Finding Passion in Healthcare Law

Karen Hall had a career in litigation she hated. After searching her soul and asking around, she found herself in healthcare law, making a difference in the health and well-being of the Bay Area.

Although no one in her family had ever gone to college, Karen Hall had an insatiable drive to reach a position from which she could help others. Growing up in Texas without the advantages and money of her eventual college classmates, Hall just knew that she could and would change her life. “There was just something innate that said I am going beyond this,” she says. And though she might not have known she would wind up as chief legal officer for the San Francisco Bay Area at California nonprofit health system Sutter Health, Hall knew early on that giving back was the way to lead a fulfilling and powerful life.

The first step on her journey came when Hall reached college and earned degrees in political science, economics, and women’s studies at Southern Methodist University. Hall’s passion for learning and drive to succeed were integral to achieving that goal, but she’s quick to point out that she could not have done it alone. “Thankfully, I had so many institutions and people that supported me financially, because otherwise it would have been impossible,” she says.

Her time at Southern Methodist was followed by law school at Yale University, perhaps an even more unlikely place for her to wind up. Yet, Hall thrived. Her first job out of law school, though, didn’t go quite as smoothly.

“I really wanted to do something in the public interest. I knew that litigation wasnʼt what I wanted to do with my life.”

While her now-husband, a Yale classmate, accepted a job in litigation at a law firm, Hall joined the US Department of Justice in the Attorney General’s Honors Program, in the commercial litigation section. “There were lovely, wonderful, committed people there, but I really hated litigation,” she explains. “I really wanted to do something in the public interest. I knew that litigation wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.”

To find that next step, Hall again returned to her best source of information and inspiration: her community. “I had a little bit of chutzpah to call up denizens of the healthcare bar and say, ‘I’m not looking for a job; I really just want to understand what you do every day,’” she recalls. “People were incredibly generous with their time.” After taking a few lawyers to lunch and discussing their roles, Hall jumped at an opportunity to step into healthcare law at McCutchen Doyle, before eventually joining Catholic Healthcare West. “I’ve never looked back,” she says. “I love healthcare. I love everything about it.”

The key takeaway from those motivating conversations with mentors was that these lawyers all represented nonprofits and tax-exempt organizations, which gave them a stronger sense of purpose. She found—and continues to find—that Sutter Health’s charitable mission was essential to drawing her to the organization. Hall appreciates the opportunity to give back to others, much like how she received guidance and help, particularly in her role as Bay Area chief legal officer. “We are providing services in the name of and to the benefit of our communities,” she says. Through that charitable mission, she knows she is always doing the right thing, rather than just doing what’s legal. Hall feels empowered to make sure decisions are as ethically driven as they are legally effective.

Although the Bay Area section of Sutter Health for which she is responsible is bigger than many other entire health systems elsewhere in the country, Hall and her team of six attorneys, two paralegals, and two assistants ensure that the health system supports its many patients and that it does it in the right way. “I place a great deal of emphasis on communication and collaboration because healthcare is so complex,” Hall says. “If there’s any one person who thinks they have all the answers, I’m sorry for them. I help run interference for my team to get the job done, and then try to help mentor them through growth opportunities. Nobody can do it alone.”

A Caring Community

Karen Hall values close work with the community, in part to know what the people of the Bay Area might need and which organizations are providing that. “We know we can’t be everything to everyone, but we recognize that there are other social organizations that really can help do other social outreach, such as mental health help,” she explains. “We’re supporting the community not only with direct healthcare services, but also with partnerships, such as an Interim Care Program with WellSpace Health. If you don’t have any place to stay and you’re living on the street, your health is going to come second to that. Also, we get to help federally qualified healthcare clinics that can better provide needed services for chronic and primary conditions to underserved populations than we can in our hospitals’ emergency rooms. I’m so proud of the work that we’re doing within Sutter Health and with other community partners to help shore up the social networks that really affect the health and wellness of our community.”

Whether in her work itself or the relationships with those she works with, that last sentiment is key for Hall. Every day, she goes into work knowing that she can make a serious impact on the well-being of the San Francisco Bay Area. But she also knows she can make a big difference in the careers and lives of the young women on her team. “If we create a culture in the organization where people feel like they can’t be with their families and support their families the way they want to support them, then what kind of place is that to work?” Hall says. “It’s really important to me that our employees have a good work/life balance. They’re going to be loyal to the institution that allows them to have those priorities.” As such, she’s not afraid to be honest when needing to schedule a meeting around her daughter’s recital and encourages others to be similarly transparent.

As an organization, Sutter Health has truly supported Hall’s family- and community-first philosophy. When she had her first child, the health system allowed her to ease back into her full-time role over time. After her second child, she took two and a half years off. And when Hall felt ready to return, the general counsel welcomed her back with open arms. “I think so many young women—and I’ll be honest, I think it does usually fall on young women—feel like they can’t be transparent about those familial obligations and opportunities because they feel like it somehow diminishes their role or their power within the organization,” Hall says. “But if everybody has that viewpoint, it will never change.”

And that viewpoint will change, as long as mentors like Hall continue to educate young women, in whatever industry they work or point in their life they might be in. “I had the opportunity to give my oldest daughter some advice on her bat mitzvah this past weekend,” Hall recalls. “I encouraged her to continue to make her voice heard and continue to share her own ideas, and to find a way that’s comfortable for her to do that. She’s going to have to do it even in the face of criticism and opposition, and that’s a really hard thing for many people, not just women, to do. So, giving people the opportunity to do that and to support and encourage them to do that is really important.”

Congratulations to Karen Hall on this well-deserved recognition. She embodies integrity and excellence in action. Jones Day is proud to work alongside Karen and her colleagues at Sutter Health.

Navigant Consulting team members have worked with Karen Hall and others at the Sutter Health Office of general counsel on multiple third-party professional services valuations. We appreciate how Ms. Hall has always exemplified the highest standards of professionalism, thoughtfulness, and candor to help all of the participants in these matters.