Having worked in-house at healthcare and technology startups for 15 years, Ani Bhat - General Counsel, Compliance Officer & Corporate Secretary at HealthEC shares with us the lawyer’s mindset while they’re in business, the multiple hats he wore as a GC and COO, and his experiences of leading the legal function and building diverse and high-performing teams.
In episode 13 of #LegalMatters, he tells us why many in-house counsels are transitioning into operational roles such as Business Affairs, Strategy or Compliance.
I've been a corporate lawyer for 20 years and have worked in-house for almost 15 years, predominantly in the healthcare and technology sectors. It is interesting to look back on my career thus far, because when you work in the startup/growth stage sector, you cannot predict the experiences you will have. It is not a tried and true path.
After law school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, I joined a law firm called Coolidge Wall, which provided an excellent foundation in the fundamentals of client service and corporate law. My work with startups is what really ignited the realization in me that my DNA was really on the business side, and it prompted a desire to consider an in-house legal career.
I have never had the professional aspiration to do anything other than be a lawyer. But a law firm career, with its billable hours culture and long-term partnership mindset, was not for me. I was more attracted to the possibilities of entrepreneurship and in-house legal service, where you not only have to provide great legal service, but also be responsible for supporting and implementing the business solutions you propose.
I joined a startup called Welmedix in my first in-house role, which was building consumer healthcare brands and selling them into national and online retail. At Welmedix, I originated the legal function, helped raise capital, and dealt with all the issues you have when you build a company from zero to one. Over time, I picked up management of regulatory, HR, quality, and supply chain operations, and it eventually became a glide path to the board asking me to take on a concurrent role as the company’s COO.
As COO, I was responsible for the entire supply side of the business. Dealing with an international supply chain, managing all the regulatory compliance issues and quality issues, negotiating with suppliers, overseas manufacturing, managing a P&L and leading a team, none of these were purely legal responsibilities. But you never give up the lawyer mindset, right?
When you take on a business role as GC, I believe one of two things happens. Either you don’t look back and go on to become a general manager and start calling yourself a “recovering lawyer.” And there are many such lawyers who have gone on to become exceptional COOs and CEOs. Or, the other thing that happens is that you use all that business, operational, and management experience to become a better GC. That's what I believe happened with me.
At Welmedix, nothing came easy, it was like business bootcamp and trial by fire, and it burned off any starry-eyed notions I had about business and entrepreneurship, and even about people. That experience wasn’t pleasant at the time, but it instilled in me a certain clarity and pragmatism, and also a certain grit that I think is very important for in-house lawyers to have, particularly those who advise founders and growth-stage companies.
“It’s important for a lawyer to be a realist, and to seek the truth in any situation. You can't find truth if you're clouded by grandiose notions or groundless optimism. You have to see the world as it is, and you have to be the voice of realism to management and be comfortable with delivering bad news. Those were muscles I had to develop.”
At the same time, you can't let realism curdle into cynicism or pessimism, because that's a death knell for startups. Entrepreneurs need to have unshakable confidence in their vision, and as a GC, you have to be careful not to weaken that. I always say, you should have big plans but be open to adjusting those plans as the market and customer respond, or as the facts and feedback dictate. Big plans, lightly held. Maintaining that balance of optimism and realism is important.
The Welmedix years made me better because they taught me that balance, among many other lessons about how to cater my legal advice to the needs and language of the business. All these are critical skills for in-house lawyers to develop.
What brought me to HealthEC was a desire to return to my first love, which is technology law and particularly, the nexus of tech and healthcare. My work at HealthEC exposes me to really interesting work in healthcare, data privacy and governance, healthcare innovation, value-based care, and all kinds of bleeding-edge issues. To be given the chance to come in and build the legal and compliance functions for such a dynamic and innovative company - who wouldn't want that?
HealthEC is a real pioneer and leader in population health management. The leadership team has been at it for a long time and has really deep knowledge of healthcare IT. We have an innovative and unique tech platform, and really excel at the intricacies and complexities of disparate data aggregation. It continues to be a remarkable learning and working experience for me. I am also very fortunate to work for a leader who really cares about compliance and is very supportive of the legal function.
Yes, we are seeing more and more GCs take on concurrent operational roles, or even graduate out of the legal function to head up Business Affairs, Compliance, Strategy, sometimes become CEOs. I think it’s just a recognition of the very unique set of skills that certain lawyers bring to the table, which is itself a function of the accelerating trend of legal services moving closer to the business.
If you look back at the last decade, the movement of legal services in-house started happening without a lot of fanfare. I don’t think there has even been a dearth of supply; the change occurred on the demand side. More and more companies began recognizing the transformative value of having a lawyer on the inside who can help the business operate proactively in managing risk. The more that management saw the value lawyers bring to the business, and the more that lawyers got embedded in the business, the more these other opportunities naturally opened up.
I look at my own experience when I was asked to take on the COO role. Why was that handed to me? I had no prior training in business or operations. I think it is just the unique way that law school trains you. The doctrinal training you undergo in law school really does change the way your brain works. You develop certain specific critical thinking skills, the ability to think dispassionately, to see past logical flaws and cognitive biases. Lawyers who are successful in-house also tend to be strong written and verbal communicators, capable of working cross-functionally, and being empathetic listeners – all of which are very valuable skills across the management spectrum.
Going in-house used to be seen as a step down, a cushy role with more work-life balance. That was never the case, by the way, but that was the general impression. That impression has been definitively put to rest. The industry now broadly recognizes how incredibly demanding and critical the in-house legal career path is, and those who succeed at it are well prepared for general management.
“Law firms can be incredible training grounds. They are still premised on the age-old apprenticeship system, where you were assigned to a more experienced lawyer and got to shadow them and learn by watching and doing. This kind of training method is very effective.“
It can be a bit of a crapshoot if a particular partner is not didactic or committed to training, or if they don’t have the patience to help you grow, or if there isn’t a clear framework to assess your progress. If you get unlucky in that way, that can affect your legal education.
At Coolidge, I had the opportunity to work with a couple of incredible mentors, and I do miss those learning opportunities. I also somewhat miss the formal and informal settings where we spent time with a broad range of clients. The chance to work on a wide variety of legal issues increases your reps and accelerates your learning. But I did not enjoy the billable-hour hamster wheel or being tethered to the partnership track. In my view, in-house life has a lot more to offer, and for me it has been more rewarding.
If I had to go back in time and advise myself from 15 years ago, I would emphasize really committing to my personal skills development and continuous learning. The legal industry is very dynamic, particularly in the healthcare technology space where I practice, and you have to stay on top of emerging regulations and case law, as well as keep track of and understand the new technologies and industries that are cropping up every day.
Law firms are good at building the systems necessary to retain expertise on upcoming regulations, because that’s how they continue to be marketable and attract business. But if you are an individual lawyer or member of an in-house team, you have to make it a point to create that.
Technology is now ubiquitous - every company is a data company and technology company in some form. Staying on top of privacy regulations, for example, is critical. Everyday in-house practice is so busy that it can be very easy to neglect this learning effort. So being autodidactic and committing the time to keep your skills and knowledge sharp is really important.
The other piece of advice I would give to myself from 15 years ago – and to every young lawyer - would be to work on my adaptive resilience. One of my favorite sayings is the famous quote by Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Good planners are relatively commonplace. But the ability to take a punch, devise a counterstrategy, and come back swinging is rare. That resilience comes from a combination of life experience and learned skills.
"The legal profession, and particularly entrepreneurship, is not for everybody, it’s not for the faint of heart. People think of resilience as a trait, that you either have it or you don’t, but I think it’s a skill that can be learned and developed. To be able to roll with the punches, deal with a high degree of uncertainty, and not take setbacks personally is important, not just in the entrepreneurial world, but in the legal world as well."
When building the legal team, we rightfully focus first on the core competencies needed to do the job well. But beyond those required qualifications and experiences, one piece of advice I would offer is to look for diversity of life experience and the ability to overcome setbacks in life. Those two traits in particular help build a really diverse and high-performing team.
"We tend to overvalue success and undervalue failure. I believe in the transformative and motivational power of failure. If the person has experienced failure and can explain how they have learned from it, I pay attention to that."
I also like to seek out candidates who have experience in adopting legal tech or other operational optimizations, which I think speaks to a certain self-awareness and ability to see the forest for the trees. I look for whether they are also early adopters of tech or emerging skills in their personal lives, because I think that says something about a willingness to try new things and thrive on a steep learning curve.
We are in the midst of a revolution in legal services. I think it's an exciting time to be an in-house lawyer. From the perspective of emerging technologies, it is interesting to witness the progress of AI and its potential as an assistive kind of mechanism in several aspects of law, with CLM being the most obvious use case. Blockchain technology has the potential, for example with smart contracts, to streamline compliance in a way that could be infinitely more efficient and accurate. It will also be interesting to watch the adoption of DAOs and the way that they could impact decision-making and power sharing within existing structures.
On the whole, technology continues to evolve at a faster and faster pace, and regulation struggles to keep up. Lawyers, particularly in-house counsel, are the folks who will be operating in between the two poles of the upward momentum of tech and the downward gravity of regulations. It’s an exciting and nerve-wracking place to be.
When you join any company to lead their legal function, it's important to have some kind of a roadmap, a strategic plan for what you want to do for the business. I always go in with a hypothesis based on whatever information I gather from the interviewing process and whatever is publicly available. The initial version of my plan puts a heavy emphasis on getting my arms around the regulatory framework and compliance obligations, and on smoothing out the contracting process and increasing revenue generation.
In terms of contract management, even if a company already has a process in place, there’s always room for improvement in the workflow. To add value to the business from a legal perspective, one needs to streamline those workflows. On the regulatory side, there may be a need to build training and upskill the organization. Those are key things to focus on early.
So you put a strategic plan together and then gather information. I always start by interviewing people –senior leadership, board members, department heads, and I work my way through the organization. As I gather more information, I adjust my hypotheses, refine my risk assessment, and keep updating the roadmap.
My favorite question to ask people, especially leadership at different levels, is “What's keeping you up at night?” Positioning the legal function as one that is focused on people’s concerns, and then making the effort to deliver on those, is important to develop relationships and trust capital at various levels of the organization. A big mistake you can make as a GC is to stay within the C-Suite or senior leadership; you’ve got to reach out to and build relationships with everybody. You need to build the perception in the organization that you are an ally to the business and somebody that everybody can talk to at any time.
It was a conscious decision. I have reached out over the years to more senior lawyers who are chief legal officers and senior leaders, and touch base with them every few months, sort of like a personal board of directors. These are highly, highly accomplished and busy people. Yet they make the time without hesitation to share their experiences, insights, and advice with total generosity and humility. It always blows my mind, because they have absolutely nothing to gain from doing this for me. They do it because they care about the profession and they want to help other lawyers grow. It’s truly an example worth emulating.
So I resolved to try in turn to share whatever little I have learned so far. Each of us has a very small flashlight and we only see whatever limited experiences we have had. It’s tempting to believe that there's no way our experiences will be helpful to somebody else. But the truth is, it can be incredibly meaningful. If each of us can be more generous with offering our knowledge and time, that generosity will I think continue to nurture an in-house legal community that is supportive of each other and helping each other. That in turn only makes our profession more effective in the long run.