In this installment of Contract Heroes, we had the opportunity to chat with Vice President Associate General Counsel at Thriveworks, Stefanie Frank. Stefanie has been practicing law for about 8 years, having attended law school in North Carolina. She brings a unique perspective to our conversation, as her experience comes entirely from in-house counsel positions as opposed to working with law firms or as outside counsel. She began her career with the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy where she discovered her passion for practicing in the mental health world of law. About 2 years ago, she became the second attorney employed by Thriveworks, a mental health organization that offers both in person and virtual appointments with licensed clinicians across all 50 states.
Throughout our conversation, Stefanie shared her experiences working with a very small in-house legal team as well as some of the nuances that come with managing contracts and legal issues in the realm of healthcare. Listen in or read on to discover how she and her team have adapted to the ever-changing regulations of the healthcare system and the unique needs they sought to meet when selecting their own contract management tool.
In-House Legal: A Jack of All Trades
In-house legal teams function very differently from large law firms and outside counsel. Growing or advancing in a law firm typically involves specialization, narrowing your focus onto one particular field that you strive to understand better than anyone else. The same may go for larger in-house teams with more people available to focus on such specializations. For small in-house teams, however, growth in your position and growth in the company both involve an expansion of knowledge to encompass much more than one particular area of the law. It is the function of the legal team to take care of the company from a legal perspective, pushing their reach far beyond just contracts. To accomplish this function, attorneys need to be able to understand the company as a whole.
Some people say that you need to know a little bit about everything to work in-house, but, in reality, you need to know a lot about nearly anything that comes your way. Depending on your organization, of course, there may be some areas that require less attention. In Stefanie’s case, for example, the legal needs of Thriveworks center largely around healthcare. Her team performs actions relating to healthcare law, but also to labor and employment, insurance, litigation, contracts, and more. They must be able help the organization function within the confines of healthcare law while also meeting their business goals and requirements. This generally means using their knowledge of how healthcare laws work in application in order to generate alternative solutions to problems that arise.
Much of the knowledge that in-house counsel needs is not taught in law school. Rather, Stefanie and her team have had to do much of their learning via “trial by fire,” diving into any problem that arises with dedicated research. In-house teams should always strive to assess their potential solutions, especially when confronted with new situations. Ask yourself what questions you or your associates may be missing, then use those questions to find the best possible solution.
Making the Most of Outside Counsel
When an in-house department is already stretched to their limits, where can they turn for extra assistance? Outside counsel, of course. Stefanie explained that taking advantage of outside counsel can be an immense help to small legal teams, especially when the scope of the organization is quite broad. Thriveworks, for example, branches across all 50 states, meaning that the team often needs to know the unique healthcare laws for each state in order to make sure the organization is always in compliance. When deciding which projects to send over to outside counsel, she stated that there are two main criteria: the amount of work and the specialization of the project.
If a project is simply too large for the in-house team to tackle on their own on top of the other tasks they need to accomplish, delegating to outside counsel may be necessary. Performing research about healthcare laws in 50 different states is an excellent example. In this case, reaching out to a firm that has experience in the healthcare field would likely be the best solution, as you can be sure that they have an in-depth understanding of the law and that they will be able get the work done in a timely fashion.
If a project is highly specialized, then it may again be better to seek assistance from outside counsel. In some scenarios, even after performing research on your own, you may not fully understand how certain aspects of the law function in practice. Stefanie gave the example of tax questions posed by their HR department. Lawyers who specialize in that topic can guide you through the process, making sure it’s done correctly and helping you learn more along the way.
Stefanie explained that communication is key when working with outside counsel. Let them know exactly what your needs and expectations are so that you can make the most of the service they provide. This is especially important in fields like healthcare, where the law is usually very specific.
Meeting Your CLM Needs
When Stefanie first started at Thriveworks, they were not a contract-heavy company, mainly utilizing employee contracts and a handful of vendor contracts. However, as the organization grew, so did their contracts. Though the contracts aren’t necessarily complex at the moment, they still need a way to keep track of them and safely store the data they contain. After all, in a company related to healthcare, data that holds private health information needs to be protected.
An important aspect of the CLM implementation process to keep in mind is that this is not a tool that is designed only for the legal team. In fact, many other departments who touch contracts will also need to be familiar with the tool and able to actively engage with it. Stefanie stated that their payer, IT, product, and growth departments all have a hand in the contracting process, although the payer department was the most involved in the selection of the tool.
In a CLM tool, they were mainly seeking something basic enough for everyone to be able to understand it and use it to find the information they needed. Stefanie hopes that the tool will be able to reduce the amount of stress on the legal department by empowering employees in other departments to take contracting into their own hands, accessing the necessary templates and staying on top of renewal dates. Any time saved for the legal team is time that can be spent bringing more value to the company instead of answering basic questions about contract clauses.
For more exclusive chats with expert guests in the contract lifecycle management sphere along with valuable legal-tech advice, check out past installments of Contract Heroes and be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode! If you have any questions for our guest, Stefanie Frank, you can connect with her on LinkedIn.