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Bringing it full circle

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2019 - Autumn


The UCLA School of Law faculty biography page for Julie D. Cantor, JD, MD ’05, describes her as “a national expert on issues that fall at the intersection of medicine and law.” It’s clear that Cantor, as a professor, attorney, physician, artist, entrepreneur, and mother, operates at many intersections.

Her rich diversity of passions and interests began in childhood. “I came from a family that valued both education and entrepreneurship,” Cantor said. “And always trying to contribute in a unique and necessary way.” Even at a young age, she understood the need for social justice and advocacy. When a busy street near her childhood home needed a crossing guard, Cantor said, “I was so incensed about that problem that as a 6-year-old, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper about it.”

Cantor was raised on action. In the 1970s, her father, a children’s dentist and artist, and her mother, a kindergarten teacher, created a space-themed children’s dental practice. It was complete with spaceship decor and pilot uniforms. “I think they had an innate sense that what it takes to succeed in this culture is to do something that’s different, that’s creative,” Cantor said.

She quickly discovered both aptitude and enthusiasm for school, which eventually led to Stanford University. Majoring in psychology, she also engaged with history, literature, and art history—and took advantage of an opportunity to study in Italy, where her mother had studied and where her parents honeymooned. The country had a lasting effect on Cantor.

After completing both a BA and an MA in psychology, Cantor worked at the Program in Bioethics at UCSF. There, she worked with a physician and an attorney. “I liked the way [they] would comment on things that were going on in the world at the intersection of law and medicine,” she said. Her mentors wrote about the potential impact of cases pending before the Supreme Court of the United States on assisted suicide, and the piece was published in a leading medical journal. “I remember thinking: that’s the pinnacle of greatness,” Cantor said. “How do I get to do that?”

Cantor spent two years at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, then moved to Yale to complete a visiting year at Yale Law School and begin medical school. Yale School of Medicine proved an opportunity for Cantor to explore, refine, and coalesce her interests. She enjoyed writing and lecturing, and published her first article in the New England Journal of Medicine. Though her passions did not fit neatly, Cantor said, “I just kept pursuing things that were interesting to me and had hoped—and continue to hope—I can contribute to other people’s lives and contribute to the dialogue.”

After graduating, Cantor accepted a position with a Los Angeles law firm, Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP. She was one of a handful of physicians in her Yale class to pursue an option other than residency. “It was a very academic firm, so I knew they would be okay with me wanting to teach and lecture,” she said. While juggling work as an adjunct professor at UCLA School of Law and also starting a family, she made a name for herself at the firm working on cases informed by her medical background, including a case challenging Kentucky’s lethal injection protocol, for which she co-authored an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court. “I was really fortunate to work on teams with people who were so illustrious in their field as lawyers that they brought in these incredibly interesting cases,” she said.

Cantor’s next career endeavor grew, as always, from an eye attuned to progress. Working as a litigator and representing high-profile clients, she found herself saddled with an unwieldy amount of paperwork, baggage, and materials. “I had a rolling bag, a tote, plus a laptop,” she said. “When you add it all up it’s pretty heavy, and I thought there’s got to be a way where this can really have an element of self-expression and style, and also be beautifully made and made to last forever, and can be totally functional.”

As she had when she was 6 years old, Cantor recognized and addressed a need. To create a perfect career accessory, Cantor founded Harlen, a brand that elevates women’s work bags to Modern Careerpieces, a term she trademarked. Harkening back to her time—as well as her mother’s time—studying art history in Italy, the Harlen Collection is handcrafted in Italy. She named the brand for her grandparents, Harriet and Lenny, whom she credits with igniting her sense of style and who were also “real supporters of girls’ education and empowerment and autonomy and independence.” In that spirit, to move opportunity from successful women to the next generation, Harlen partners with Room to Read, an acclaimed non-governmental organization dedicated to global literacy and girls’ education.

Though many things have come full circle for Cantor, she isn’t finished. In addition to leading Harlen, she remains engaged with both medicine and law through her UCLA Law seminar, “Reproductive Rights, Medical Ethics & the Law,” which began at Yale as a sophomore seminar; and by writing about issues that affect both of those fields. And she’s frequently approached with requests for public comment. Whether in the New England Journal of Medicine or on Good Morning America or somewhere in between, Cantor is always happy to speak. As she puts it, “it’s an opportunity to take what I’ve learned, including what I learned at Yale, and advance the conversation, improve lives, and solve problems.”