Building the Law Department at Blue Shield of California

After twenty-one years at Blue Shield of California, Seth Jacobs keeps growing the law department

Seth Jacobs hasn’t missed a meeting in twenty-one years. It’s part of his personal philosophy and why, as senior vice president and general counsel of Blue Shield of California, he has been able to cultivate positive working relationships with board members and in the over more than two decades. When Jacobs joined Blue Shield of California’s as its first in-house general counsel in 1996, though, he was just adjusting to the “Blue way.”

“I was thirty-nine and the youngest general counsel in the Blue system and had no prior Blue experience,” he says.

Despite his young age for a general counsel, Jacobs quickly adapted to the Blue way and was able to gain the trust of leadership. That trust, however, did not come about by chance: Jacobs had nearly a decade of experience as the assistant general counsel of UnitedHealth Group and companies it had acquired. It also helped that the organization has a long history of respect for lawyers.

In 1939, Blue Shield of California was founded by, among others, Howard Hazard, a lawyer affectionately known as “Hap” Hazard. At that time, Jacobs says, the organization was one of the very first prepaid medical plans in the country, which was uncharted legal territory. “There was no precedent for a company like that,” Jacobs says. Ultimately, with the help of outside counsel, the legal foundation of the company was validated by the California Supreme Court, which Jacobs says helped develop a culture of respect for lawyers at Blue Shield of California.

“I think that helped me, coming in, to have that credibility conferred on me by Hap,” Jacobs says. “It gave me the freedom to do what I thought was necessary to build the department.”

Seth Jacobs, SVP, General Counsel, Blue Shield of California

When Jacobs first came aboard Blue Shield, there was no formal legal department at the company. There were a few lawyers scattered around, but there was no centralized organization. So, as the first in-house general counsel, he was charged with organizing and then building up the law department in addition to his responsibilities overseeing corporate governance, the operations of the board of directors, and the governance process.

“That was pretty challenging to jump into, but it was a great opportunity,” Jacobs says.

Throughout the years, Jacobs has built a government affairs team and corporate compliance and ethics programs, to name a few components. And since he started, Jacobs has never really stopped building the legal department. In fact, Jacobs considers himself a team builder, and he is intimately involved in Blue Shield’s homegrown leadership program. “I’d say it’s part of our DNA—not just for lawyers, but for all our leaders, down to the manager level, directors, and officers,” he says. “We all go through a leadership training program that we created and delivered. We didn’t go out to some consultant or advisor to buy an off-the-shelf leadership training program; we created and delivered it ourselves.”

Leadership development will continue to be a focus in the future, as Jacobs and the rest of the organization focus on growth and providing healthcare for a growing number of Golden State residents. “We don’t currently serve all Californians, so growth is inherent in that mission statement,” he says. “These days, growth requires cost-effective care. You can’t grow if people can’t afford what you’re selling.” To that end, he’s honed in on forging relationships with healthcare providers, physicians, physician groups, hospitals, and hospital systems to provide the public with seamless, quality, and cost-effective care.

In the spirit of that mission, Blue Shield of California acquired the Care1st Health Plan about a year ago. Originally a Medicaid health plan, Care1st is now a subsidiary that allows Blue Shield to provide enrollees access to Medi-Cal (California’s version of the federal Medicaid program), and it’s up to Jacobs to help meld Care1st into Blue Shield of California. That process includes integrating the legal departments of the two into one cohesive unit to continue to deliver high-quality legal services to the organization.

During his more than two decades with the continually growing company, Jacobs has seen a lot of change within the organization and with the industry overall. One of the biggest was the passing of the ACA, which he saw as an opportunity for him and his law team to grow.

“When the ACA was passed, no one was an expert in that law; it was brand new,” he says. “So we could all become the world’s foremost authority on what was to come. It’s exciting and energizing for lawyers, and I think that’s going to be the case as well in the next phase of healthcare reform. It’s a little scary, and we don’t know what it’s going to look like, but we’ll have an opportunity to become experts on those changes.”

Going forward, Jacobs says Blue Shield has an opportunity to influence reform at both the state and federal level. And he and his legal team won’t lose sight of Blue Shield’s mission. “When it comes to advocacy in state and federal government, Blue Shield kind of punches above its weight class,” he says. “We have significant influence that I think we’ve earned as a result of being a progressive, outspoken company that was among the first to champion universal care, both at the state and federal level. That gave us some credibility among politicians and thought leaders in terms of how to navigate the terrain and do so well.”

“Seth is a highly experienced, thoughtful, and creative leader who knows both the law and the healthcare industry extremely well. He inspires those who work for him to do their very best and then enables them to do so, a rare skill found in the best leaders. It has been a privilege to work with Seth these past twenty years.” —Bob Bloch, Partner, Mayer Brown

“We’ve admired Seth’s innovative thinking, steadfast integrity, and seemingly boundless knowledge over our many years of collaboration. Thank you, Seth, for making us proud to be your partner!” —Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP