In 1974, Hawaii became the first state to require minimum standards of healthcare benefits by law when it adopted the Hawaii Prepaid Health Care Act—which required businesses to offer health insurance to employees who work more than twenty hours per week for four or more consecutive weeks in the state. It was a landmark law that foreshadowed the ACA in 2010. It was a law that helped healthcare lawyers like Allison Griffiths, deputy general counsel of Avalon Health Care Group, have a leg up on lawyers who hadn’t experienced navigating such regulations before the ACA.
“Healthcare is a highly regulated industry, which makes it interesting,” she says. “Hawaii was particularly interesting. They were kind of a pioneer in healthcare legislation. They had their own set of regulations that had interesting implications with federal law. So, navigating those was challenging.”
Today, Griffiths is back on the mainland, where she serves as a jack-of-all-trades legal advisor at Avalon Health Care Group. Based in Salt Lake City, the company provides senior care services—including skilled nursing, assisted living, senior living, and rehabilitation therapy—in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Oregon, Utah, and Washington. It’s a great fit for Griffiths because she connects with Avalon’s mission-driven work.
“Our company culture is all based around the people that we serve. Our patients are at the heart of our entire company culture,” she says. “Our company slogan is, ‘We embrace a reverence for life and a heart for healing.’ It resonates with who I am as a person.”
But Griffiths was not always on a path to become a healthcare lawyer. In fact, she wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a lawyer.
After growing up in Southeast Missouri, Griffiths earned a scholarship to the University of Missouri. She chose political science as a major—not because she had a clear direction of future career but because the course material just interested her most. But when graduation time came in 1998, she had to decide what her next steps were.
“Well, it was by happenstance, not having a clear path in life, and saying ‘What the heck am I going do?’” she says. “So, I can’t say that it was always my life’s passion to be a lawyer.”
Still, Griffiths was drawn to a legal path. After earning her JD from Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2003, she practiced law in Chicago for a few years before moving to Hawaii, passing the bar there, and joining the fifty-person firm Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing.
During her second year as an associate at the firm, she started doing some work for the firm’s healthcare group. And that’s when she found her passion.
“I knew pretty quickly that was the path for me,” Griffiths says. “It was the work that I liked the most. It was just the most mentally challenging work I had, and it was also a combination of transactional and litigation.”
The complexity of the work was not the only thing that attracted her to the company, though. The healthcare group was also led by two women who served as mentors to the young lawyer: Dianne Brookins and Ellen Carson.
“They were absolutely mentors to me,” Griffiths says. “I really credit them with getting me into this field. They cared about my development, and my progress, and my career trajectory. They taught me all that they could. They invested in me.”
The mentorship Brookins and Carson provided was invaluable, especially considering the attrition rate among female law associates, Griffiths says. A 2017 study by the National Association of Women Lawyers showed that, despite being hired in nearly equal numbers as men at the associate level, women are the minority of both equity (19 percent) and nonequity partners (30 percent). In fact, the study showed that the likelihood that women will become equity partners has only marginally improved in the past ten years: 16 percent in 2007 and 19 percent in 2017.
“I feel like I was lucky to have those strong female role models that showed me how to establish work/life balance: having children but still having a career, and also just navigating being a woman lawyer, which presents its own challenges,” Griffith says.
Griffiths, in fact, stayed at Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing for more than eight years, even continuing to work for the firm after she and her husband decided to relocate to Utah in 2010. After leaving the firm in 2012, Griffiths worked for a few private practices before taking her first in-house counsel position at Avalon in 2016. Aside from identifying with the mission of the organization, the opportunity to transition to in an in-house position was attractive for its own reasons.
“One thing that obviously interested me was not having to bill your entire day in six-minute increments—not being a slave to the billable hour,” she says. “More importantly, when you’re outside counsel, you only get to see just a small slice of what the business does on a day-to-day basis. But when you’re inside, your guidance and advice is much dearer to the business goals.”
And the transition has provided Griffiths with work that’s been just as exciting as what interested her in healthcare law in the first place. The highly regulated nature of providing senior care keeps her on her toes, and the freedom to work with everyone from clinical staff to human resources has her even more embedded in her work than ever.
“It’s been extremely challenging but extremely rewarding, too,” she says. “Now, I get to more directly see the fruits of my labor, so to speak, because I see the business consequences of my work every day.”
I’m Going to Run a Marathon, and Run It Faster
Just as she didn’t grow up determined to be a lawyer, Allison Griffiths didn’t grow up with the goal of being a marathon runner and Ironman triathlete. But inspiration comes from unlikely places.
Back in 2000, Griffith’s boyfriend had just broken up with her, but she still attended the Chicago Marathon to watch and cheer him on. That’s when she made an important resolution.
“I made a promise to myself on that day that I was going run the marathon the next year, and run it faster than him,” she says. “And I delivered on that promise.”
Running marathons, however, led to injuries. So, she did what anyone with extreme determination would and transitioned into biking and swimming, too. And when she watched that same ex-boyfriend complete the Chicago Triathlon, she made herself the same promise.
“I told myself again on that day that I was going do that Chicago Triathlon and do it faster than him, and I delivered on that as well,” she says.
To this day, Griffith is still a triathlete. In fact, even as someone who balances parenthood with a hectic legal career, she is also an avid skier.
“To get to live in Park City, so close to the ski mountain, is a really special place,” she says. “But it’s also some place that I get to run and bike. It is a huge outlet for me, in terms of helping balance my crazy hectic career. It’s truly a mountain playground that I live in.”
Photo by Alex Adams