Executive Careers in Healthcare Law

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According to consultants at leading executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, the importance of health law as a specialized legal practice has escalated in recent years, due to health reform, a changing legislative landscape, and mergers and acquisitions that create large systems in need of expanding their in-house legal staff.

General counsels (lawyers) within healthcare organizations are taking on greater responsibilities including assessing risk, shaping policy, leading government relations, and other initiatives, according to search consultants at Witt/Kieffer. In other words, hospitals that previously outsourced their legal needs to a law firm may now hire their own in-house team of lawyers, which can save money for larger systems who need a lot of legal services. Additionally, systems that may already have some lawyers and law executives on staff may soon be adding to their legal team, if they have not already done so.

What experience and skills are required of these increasingly crucial healthcare law executives? And how will this trend continue into the future? We turned to Werner Boel, Senior Associate at Witt/Kieffer, for more information about the growth in demand for executive careers in health law, as well as what type of talent employers need most. Boel provides excellent insight into the careers of executives in healthcare law.

Career Opportunities for In-House Legal Teams

"Career opportunities in healthcare for legal counsel—for example, General Counsel, Deputy General Counsel, and Chief Legal Officers—have increased steadily in recent years as health law itself has grown more important and complex," states Mr. Boel. "Healthcare reform continues to shift and add legal challenges for healthcare organizations. Meanwhile, the industry is in the midst of widespread consolidation, with hospitals, clinics, physician practices, and other health centers merging into vast networks which require expanded in-house legal departments."

Recent Growth and Projected Future Growth 

Boel cites the American Health Lawyers Association and the American Bar Association (ABA) for growth statistics. According to these professional organizations, "in-house legal staffs within hospitals and health systems have grown steadily within the past several years, with new executive positions such as Deputy General Counsel being introduced to handle operational responsibilities and allow the General Counsel to assume a more strategic role," Boel adds.

"Health law experts predict continuing increases in legal activity and expenditures in the years to come, suggesting further increases in the roles of general counsel and other senior legal executives. With such activity, the expansion of in-house legal departments is also being used as a cost-saving measure, as it is less expensive than relying heavily upon outside legal counsel."

Professional Focus and Job Responsibilities

Many healthcare law executives are hired to focus on assessing and managing business risk and developing business strategies, according to Boel. This includes tasks such as:

  • Oversee mergers and acquisitions
  • Review state professional licensure and practice requirements of clinical staff and facilities
  • Manage compliance with federal and state anti-kickback laws and patient referral restrictions such as the Stark Law, which prevents physicians from referring to organizations in which they have a financial stake.
  • Assist physician practices and employed physicians with integration into larger healthcare entities
  • Creation of insurance plans. (Many health systems are developing their own plans to better serve their patient populations.)

Required Skillsets and Experience

"In most healthcare organizations, legal experts are now considered among the most important executives within the C-Suite," Boel asserts. "As such, health law executives must prove that they are more than technical experts in their field. They must also exhibit successful leadership skills and behaviors. In particular, they must be able to assert their influence among their executive peers and inspire and mentor those who serve on their legal teams."

The ability to put a business hat on, as opposed to a lawyer’s hat, is important. In the search for General Counsel, CEOs no longer just want another lawyer—they want someone who understands their business of healthcare and running a hospital, according to Boel.

How to Find Careers in Healthcare Law

In addition to the traditional methods of job search such as networking and searching online, Boel states that executive search firms and recruiters are more frequently being hired by healthcare organizations to help identify potential legal leaders and to assess and train their in-house teams. Boel adds, "They are also looking to other industries in the recruitment of legal executives, though these hires typically have some past experience working in a healthcare-related environment and commit themselves to stay abreast of key industry legal and compliance issues. Some people can make a transition out of research-driven industries like pharmaceutical or biotech—with experience in, for example, licensing agreements—but that is more the exception than the rule."

Education and Background Requirements

According to Boel, "healthcare counsel must usually have a J.D. degree, have passed the Bar examination, and have five to 10 years of experience in health law. It is helpful to have some transactional experience, given the high number of mergers and acquisitions that healthcare organizations are currently going through."

"Many health law execs also have an L.L.M. (Master of Laws degree) with a concentration in health law, while regular J.D. students at some law schools can opt for a concentration in healthcare. Individuals with these degree concentrations often get hired directly out of school to fill key legal positions within healthcare organizations," Boel states.

Continuing professional education and certification through AHLA, ABA’s health law section and local bar organizations are also preferred.

Salary Ranges and Compensation Expectations 

As demand for their services has grown, salaries for health law executives have grown accordingly. AHLA data suggest that in-house counsel in the industry have seen salaries increase by approximately 10 percent annually within recent years. "One-factor driving salaries up is that private law firms are also creating and expanding health law practices, competing with healthcare organizations for talent. This increases salaries all around, though in many cases, especially with nonprofits, healthcare organizations cannot compete on salary with private law firms," Boel concludes.

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