Career Corner: A Conversation with attorneys at the Mass. Department of Public Health

Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health is a $1 billion agency with over 3,000 employees and a purpose-driven mission: to keep people healthy and communities strong. Within DPH is a highly regarded team of 50 attorneys providing guidance and legal oversight for 10 state bureaus, 21 boards of professional registration, the Commissioner’s Office, and four public health hospitals. Working as an attorney at DPH is equivalent to working in a midsize law firm, one that is committed to equity, diversity and inclusion.

To learn about the diversity of law-related positions at this busy agency, and the kinds of work and issues the legal team is involved with, we had a conversation with Beth McLaughlin, DPH general counsel, and Jaclyn Gagne, acting chief deputy general counsel. Considering a job in public health? See what they had to say. 

What kinds of legal jobs are there at DPH? Are there positions for different experience levels? 

Beth McLaughlin, DPH General Counsel: Absolutely! We employ nearly 50 attorneys in many kinds of jobs — they fall into three main areas. The first are program attorneys. The far-reaching issues that the Department is responsible for affect each and every resident of Massachusetts. These issues include working on climate change, reproductive health, infectious diseases and substance use disorders, as well as licensure issues for hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities. Each program area at DPH has an attorney dedicated to supporting its mission. The support includes everything from drafting regulations and sub-regulatory guidance to working with other entities to draft memoranda of understanding and providing the day to-day legal support each program needs. Public health or public service background is preferred for these positions. 

The second are litigators. These attorneys are responsible for handling lawsuits and other litigation-related duties as well as prosecuting cases arising from the disciplinary actions of professional licenses. Some of them come to us from a district attorney’s office, public defender’s office or Office of the Attorney General. 

Jaclyn Gagne, Acting Chief Deputy General Counsel: Third, we have a Board Counsel unit supporting 21 health profession licensing boards, including the boards of nursing, pharmacy and dentistry. Each board has an attorney assigned to it to provide legal guidance and support on topics ranging from compliance with the open meeting law, to promulgation of regulations, to precedent for enforcement actions. 

What kinds of issues do DPH attorneys work on that differ from other legal jobs?

Beth: We are frequently at the forefront of issues you may be reading about in the news. For example, right now, we’re working with existing laws and regulations to ensure that families coming into Massachusetts get the support services they need, including housing and necessary vaccinations for themselves and their children. In the wake of recent court decisions involving reproductive health, the Department plays an important part in protecting the rights of people to access safe and affordable health care. Our attorneys are working on these really critical, very timely issues. 

I came to DPH after working at other state agencies, where they may have a couple of regulations on the books. DPH has more than 135 regulations on a whole host of topics. For an attorney coming in, it is super interesting. Whether it’s about food protection or safe beaches or vaccines or addressing the opioid epidemic, you never feel “been there, done that.” It’s always something new.

Jaclyn: I think the variety of work DPH attorneys do and the impact they can have does not always come across in our job postings. When you work at DPH, you really are having a direct impact on people’s lives. If you have any kind of bent toward public health, practicing law here can be an incredibly interesting — even exciting — place to work. 

What kinds of people or groups do DPH attorneys interact with?

Beth: We have a lot of interaction with other agencies and offices in state government — for example, the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Mental Health and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. You may be working with colleagues in the Attorney General’s Office, or with federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration. Our attorneys work at all levels.
Jaclyn: You are also interacting daily with subject matter experts who work here at DPH: from executive directors of professional boards, to health care licensing inspectors, to epidemiologists, to infectious diseases physicians. You are learning something new from someone different every day. 

Why should a lawyer come to work at DPH? How does it benefit a person’s career track?

Jaclyn: First of all, a lawyer has the opportunity to gain incredible experience here. For example, working closely with our Bureau of Health Care Safety and Quality, you can become a subject matter expert in all aspects of licensing for health care facilities through all of the phases, from establishing a new facility, to making changes to an existing service, to the closure process.  

All of our program attorneys have gained this kind of expertise in their respective areas. And attorneys in our Board Counsel unit learn not only about a particular scope of practice, but also gain valuable experience dealing with open meeting law issues, public records requests and administrative law.
Can lawyers at DPH move up — or move around? 
Beth: Because of the size of the office, there are lots of opportunities to move laterally as well as advance professionally. There is a LOT of room to move up — there are so many positions and so many places to move.  I like to say, “there’s a whole world at DPH.”  
Jaclyn: Absolutely. Especially recently, I think we’ve done a good job of encouraging career paths for our attorneys. I came from the Norfolk County District Attorney’s Office and started at DPH as a counsel 2, moved into a management role within two years, and now just a few years later, I’m acting chief deputy of the Office of General Counsel. If you are dedicated, there is definitely mobility. I also took advantage of the fantastic professional development opportunities available to DPH employees through the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and I have recommended that my whole team do so as well. From the Aspiring Supervisor Program, to the Management Certificate Program, to the Microsoft Skillful User Program, to Six Sigma Courses, there are opportunities for additional training at no cost during your regular workday. There are also lawyers working all over DPH outside the Office of General Counsel, so there is room to look at program-specific opportunities as well.

What do you like most about working at DPH?

Beth: The reason I’m here is that I’m doing really meaningful work — I do feel like I’m making a difference and having an impact on policy. And it’s very collaborative. As an attorney at DPH — even a counsel 1 or counsel 2 working every day in a program area — you have a say in topical legal issues. I think our attorneys would agree that we have an incredibly collegial atmosphere. People are genuinely helpful and supportive. I’ve met good friends here.
Jaclyn: In addition to the meaningful work Beth highlighted, what I appreciate is the work-life balance I can have working at DPH. I previously worked as an ADA, where after a few years, the emotionally difficult work, long hours, and challenging pay scale led me to look for other opportunities while staying in public service. Now I have some balance with a hybrid schedule, so being there for my young children is much more doable. I’m not in court every day. I don’t have the crazy hours, but the work is still super interesting, varied and important.
What three words would you use to describe your job?
Beth: Interesting, fulfilling, collaborative.
Jaclyn: Engaging, impactful, not boring. [Laughs] I guess that’s four words.


To learn about open legal positions at DPH, visit or email Legal positions are frequently being added. If you don't see one, check back again soon.