Emerging Lawyer Spotlight: Interview with a Health Care Compliance Attorney
Published: Feb 19, 2020
Vault’s Emerging Lawyers Series highlights the legal careers of recent law school graduates, exploring how they landed their first law job, what it’s like working as a junior lawyer, and any advice they have for law students pursuing similar paths.
Christine Kearney is the Compliance Advisor at TASC, Inc. (Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities) in Chicago, IL. TASC is a nonprofit organization that serves communities throughout Illinois by promoting access to substance use and mental health treatment programs and working to improve criminal justice policies. We asked Christine about her experiences at TASC and for her advice to law students interested in pursuing compliance and/or health law work.
Vault: Can you tell us about your background and how you made the decision to go to law school?
Christine: I graduated from Chapman University with a B.S. in Business Administration with a double focus in Business Management and International Business, plus an interdisciplinary cluster in Leadership and Communications. (An interdisciplinary cluster is a focus of study that amounts to slightly less than a minor degree.) During those school years, I worked at my former high school as a dance team coach, and I also worked at a primary care medical office towards the end of school and for two years after I graduated.
Throughout undergrad, law school was always in the back of my mind as one of my “next step” options. I was fascinated with the law and the way our legal system works, but I didn't fully consider law school until I took a communications law course for my interdisciplinary cluster in my junior year. During the course, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the work involved. It was different from my business courses and challenged my thinking because there wasn’t always a perfect answer. Towards the end of the course, I spoke with the professor who was a practicing attorney and just asked questions about law school and being a lawyer—and for any advice on the subject. While I did not actually start applying to law schools for another two years, that class stayed with me and was a turning point in my decision-making.
When I decided I was ready to take the plunge, I moved away from California to pursue my Juris Doctor at Loyola University Chicago. Because of my experience working at the medical office, I was very interested in pursuing health law, which Loyola Chicago is known for. During law school, I became an academic tutor for legal writing, and I was the publications editor for the Annals of Health Law and a senior editor for the Journal of Regulatory Compliance. I ended up graduating with double certificates—one in Health Law and one in Compliance Studies.
Vault: How did you decide you wanted to focus on compliance work?
Christine: Compliance sort of fell in my lap. In law school, we had “Big and Little” pairings—each 1L was matched with an upperclassman mentor—and I was lucky to get matched with someone who would not only influence my career path, but also become a great friend. We were both from California and quickly found out we were both in the health law program. Though I had known before starting law school that I wanted to work in health law, I had been struggling to decide a more specific career path. My mentor was the one who introduced me to compliance. Even in 2015 (when I was a 1L), compliance was a relatively new term in the legal industry, and there were only a handful of schools that offered compliance certificate programs at that time. At my mentor’s suggestion and after conducting some research of my own, I decided to take my first compliance course the following semester. From that first class, I knew compliance was where I wanted to focus my legal career. Health care compliance was an easy and quick “yes” for me.
Vault: What is your role as an attorney focused on compliance?
Christine: The role of an attorney who focuses on compliance is incredibly job specific, in my opinion. The type of work you do is completely dependent on where you are practicing, whether it’s within a law firm or a single organization. For example, the projects I completed for an internship at a professional association looked completely different from projects at a disability hospital, which looked completely different from the work I do now at a treatment/case management organization. With that said, there is a shared goal—compliance with whatever rules, regulations, standards, etc. that the organization is required to meet.
Vault: What is your day-to-day job like, and what kinds of long-term projects are on your plate?
Christine: I split time between both legal and compliance projects, and the organization I work for is very collaborative. I work with members of various departments daily, which may be different from a traditional in-house role. So, a lot of my day-to-day work is dependent on the meetings for the day and the bigger agency projects that are moving forward. That work usually involves the more legal side of my expertise. Included in that legal work, I handle incoming subpoenas and requests for information for the entire state-wide agency.
On the compliance side, most of my projects fall into one of the “seven steps of compliance,” which are the basic elements to an effective compliance program in an organization. I manage the daily operations of several aspects of our agency’s compliance program, including our agency policies and procedures and the compliance reporting hotline. In addition, I assist with the development of trainings for our staff and perform internal monitoring and auditing functions as we have several accreditations through independent agencies and by contract.
Vault: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Christine: The most challenging part of my job is helping people without a legal mind understand why compliance is so important. Compliance is a new word for many people, and they don’t learn their jobs with compliance in mind most of the time. Their focus is the clients, and it should be. They shouldn’t have to be the experts in compliance—that’s my job! Bringing compliance into a client-focused role is difficult because sometimes it may seem to contradict the client focus with all the billing requirements, documentation requirements, accreditation requirements, etc.
It is so important for me to be able to show my organization the “why” behind the changes we want to make for the sake of compliance. As a compliance attorney, I can tell you what you should do to comply with the law/standard/etc., but at the end of the day, I don't actually perform the changes that the compliance/legal departments want to see. Communicating the reason behind the change is the only way we can ensure employees will even begin to try and embrace any changes we want to make.
Vault: What is your favorite part of your job?
Christine: I honestly just love what I do! I’ve always known I didn’t want to be a traditional lawyer. I was lucky to find an opportunity in compliance that allows me to utilize my legal background (but in a less traditional way) because most of the time you don’t get both in the same role. I also quite enjoy the collaborative atmosphere of my agency. On a monthly basis, I work with practically every single department on various agency projects.
Vault: For law students interested in compliance work, what classes, activities, or other opportunities should they take advantage of during law school?
Christine: I was lucky enough to go to Loyola University Chicago, which launched a Compliance Studies certificate a few years before I started. That program provided me with the foundation I really needed for compliance with classes like Health Care Compliance, Health Care Payment and Policy, Privacy and Security, Risk Management/Patient Safety/Quality, and so many more that I did not get the opportunity to take. If you have a head start and already know you’re interested in compliance before starting law school, I highly recommend considering schools with compliance programs.
Outside of law school, I found it important to talk to people in the field! Like attorneys in general, compliance professionals love to talk about what they do and answer questions for students who are interested in pursuing compliance. Hearing firsthand about what it’s really like to practice in a certain area—compliance or otherwise—is irreplaceable.
Vault: Do you have any parting words of wisdom for law students generally as they navigate their career search?
Christine: In law school, take advantage of as many work opportunities as you can to figure out what you like. I worked at a professional association, a disability hospital, and a law firm, and I completed a judicial externship. Each opportunity showed me what I liked and didn’t like. Oddly enough, I loved my judicial externship, even though I knew I did not want to be a traditional attorney.
Don’t think that just because you went to law school, you need to become a trial attorney or make partner at a firm. Yes, lots of your peers will follow that route, but those aren’t the only paths out there. The skills you learn in law school transfer to almost any other field, so figure out what you love, and pursue it. I knew early on that I didn’t want to be a law firm attorney aiming to make partner, so I found something else I loved.