PUBLISHED:March 09, 2009

Gostin '74 urges students to follow hearts and consider wide range of jobs

March 9, 2009 — Lawrence Gostin is a leading scholar in the field of global public health. But his stellar career is the result of flexibility informed by his evolving interests, not the single minded pursuit of a long-held goal. Gostin offered career advice to Duke Law students at a lunchtime event on March 5, part of the Career and Professional Development Center’s “Open Doors” series.

Gostin holds multiple appointments: He is associate dean and the Linda D. and Timothy J. O’Neill Professor of Global Health Law at the Georgetown University Law Center, where he directs the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University, and director of the Center for Law & the Public’s Health, a collaborative project at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Universities. Gostin also regularly works with the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“When I left Duke, I applied for three positions — at a Wall Street law firm, the New York Legal Aid Society, and a Fulbright scholarship to England,” said Gostin. “I tried to get three completely different jobs when I graduated, and then I chose the one I thought would be the most fun.”

Gostin won the Fulbright and stayed in England for 15 years, parlaying his Duke Law degree and interest in health law and civil liberties into a series of high-profile legal activities. These included co-authoring the country’s Mental Health Act and heading the British Civil Liberties Union.

After returning to the United States, Gostin served on the faculties of Harvard University’s law school and School of Public Health. “I kind of transformed myself from being interested in mental health and civil liberties, to AIDS and public health,” he said.

His interests continued to evolve after he moved from Harvard to Georgetown University. “I transformed myself from being interested in mental health and civil liberties, to AIDS and public health,” he said.

Gostin assured Duke Law students interested in pursuing health-related legal work that a wealth of positions in the field exists, even in a depressed economy. In addition to law firm jobs, governmental organizations like the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and global organizations like the World Health Organization and the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS all offer legal and policy work for law school graduates, he said.

Gostin advised students to “follow their hearts” and consider quality of life issues as they plan their careers, bluntly observing that law firm positions aren’t for everyone. “It does have the virtue of helping you pay for your loans. But I’ve been an associate dean at Georgetown Law for a long time, and I can’t tell you how many people from large law firms come to me and they’re unhappy and want to do something else,” he said. “I would recommend at least exploring other paths, and following your heart and your passion because law firm life can be really deadly and not leave a lot of time for anything else.”

Ultimately, his flexibility helped him create a career he is happy with, said Gostin. “I would take risks. Every time I’ve taken a risk — leave the country, move jobs — it’s been a good thing for me. I have not been afraid to change career paths, and change my mind about things.”

In addition to his “Open Doors” talk, Gostin delivered a lecture on March 4 at Duke’s University Seminar on Global Health, titled “Meeting the Survival Needs of the World’s Least Healthy People: A Proposed Model for Global Health Governance.”