Sara Harnish attributes her career change to being lucky and to staying friends with
the right people. In her case, one of her key opportunities came from a law school friend who offered her a chance to intern at of the country’s most prestigious hospitals. Her internship led to her current position as Assistant Director of Non-Clinical Research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Sara started out as a litigator, but she never liked it. At 43, she stopped practicing law. At 48, she started her internship at Dana-Farber. “I was terrified,” she says. Her computer skills were rusty. She was a Mac person working in an office full of PCs. Although the technology was daunting, she loved the fact that everyone was focused on the same goal of curing cancer. It reminded her of what to her was the best part of law practice: the sense that everyone was working together to solve a problem.
Sara worked her way up to her current role. Part of her job involves facilitating meetings that bring together oncologists, nurses, and community members to review potential treatment protocols and informed consent forms. Another part of her job involves reviewing the informed consent documents to make sure that they are both comprehensive and, importantly, easy for patients to understand. Sara’s legal background helps with both of these.
She learned everything she knows by jumping in. It took her a few years to feel truly comfortable with the work, she says, but her confidence has grown over time. “It was like being in a foreign country where you speak a little of the language, and you need to get your family around safely.” From time to time, she still feels a bit on edge. “I will never understand genome sequencing the way scientists do,” she says.
Sara points out that there are many ways for ex-lawyers to work in health care. Like most big institutions, hospitals value people who communicate well. Lawyers could use their communications and/or analytical skills in hospital development, communications, risk management, or patient advocacy, for example.
Sara still thinks of herself as a lawyer. “But I went on retired status just last year,” she laughs.