The high cost of medical care is an ongoing topic of discussion in the United States. But at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, families never receive a bill for treatment, travel, housing, or food. The nonprofit hospital has a mission to understand, treat, and defeat childhood cancer and other life-threatening diseases. US News & World Report ranks St. Jude number one among the nation’s pediatric cancer hospitals. Fortune magazine has put St. Jude on its list of “100 Best Companies to Work For” every year since 2010. And Robyn Diaz, senior vice president and chief legal officer, says all of these factors contributed to her joining the Memphis-based organization in 2010.
“It can be difficult to find mission-driven work as an attorney, so I was excited for this opportunity with St. Jude,” Diaz says. “Discovery, innovation, and compassion are key components of the culture here. My main goal as chief legal officer is to minimize risk to the institution. But ultimately, the work my team is doing is part of improving the patient experience.”
Diaz oversees the offices and corresponding budgets of legal services, government affairs, and technology licensing at St. Jude. She is also the direct supervisor of six attorneys and five legal and government affairs professionals. Diaz handles significant agreements and transactions, litigation for dispute management, and governance issues related to the St. Jude Board of Governors. Diaz and her staff deal with a complex regulatory environment, which includes legal matters in health, life sciences, information technology, and education. When needed, she brings in outside counsel to provide help with major transactions, litigation, and regulatory advice in discrete areas. She also chooses outside counsel based on fees, expertise, and staffing models.
“Working in partnership with trusted outside lawyers makes our internal team better at our jobs,” Diaz says. “They fill in the gaps in our knowledge, and they allow us to best use our time on our areas of strength. The outside counsel who we trust the most already know our institution well, so they have a head start on the issues that we engage them on.”
Outside counsel was invaluable to Diaz and her team during the establishment of the St. Jude Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, which welcomed its first class in August 2017. The legal department set up the school as a nonprofit limited liability company and worked on an extensive application to the Tennessee Higher Education Commission to help form the degree-granting institution. They also drafted bylaws and other governance documents.
“We brought in outside counsel for training,” Diaz says. “We had to educate ourselves and the graduate school leadership on hot topics in higher education law, such as Title IX. It was a great growth process. For most of my team, it was their first exposure to this area of the law.”
As a leader, Diaz prioritizes flexibility and communication and avoids micromanagement. She schedules formal, biweekly meetings with her team and tries to make informal contact with each individual a couple of times a week to start conversations and address concerns.
“I treat my attorneys like the licensed, competent professionals that they are,” Diaz says. “I aim to effectively communicate the challenges and motivate my team to meet expectations. I try to be open and flexible to different ideas.”
To that end, Diaz invests in her team members by providing them with opportunities for continuing education. She says it is essential that her team members keep up with the rapid changes in healthcare laws, which also positions St. Jude as a more competitive employer.
“St. Jude is a nonprofit,” Diaz says. “The legal staff here is not compensated at the same level that they would be at a large law firm or a for-profit entity. Sending my team to a several daylong boot camp or an in-depth continuing legal education program is part of how I show them that I support their development.”
In the unique environment that is St. Jude, Diaz believes that it is important for in-house counsel to be proactive and involved. In this vein, her team spearheaded the recognition of Healthcare Risk Management Week at
St. Jude. Each June, the department organizes town halls, coffee talks, and other events to discuss clinical, research, and technical risks. Additionally, the legal department participates in fundraising activities for ALSAC, the hospital’s fundraising organization, such as the Run/Walk to End Childhood Cancer and the Duncan-Williams Inc./St. Jude Dragon Boat Races. Several lawyers also volunteer with the St. Jude Women’s Club.
“Attorneys like to work independently, but in the in-house environment, you have to get to know people to gain trust,” Diaz says. “You build strong relationships by collaborating early and often, understanding the culture, and asking for feedback.”
To influence the organization in a positive way, the legal department produces an internal newsletter called Lines from Legal and a biannual enterprise risk management (ERM) bulletin. Both of these publications are designed to keep St. Jude employees updated on what is going on in the legal department and how legal can assist them.
“These efforts take a great deal of time,” Diaz explains. “They would be easy to skip because we have a lot of competing demands for our time. But I think that keeping our clients informed is an important element of client service. We strive to be trusted
problem-solvers who are helping the organization meet its objectives. Everything we do is about advancing the mission of St. Jude.”
Photo: Seth Dixon/St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
Robyn Diaz is an exceptional attorney and experienced industry leader. Robyn is highly regarded for her healthcare expertise, and she provides an unparalleled commitment to professional excellence to match the highest standard of care provided by St. Jude. Butler Snow is truly privileged to work with Robyn and her team at St. Jude.