Journal of Leadership and the Law




Elon Law advisory board member Maureen O'ConnorMy first job was with a law firm in Maine.  If you asked me in law school, “What do you think you want to do,” I wasn’t really sure.  I took a real variety of courses; I didn’t really specialize.  But, I think by my third year, I thought that I wanted to practice labor and employment law.  The firm that I went with in Bangor, Maine was big by Maine standards; it was about 40 lawyers and they had a really good employment practice.   But, when I got there, as the 39th or 40th lawyer, I realized that five or six lawyers in the firm were doing labor and employment law.  When you think about the pecking order, I was really low!  It was literally three or four months after starting there, when one of the partners said, “Our largest client is a hospital, and we have someone who sits on the board of the hospital; we have someone who does all the corporate work; tax, governance, but we don’t have anyone doing health law.”  This was in 1983 or 1984 when health law was just emerging as a specialty.

So, he said to me, “Would you be interested in developing that as a specialty?”  And, I guess it says something about my ambition, because I might have taken one health law course or a course that covered part of the subject matter, but I had no credentials.  So, I said “Sure,” and I went to a conference in Baltimore.  It was three days of learning Medicare and Medicaid law.  . . .  I guess I came back knowing a lot more than when I left, but I was still utterly confused.    So, I remember this partner saying, “That’s great, so you went to this conference, and you know a lot more about Medicare reimbursement and we’re going to have a meeting with the hospital senior leadership team next week, and we’d like you to do a presentation on what you learned.”   I still remember that to this day because it was a really bad decision - certainly on his part - and probably on my part.  The CEO of the hospital was there.  I remember holding a yellow marker in my hand and I was shaking so much that the whole time I’m thinking, “This marker’s just shaking!”   I wasn’t prepared to do it, [but] I did it.  I guess I took some risk in that particular case. I don’t know that it paid off, because I realized I needed to spend another year or year and a half learning health law, but it was a great decision for me.  I ended up loving the subject area, and because I was the only lawyer who was specializing in that area, I was put in front of  clients regularly.   I had a lot more responsibility than I think I would have had if I had stayed in the labor and employment practice.

After a few years we decided, for family reasons, to relocate to North Carolina.  I had been doing mostly hospital work when I came to North Carolina. That was another lesson in humility.  At Suffolk, I had done well academically.  I was on Law Review and in the top 10% of my class. I did quite well, and then I came to North Carolina where they had never heard of this law school.  I had been practicing about four-and-a-half years.  I had to take the bar exam again, and started sending letters out.  My confidence was really pretty high; I had a good practice in Maine.  I was on the recruitment committee for bringing lawyers into the firm.  I sent 30-35 letters out, and only got one back.  It was an informational “come and chat with us.” Ultimately, I was hired by the one firm that responded.  That was a real shock to me, because my own confidence was such that I thought that I could go into any firm and add value, but they were not familiar with Suffolk.  . . . So I went to work for Smith Anderson Law Firm in Raleigh, another great firm, doing mostly healthcare work on the physician side.  So, I got a different perspective.

After about three-and-a-half to four years, I was asked to leave the firm and go in-house with a small health plan called Carolina Physicians’ Health Plan that wanted me to come over and start their legal department.  Part of leadership is figuring out when you have opportunities, what do you do with them, and where can you add the most value, and what is your comfort level in taking some risk.  This was a time when I thought that I could stay right where I was; very happy, doing well, or I could go to this pretty small company, about 80 employees, and start something from scratch.  I didn’t know anything about insurance, so I said to the CEO, “I’ll do it, but only with the understanding that I can keep using outside counsel for six to nine months.  You’re going to pay my salary and you’re still going to have to pay outside counsel, because I need to learn this.”  He said that was fair, so we did that, and it worked out very well.  That company grew from 80 employees to 600.  And, during those five or six years I was with them, I went from being their only general counsel to hiring another lawyer, to setting up a compliance department, and then also managing their government affairs function, Human Resources, and new product development, so I started to get into the business more.  . . .  What factored into my decisions each time was, first, what kind of opportunity does this really present to make a difference, to really do what I want to do, and secondly, I absolutely factored in my family and what I felt we needed at that point.  But in the end, I realized that I really loved the business side.  While I loved the law as well, if I could find a job that allowed me to use both, that was ideal for me. 


In a law firm, back when I first started practicing, I would say there were several ways I tried to be a leader.   One way was volunteering to be part of the group helping to recruit new lawyers into the firm.  I was pretty young when I came into that group, and I think they were looking for someone who had been in law school recently.  That was a great opportunity because I worked with a group of partners who were part of the hiring and recruiting committee.  I was going out to all the law schools, and I was making assessments of law students and their talent.  Getting involved within the firm in whatever committees or organizations they have is one way that you can show interest.  When I first started practicing, I became a member of the local town planning board.  I didn’t know anything about planning, but it seemed like a way to really use my law degree to help the town.  I was also on the board of a local hospice, and typically what some of these smaller nonprofit boards are looking for, is lawyers who are well-educated and thoughtful people, and who can help them with questions about their bylaws or help them run down an issue pertaining to their particular area of focus. I remember doing those two boards in particular.  I was also active in the local bar, and I worked with the firm to establish a pay framework so that work in the community or pro bono work actually counted toward incentive pay.  . . .  So, that was another way of just offering up good ideas.

In the corporate environment, I think the way that I have developed leadership skills is really, first of all, asking for responsibility.  I came to Blue Cross having been certainly in the health law field for a long time, having been general counsel for another company, and having worked in private practice as well.   After I had been at the company for about five years, I was getting a little bored.  The work was interesting, but it didn’t really feel like I was being challenged in new ways, so I went to my boss and said exactly that.  I said, “I’m happy; I’m not going anywhere right now, but I just want you to be thinking about other things I might do.”  I had been getting very good reviews.  I was getting good feedback, but I wasn’t sure what the next step was.  A lot of people think that would be rude or inappropriate, but it’s really not, particularly in a corporate environment, or in a law firm as well, to just come forward and say “This is what I want to do.”  . . .  I think many of us are raised to believe that if you just do a good job, and put in a good, if not solid, or even exemplary, day, week, or year, good things will happen.  Typically, that’s true.  There’s a certain element of patience here; you can’t just walk in after practicing a year and say, “This is what I want,” if it’s something you would expect to get after 10 years.  But, I think you have to look after yourself.  You have to really look after and take responsibility for your own career.  Don’t just assume that if you work hard all the pieces will fall into place, because sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t, just because somebody asked and you didn’t. 

. . . I think one advantage of Blue Cross as an organization is that it’s a not-for-profit in contrast to a law firm.  As soon as I got there, they asked, “What do you want to do in the community?  Because we’re all really involved.  It’s part of our mission, and what defines us as an organization.”  I took a couple of years where I didn’t do that much -- my kids were pretty young and I was getting to know the business -- but when the time was right, I said “All right, I want to get involved.”  So, I joined the board of the American Lung Association.  I’m not going to go through all my boards, but at one point, I looked down and said “Wow, all right.  So I’m on seven or eight.”  I’d say, on that front . . . get involved.  It’s so worth it, but you will also have to decide how much is too much.  Be really passionate about whatever it is you’re doing.   Don’t just join it for the sake of having it on your resume.   Really care about it.  And if you do, it usually leads to more boards and more requests, and then you have to figure out how to say no, because you can’t do it all.


Everyone’s different.  After my first child was born, I went back full-time for about six months and decided it wasn’t working for me; I had very little time.  So, I went to the partnership and said that I would like to work three days a week.  After going back and forth a bit, they said it was fine.   Both the other women lawyers who were already there when I arrived had kids, and they asked me “How did you do it?”  I just asked.  I think it was a real cultural thing where when they joined the firm, they didn’t feel comfortable doing that.  By the time I had children, it was more acceptable.   When I moved to North Carolina, I continued to work four days a week for awhile, and when I went in–house, it was on condition that I continue to do that.  When I started managing a lot of other people, I made the decision to go full-time at that point.  We made family adjustments.  I don’t think I ever felt like I was not getting the good assignments, or that I was getting off the track.  If anything, when you’re not full-time, you actually usually end up being more productive because you are more focused on what you are doing in a shorter time.  Also, they only had to pay me 60 percent, so it was a pretty good deal all the way around. 


I am starting to hear more and more from firms we work with, pretty regularly, that they are really trying to figure this issue out.  If you look at the number of women in law school, it’s really not a choice.  They have to figure it out.  And it’s not just women, it’s men who want to spend time with their kids.  I actually think it’s going to get better than it has been traditionally.  One of the conversations that we are having in our company is that we are looking at our space needs over the next five years.  One of the ways we are challenging ourselves to think about is, “Why do we have to have all these people sitting here?”   Right now, 60 percent of IBM’s workforce works from home.  I have a good friend who is a senior partner at Deloitte and if you asked her where her office is, she couldn’t really answer the question.  She’s on planes a good bit but [otherwise] she’s just working from home.  I talked to our vice president of legal services and asked, “Why [do] we have lawyers and offices down the hall, and why aren’t - at least the majority of them - working from home?”  Just working from home doesn’t mean you get to spend quality time at home, if you’re still expected to bill 2400 hours.  It might mean that the hours you’re spending commuting, you don’t have to spend commuting, and it might just give you more flexibility.  This isn’t the law firm’s issue, this is our issue.  Create a really flexible arrangement.


First, my role is to give advice to the business.  I would like to think that most companies have a lot of respect for the legal department.  I don’t know that I could count on one hand in the 17 years that I have worked in-house, where I’ve had that kind of a conflict where someone has said, “I hear you; we’re not doing that.”  Typically, they listen to the advice.  I think I am the kind of lawyer -- at least I’ve always tried to be -- that doesn’t just give an answer.  I really look at what the client wants to accomplish and help figure out how to do it, and there’s usually a way to do it.  It may not be the preferred way, but I think if you can sell it in a way that you’ll still get most of what you wanted.  You’ll do it in a way that doesn’t create regulatory issues or legal issues; you explain the risk of doing it the way they want it, that you can get where you need to be.  . . .  One of the real skills of any lawyer, and I think it’s really important for corporate [lawyers] is to, first of all, understand the business, and if you do, you’ll come up with solutions.  I think that’s part of all of our jobs.   We are problem solvers, and we help our clients come up with solutions.  If it’s a creative solution, they’re going to come to you the next time.


I think a lot of the best lawyers. . . that I have practiced with never really emerged as strong leaders because they tend to have a heads-down approach to their work.  They go to the library; they work; they may be the most analytical person; they may come up with the best memo, but they really can’t translate it to the client.  They don’t really see the big picture of how the issue relates across the broader subject or the politics of the situation.  . . . Do you operate in such a way that you ask questions and say, “Wait a minute; it’s going to help me give you the best advice possible if I really understand the context?”  I think it applies outside of just legal research.  Do you tend to approach things with “If I work hard, good things will happen?” versus approaching it heads-up, “What’s going on, what are the internal politics?” Law firms have internal politics, and companies do too.  Who is doing what; who do I need to be paying attention to?  Pay attention to the movers and shakers, the people who are making things happen, and where you can apply your talents best.  I think a lot of people lose sight of that.


Basically, when it comes down to it, you have to be yourself.  This is a generation that is not reluctant to ask for things.  It’s good for law firms.  It’s good for whatever setting you’re in, and it’s good for society.  You’re effectively raising the bar.  If you are asking how to stand out in a group of people who are all thinking the same way, I’m not sure I have a good answer for you, but I think it’s a good thing that you’ve got this new way approaching [things].  I would just say don’t lose that.  I was with a firm that prided itself in taking the cream of the crop; and they could, because the market was such, and everyone, academically, was stellar.  So they would pick really interesting people; a friend of mine had climbed the highest mountain on five out of the seven continents, somebody else had produced records, and someone had played professional baseball.   It was a really interesting group, and none of them stayed at the firm more than two or three years because they were actually bored practicing law.  I think you should push buttons.  You should challenge, that’s part of making the organization better, but in the end, you have to be who you are.  You have to have passion about what it is you do.  In their case, I’m not sure they were really a good fit for a law firm.   It was not a negative reflection on the firm; they just ended up doing completely different things.  You have to be yourself.  You have to look for ways to improve your organization, and to improve the community if you can.