Quarterly Leadership Spotlight Interview Series Interview with Kate K. Bruce, Optum
Chelsea Walcker speaks with Kate Bruce, associate general counsel at Optum. Kate is responsible for providing enterprise-wide litigation support across many areas of the health care industry.
Katherine (“Kate”) K. Bruce joined Optum (a UnitedHealth Group company) as Associate General Counsel in 2018. In her role at Optum, Kate is responsible for providing enterprise-wide litigation support across many areas of the health care industry. Prior to joining Optum, Kate worked in private practice at two major litigation firms. Throughout her career, Kate has been an active volunteer and pro bono attorney with a number of nonprofits, primarily working with groups that seek to combat and eliminate violence against women. Kate currently serves on the board of directors of Minnesota Women Lawyers and The Family Partnership. Kate received her B.A. in philosophy and international studies from Northwestern University, and her J.D. from the University of Wisconsin School of Law.
When did you decide to become a lawyer and why?
I decided to become a lawyer during my senior year of college. I was enrolled in a class taught by a lawyer and community activist that involved a mock asylum application and hearing. My grandparents had immigrated to the United States seeking asylum, so the topics we discussed in that class resonate with me on a personal level. So, at the time, I decided then that I wanted to be an international human rights lawyer.
You have worked in both private law firms and in-house. In your view, how has the relationship between in-house departments and their external legal advisers evolved over the course of your career?
I think companies are now looking to outside counsel to act in a more robust adviser role. In the past, companies would look to outside counsel to handle their litigation needs—the discovery, the briefing, and the strategy to win the case—but now, in-house counsel expects more. For me, the best outside counsel advises us on not only the specific case for which they were hired, but also advises on the broader legal landscape in the areas of the law we’re working in or the health care industry, what I should be thinking about five to seven months or further down the road, and how the case will impact our other business units and other pending cases. So, advising not only on the specific lawsuit that they are handling, but also their strategy regarding underlying business systems and processes that may be implicated.
How have you overcome any gender-related roadblocks in your career?
I’ve found that the way to overcome gender-related roadblocks varies depending on the phase of your career. When you’re a young associate at a big law firm, you often don’t have much power to determine what opportunities you will get, so the most important thing you can do is to find someone who will advocate for you, help you navigate roadblocks, and, if possible, remove any roadblocks for you that you can’t remove on your own. On the flip side, when you have the power and the confidence as a more seasoned attorney, you need to remove the roadblocks for those younger women who are coming up behind you.
You spent almost a decade working in law firms before you joined Optum, a Fortune 500 company. What observations do you have about the challenges that women face that are specific to law firms?
The hierarchical structure and mindset of big law firms are not necessarily open to allowing women to advance in the same way that companies are. In companies, I think you can pave your own path more easily, because there is an overarching structure in place that allows you to do so. While I believe in paving your own path through hard work, etc., and driving change from the ground up, I’ve found that a structure that supports true development and advancement needs to first come from the leadership. In law firms, there can be a mindset that you have to go through the same “grind” that past generations of attorneys went through to earn your keep, but I think law firm leaders need to provide young female attorneys with an environment and opportunities that allow them to shine, rather than making them fight to get the first opportunity to do so.
What message would you like to share with outside counsel regarding the biggest frustrations or disappointments from your perspective as an in-house attorney?
If we are hiring outside counsel, we assume that they are competent with respect to their expertise in that area of the law. But what sometimes happens is that outside counsel feels like they need to prove their worth by sending all of their legal research, analysis, or other information to in-house counsel. What in-house counsel really needs are the key takeaways, clearly road-mapped and flagged, with bullet points, bold font, etc., and action items, instead of a 15-page legal memorandum that we likely don’t have the time to read. The value-added is in the synthesis of the information being communicated. So, for example, rather than simply sending an e-mail to in-house counsel with a case decision attached, add value by briefly summarizing the key takeaways and how the decision impacts the specific case that you have been hired to handle, as well as any other broader business or litigation considerations. Do not only think about the specific case for which you’ve been hired, but also examine how that decision might affect other parts of the business or other cases. Also, stay on top of deadlines and send drafts of any filings as early as possible before they are due.
Navigating a career and a family is challenging, and the legal field is not known for being the most compatible with family life. How have you managed to balance being a mother and a successful professional?
I have found that flexibility with my schedule and supportive colleagues and leaders who trust me to do my work well and to manage my time are invaluable. So, for example, if I need to leave work early to pick up a sick kid and I have some work pending, everyone trusts that I will get that work done but maybe just not during “normal” work hours. And, of course, you need to not be too hard on yourself.
What advice do you wish you would have received when you were just beginning your legal career?
That it is okay to embrace the fact that you are learning and you will fall down. You can’t expect yourself to be a seasoned, competent attorney because you just don’t know very much right out of law school. And, when you do fall down, it’s okay, because that’s how you become a better lawyer.
Throughout your career, you have remained devoted to pro bono work and community service. What pro bono case or community service initiative are you most proud of and why?
In terms of systemic change and broad impact, I am most proud of my work with The Advocates for Human Rights that resulted in a report that changed the laws in Mongolia regarding violence against women. On a micro level, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work on many important pro bono cases that had positive, tangible benefits for my clients. If I had to pick just one case, it would be an asylum case I worked on where I was able to successfully seek asylum for a woman from Kenya escaping violence.
If you had to choose a career other than law, what would you choose and why?A career that embodies all things that manage stress, so a wine bar and coffee shop that has a flower store, bookshop, and yoga center in one place!
[Disclaimer: The statements made in this interview are Kate’s own and do not represent those of her employer.]
Chelsea A. Walcker
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