools are available as well.”

Her social conscience also led to continued work with APALSA, whose mission has evolved somewhat in the past year. “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 past year, she admits, has been 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.”

As a BSA member, she’s aimed to share that support with students in need. “One thing I’ve really enjoyed about going on Zoom is the chance to mentor and be a TA for 1Ls who are doing their entire first year online. It does make it harder to support someone when you can’t run into them in the hallways. But learning to help people through that has been a huge part of my law school experience. We all have very different interests, but we have the common ground of all getting through this together.”

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