Interview with Brent L. Henry, Esq.
by Alan S. Goldberg, Goulston & Storrs, Washington, DC
Alan S. Goldberg:
Brent, we appreciate your willingness to take time from your busy day to share your thoughts and insights with the American Bar Association Health Law Section. Please tell us what you do for a living.
Brent L. Henry:
I am Vice President and General Counsel of Partners HealthCare System. Partners was founded in 1994 by Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital. Since then, it has developed an integrated health care delivery system throughout Eastern Massachusetts that offers patients a continuum of coordinated high-quality care. The system employs over 35,000 people engaged in a broad range of research and clinical endeavors, including a primary care and specialty physician network, community hospitals, the two founding academic medical centers, specialty facilities, community health centers, and other health-related entities. Partners is a non-profit organization, with annual revenues of close to $5 billion.
ASG: Brent, here’s a question that raises an obvious issue: in light of the size and complexity of your employer, is there ever time for you to get anything done?
BH: Yes, primarily because I am so fortunate to work with a fine group of colleagues. We have about 25 attorneys, 4 legal assistants, and 12 other administrative and support staff in our legal department, and they’re talented and dedicated people. That enables me to focus mostly on strategic issues while specific legal matters are handled quite competently by my associates. In fact, our office is organized into 4 different sections, so that most attorneys concentrate their efforts in specific areas, such as real estate, employment, acquisitions/joint ventures, or research.
ASG: Brent, if we described you as a health lawyer, would that be correct? If so, what’s a health lawyer anyway; and if not, what kind of a lawyer are you?
BH: Yes, I am a health care lawyer; I’ve worked in this industry for more than 25 years. During that time, the areas of practice that I’ve been involved in have varied widely. As general counsel, I am also a member of the executive management team.
ASG: Now, please, let’s talk about where you came from before you got to where you are today and then let’s get back to your management activities: what did you do before coming to Boston, Brent?
BH: I started working in health care in New York City. Not as a lawyer, but as the Director of the City’s Medicaid program under Mayor Ed Koch in the late 1970s, after my first stint as a lawyer with Jones Day. After about a year and a half, I returned to Jones Day with an interest in building a health care practice, although at that time the firm was unsure whether health care would be a growth area . So I left the firm to learn more about the hospital industry, and became chief of staff to the CEO of the Greater Southeast Community Hospital System in Washington, DC. The CEO told me that he didn’t need a lawyer (but he thought my background would be helpful), and that he would teach me how to be a health care manager. That experience has proven valuable in helping me to be a better general counsel. I should also tell you that one of the reasons I ended up pursing my interest in health care law was because a kind lawyer, David J. Greenburg, was very generous in sharing with me his many contacts and encouraging me to follow my dream. That’s something I’ll always remember and I’ve tried to do the same for others whenever I can.
ASG: Did you find the transition from Washington, DC practice to Boston practice challenging?
BH: I was fortunate because after two years at Greater Southeast, I was tapped to become general counsel of the Medlantic Healthcare Group, a three-hospital system in Washington, DC. It was there that I spread my wings as a health care lawyer, helping the system grow north to Baltimore and expand to seven hospitals. It’s now known as MedStar Health. I was in my seventeenth year there when the call came regarding the opportunity at Partners. So I was ready for a change, and my years of experience made the transition much easier. I expected that the culture would be different, and it is, but I’ve learned to adapt to a more decentralized organization. And having such a great group of colleagues—physicians, executives, as well as lawyers -- to work with has made it easy to overcome the few challenges that have arisen.
ASG: Brent, as a general counsel in such a large institution, there must be some issues that come up again and again, although solutions might be different – would you please share with us what you seem to have to do the most of these days?
BH: When a health care system as large as ours also contains two of the best hospitals in the nation, it is often perceived to have much more market influence that it actually has. As a result, our growth strategies require constant monitoring and prudent management from a legal perspective. Another area of major focus is our research enterprise and its relationships with industry. Recurring issues there run from ethical and privacy challenges to maximizing our leverage in the licensing of our inventions. Also, real estate leasing and acquisition problems arise all the time. With close to 12 million square feet under occupancy, we are constantly dealing with landlord/tenant issues and state and local regulatory agencies with oversight in this area.
ASG: Some hospital general counsel are hands’ on; others keep a distance and manage; some try to do both or neither and yet are quite successful, and some are not: what’s your approach, Brent?
BH: I try to combine a hands’-on approach in a few areas, with a delegation approach in most others. My instinct is to let those with the appropriate expertise work through problems that arise, using their highly developed skills. My office is organized in a way that gives our attorneys a good deal of autonomy. This works well, when you have smart, resourceful people like we have. My Section Heads are senior lawyers who are both experts in their practice areas and good at managing people. We also have a first-rate office administrator. This structure allows me to access information in a reliable and timely way when I need to, but also creates ample opportunity for me to focus on the broader, more strategic issues for both the legal department, and Partners as a whole.
ASG: What situations arise in your work that tend to be more irksome than welcomed, Brent: are there any aspects of your work that frustrate more than others?
BH: Fortunately, there are not a lot of irksome situations that arise that I haven’t seen or dealt with in some way before. Occasionally tough issues pop up, and I try to deal with them with a cautious sense of optimism and good humor. To answer you question directly, however, one of my pet peeves is attorneys who give up too quickly on finding creative ways for our clients to reach their business objectives. Fortunately, I do not see that very often here.
ASG: There is a tremendous push toward eHealth from Washington, DC and some institutions, like yours, seem to have embraced information technology earlier than others: are you a techie, Brent, and what are the most useful technological marvels that relate to your daily responsibilities both in health care and in law?
BH: I don’t consider my self a techie, but I do try to stay connected. Our system has been in the vanguard of embracing health information technology, and we currently benefit from many computer-based systems and procedures, particularly in areas such as clinical quality, patient safety and disease management. In my view, a robust, interoperative health information network is the key that will allow us to take medicine to the next level, both in terms of clinical excellence and cutting edge research. A first step -- and our current challenge -- is trying to bring about the necessary changes in existing federal fraud and abuse laws and regulations in order to foster the deployment of the electronic medical record into the offices of our community-based physicians.
ASG: Working with fiduciaries and providing advice and counseling to them is more challenging today than ever before: Sarbanes-Oxley or not, boards just have to be more careful and, indeed, more demanding of legal counsel – concur, Brent?
BH: I agree. Even though Sarbanes-Oxley does not apply to non-profit organizations like ours, it certainly doesn’t hurt to behave as if it does. Fortunately, at Partners, we have a history of respect for, and adherence to, those types of policies and guidelines that complement what the government, the courts, and the public are now expecting from those who oversee major institutions like ours. In Massachusetts, as in California and New York, new rules are emerging aimed at ensuring that non-profit boards perform their responsibilities properly, and without conflicts. This is something that requires our constant vigilance.
ASG: Brent, why did you become a lawyer and is lawyering what you expected it would be now that you are where you are?
BH: When I was growing up, I didn’t know anyone who was a lawyer. The first attorney I ever met was the alumni interviewer who was part of my admissions process to Princeton. My parents always encouraged me to pursue a career that would enable me to speak my mind with independence. Having survived the Great Depression, they used to say “If you become a lawyer or a doctor, you won’t have to worry about being fired, because you can always hang out your own shingle.” By my senior year in college, medicine was no longer an option, so I applied to law school. Midway through my studies at Yale, I became fascinated by urban problems, and pursued a masters in urban studies alongside my law degree. My early work at Jones Day involved real estate matters, but I also dabbled in general corporate, antitrust and tax exempt financing . Interestingly, I’m still dabbling in all these areas in my current role. Being general counsel at a cutting-edge health care organization is a great job. Given the challenges facing the industry today, it’s fun working with people who spend a lot of their time looking for solutions, and then finding ways to make them operative.
ASG: Knowing that you have to get back to work, Brent, just a few more questions: what do you do for fun, and what advice would you give prospective, aspiring, and perspiring lawyers about how to enjoy the practice of law and maintaining idealism, integrity, and excitement?BH: I like to ski and play golf, and I wish I had the time to do both more often. In addition, I enjoy the time I spend on volunteer boards of organizations that make a difference in peoples lives. I am fortunate to have been able to spend the past several years as a trustee of Princeton, a director of the Public Welfare Foundation, and an advisory board member at the NIH. My advice for young lawyers at the beginning of their careers is to keep your options open and don’t be afraid to try something new. If you’re in a job that’s not right for you, find another and reinvent yourself. And most importantly, follow your intellectual passions. That’s what makes it easy to get up and go to work every day.
ASG: Brent, one last question, and it’s personal: are you married?
BH: Yes, to beautiful woman who also happens to be my best friend. We have a lot in common. She is an attorney-executive who works in the pharmaceutical industry, so we both understand health care, as well as the demands on our time and attention required by our clients. We have a commuter marriage, and that has its challenges. Yet we’re both committed to finding ways to spend as much time as possible together, without letting work intrude on our personal lives.ASG: Thanks Brent: we are tremendously grateful for your thoughts and we wish you well in many more years of successful health law practice.
[Editorial Note -- Some portions of this interview have been edited and reformatted for clarity. Nothing contained in this interview is anything other than the personal commentary of each of those engaged in the dialogue set forth above, and neither of them is speaking for or in behalf of any employer, client, association, or other entity or group with which either is affiliated.]