The Evolving Healthcare General Counsel: Leaning In During the Covid-19 Pandemic
As a corporate sponsor of the 2020 American Health Law Association’s Annual (Virtual) Meeting I had the opportunity to attend several fantastic virtual sessions including The Role of In-House Counsel During the Covid-19 Crisis. Throughout this session the panelists discussed a myriad of topics including how to manage a healthcare legal department amidst a pandemic. In this article we review several of the panelist’s suggestions as we explore how the healthcare General Counsel’s role continues to evolve.
THE EVOLVING GENERAL COUNSEL (GC)
GC's predict pain points, see multiple steps ahead, and reduce risk by planning for every eventuality. But the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown everyone a curveball, making it hard to prepare for a future shrouded in uncertainty and unprecedented confusion.
Today, the best-in-class GC doubles as a senior member of the executive team and an attorney. According to Amy Nelson, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Wellspan Health, “The role of the General Counsel’s office has changed significantly over the years. Although the GC is still tasked with providing cost-effective, quality legal services, many organizations have discovered that the in-house legal team can add value by proactively identifying – and managing – risks to the organization’s mission and goals. The GC is able to combine legal expertise with substantive industry and operational knowledge.”
GCS DON'T HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS
In the face of the Covid-19 crisis, executive leadership needs informed answers to their ensemble of legal questions. However, due to the unprecedented pace of new and amended local, state and federal regulations, there are no clear answers. Michelle Johnson Tidjani, Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Henry Ford Health System, believes now is the time for GCs to “lean into the uncertainty” because there are no “experts on COVID response, there are no experts on exactly how to do things.” When those gray area questions are asked, Michelle believes now is the time for GCs to “lean in” and say, “I don’t know for sure because nobody knows for sure, but here’s what I think it means, and here’s what I think the regulations will say, and here’s what I think based on all I know, all of my experience, and what I’m hearing from my colleagues and relationships and other organizations.”
IMPORTANCE OF A GC'S PROFESSIONAL NETWORK
As a GC, it is easy for the daily challenges of your job to become all-consuming to the point where you are convinced that networking is not necessary. No matter how much you want to excel at your job, building and leveraging a professional network is indispensable, especially when you need to lean-in. Leaning into change and forced innovation is expected, so there is no shame in reaching out to your network for advice, inquiring opinions, or simply asking for help in these unfamiliar times.
THE ESSENCE OF TAPPING INTO THE LEGAL DEPARTMENT'S INTERNAL TALENT
The Covid-19 crisis has left even the most agile and prepared organizations scrambling in many previously unimaginable ways. It underscores the need for a multi-disciplinary talent pool and a seamless flow of innovative ideas and knowledge to enable agility, capability and, capacity.
In a bid to minimize cost and still get work done, GCs must consider pooling talent internally first before sending work to outside law firms. It means discovering and tapping into your team’s existing expertise, which involves identifying collective skills, gaps, and talent action plans.
ADAPTING TO THE NEW WORK-LIFE BALANCE
The pandemic has triggered stressors in family life, personal finances, and careers, with many people citing it as the most stressful moment of their career. Perhaps even more stressful than other significant events like 9/11 and the great recession.
As such, the unexpected shift to working from home is taking a toll on the mental health of employees across industries. The new 'living at work' situation has left many people unable to find respite, even at home.
The culprit is the resultant 24/7 'always on' culture due to hyper-communication. Digital connectivity has significantly increased to circumvent and respond to the Covid-19 disruptions. The solution is achieving a feasible work-life balance by setting boundaries and de-stressing. For instance, you can intentionally disconnect for a few hours, take a lunch break, or mine your physical health by exercising.
Angela Han, Healthcare lawyer and founder of Fit to Practice Society believes GCs should “focus only on the things that bring joy into your life and how you can serve others. The more uncertain the times are, the more opportunities to serve - because there are more problems. I would ask the question, ‘what is a problem that I would absolutely love to solve for others right now?’, it helps create community and build confidence.”
OVER TO YOU
The Covid-19 crisis has presented considerable challenges while creating opportunities to increase your visibility and inclusion within your healthcare organization. All you have to do is “lean in.”