Penny Westfall, Class of '84

alum of the month

Penny Westfall ’84 began her career as a nurse and retired as Sutter Health’s Vice President and Chief Legal Officer, Bay and Valley Areas. As well as her King Hall law degree, she holds a bachelor’s degree in Nursing Science. Penny started at Sutter as their Associate General Counsel in 1992. She served three terms on the King Hall Alumni Association Board of Directors and now lives in San Diego.

How did you go from studying nursing science to King Hall?

My first love was health care. It took me a while to learn to love the law. I was an ICU nurse at UC Davis for five years. I wanted to do more, but I wasn’t sure what that would mean. I explored studying to be a nurse practitioner, going to medical school, and going to law school. While I was still trying to decide, I took the LSAT. I found in studying for the LSAT that I really liked it, and then I did well on it. The analytical process of diagnostics we used in health care was very similar. You start with a presumptive issue, figure out the diagnostics, and explore solutions. 

I decided to apply to law school, but I only wanted to do health care law. Only one or two law schools in the country had health care as an emphasis at the time. My husband was a physician at UC Davis, so I didn’t want to leave the Sacramento area. King Hall had a great reputation. When I was admitted, I was very excited.

What do you find rewarding about health law?

I really feel like, in an indirect way, health care lawyers are serving the patient. So much of my work as in-house counsel at Sutter Health was a service to the over-all organization. Whether I was helping to acquire badly needed equipment or arranging contracts for physician services, the ultimate beneficiary was the patient.

What have you been doing since you retired?

It seems like a long time. A year and a half, but it’s gone quickly. I’ve been taking care of my health, but then I decided to move to San Diego to be closer to my two sons, my daughter-in-law, and my grandchildren. I’ve been getting situated.

I’m interested in getting involved in the local legal community in some way, to give back. I’m looking into the health care subdivision of the local bar association.

What is your favorite King Hall memory?

It was in Professor Dykstra’s Torts class. The first year, everyone has nerves about being called on. The professors always addressed us formally, with our titles and last names. Professor Dykstra called on me so many times first semester. When he called on me early in second semester, I said, “Professor Dykstra, you know me so well that you can call me Penny.” From then on, he called me “Miss Penny.”

Which class at King Hall have you used the most?

Contracts with Professor Fessler. That year, we voted him our favorite professor. He had our class over to his house in small groups for wine and appetizers. I loved contracts. They are so logical, and, surprisingly, so many things in law are not. Since I was making the transition from science to business, I liked it. Contracts are constantly used in all aspects of law. Professor Fessler was also a corporations professor, and he helped Alaska rewrite its corporate code.

Did you participate in student organizations?

I helped found an organization for Law and Medicine. The name was later changed to the Health Law Association. We brought in speakers who practiced health law. We had speakers from both the public and private sectors. Health law was why I went to law school, and I learned there were other students who felt the same way. There weren’t many classes that were dedicated to health law, so it was helpful to listen to speakers who were practicing.

I was really active in the Women’s Law Association. I also helped found Perfect Tender, the child care cooperative. That really became a draw to people because it provided a sense of what King Hall was like. I used Perfect Tender when I had my baby in my second year. It was a godsend.

How have you stayed connected to King Hall?

Not as much since I’ve moved to San Diego. Before that, I served three terms on the King Hall Alumni Association Board of Directors. I was asked to serve after I headed my reunion committee. It was fun to reconnect. I was on the Development Committee because I had spearheaded the Class of 1984 endowed scholarship through the reunion. We were primarily raising money for scholarships to cover tuition, which had increased exponentially. At the time, tuition was about $45,000 a year; it had been $1400 a year when I was a student.

I’m looking to become more involved here. I miss getting the updates on King Hall.

Of what are you proudest?

Raising children is not for the faint of heart. Raising them to be tough enough to survive this world and loving and compassionate enough not to be hardened against it has been hard.

As a lawyer, I’m proud of my whole career. I’ve been able to practice in a service capacity to bedside providers. Practicing law is often about solving problems, and often the resolution is money. I find that less satisfying than providing solutions that help the bedside providers. That never came home to me more distinctly than it did in the pandemic.

Many lawyers grow unhappy. It’s a hard career. Lawyers are always involved in a problem, and rarely can they make everybody happy. I found that my nursing skills were absolutely essential to assessing and understanding what people really wanted.

It’s very demanding and difficult. For many lawyers, it’s a burden, and they grow weary of it. I loved my career. I’m happy about that. I wish all lawyers could find a path to that type of involvement.

Do you have any advice for current law students?

I mainly want them to know that they can do and can be anything they want. That should be more evident to them than ever. The culture of King Hall is collaborative and participative and helpful. I don’t know how many other law schools have tutors to help, have a full-time psychologist, have other students who want to lift you up. I had a baby and took a semester off. You can have a life and find an area that is your passion. It is absolutely all possible. Maybe it sounds like, yeah, really, sure. But I really, truly believe that. I wish I could hug all the first-years and tell them it will be okay.

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