Relish the Unexpected

Stephanie Westermeier went from private practice to general counsel at Saint Alphonsus Health System and managing counsel at Trinity Health by finding new challenges and welcoming surprise opportunities

One thing that has been consistent for Stephanie Westermeier throughout her legal career has been unexpected situations. “Despite your best-laid plans, you don’t know what is going to pop up each day or how a situation you are working with is going to evolve factually or legally,” Westermeier says. “A philosophy that I’ve developed over time is to try to remain undaunted and look at unexpected, and at times, frustrating circumstances as problem-solving opportunities.”

Westermeier has worked on a multitude of matters and had many opportunities to flex her problem-solving skills as general counsel for Saint Alphonsus Health System, a four-hospital nonprofit system with locations in Idaho and Oregon. She also serves as a managing counsel for Trinity Health, which operates Saint Alphonsus Health System and numerous other facilities in healthcare markets across the United States.

Stephanie Westermeier, Saint Alphonsus Health System, Trinity Health

But Westermeier didn’t originally plan to go in-house. Instead, she began her legal career while still in college, when she worked on medical liability defense cases as a paralegal at a large law firm. After law school, she continued medical liability defense litigation work, as well as working in the employment and class action litigation arena at Givens Pursley, LLP. Then, after spending several years in private practice, she began receiving a number of assignments from a partner there who focused on business and healthcare law, which she found complex and interesting.  As a part of this work, she started working closely with the hospital risk manager and other members of the leadership team at Saint Alphonsus.

“I began to focus almost exclusively on advice and counsel work, both in health law and in employment law,” Westermeier says. “I moved away from litigation and
realized my sweet spot in practice was on problem-solving rather than litigating disputes. Advice and counsel work had me at hello.”

Despite her passion for advice and counsel, Westermeier was reluctant at first to go in-house. She was a partner in her firm, and she enjoyed private practice, as well as the combination of healthcare and employment work for numerous different types of clients in a variety of different industries. But Saint Alphonsus’ mission and the opportunity to deploy and grow her legal skills led her in-house.

“The chance to use, focus, and increase my legal skills on a single client with a very laudable mission focused on healing the community ultimately made me say yes to the opportunity,” she says.

Westermeier was the first in-house counsel to join Saint Alphonsus, where she organized a new legal department. During her first several years at the hospital, she was asked to oversee the risk management and organizational integrity compliance functions, as well as serve as general counsel. Although challenging, this experience proved valuable as she transitioned from private practice to in-house.

“It gave me a good foundation and perspective,” Westermeier says. “You can’t advise as well if you don’t understand the operational side, as well as the strategic and business side of an organizational client.”

In 2010, Trinity Health acquired three Catholic Health Initiative hospitals—two in Idaho and two in Oregon—and formed the Saint Alphonsus Health System. After the acquisition, Westermeier helped to establish the board’s regional governance structure. She analyzed the possible structures with outside counsel Bob Schuchard of Davis Wright Tremaine. She and her colleagues, including the board chairs of the existing hospitals and Sally Jeffcoat—then president and CEO and now executive vice president, growth, strategy, and innovation at Trinity Health—chose to form mirrored boards for each of the hospital corporations and for the health system.

In the mirrored board structure, the same members sit on the boards of the health system and each of the four hospitals. This structure centralizes important strategic and operational decision-making for the health system, which leads to a more efficient, effective process. The legacy hospital board members remained as members of the community hospital boards. These boards are then delegated the critical role of overseeing areas that include medical staff credentialing, quality, and community benefit issues.

“Each community hospital board chair or other designated member sits on the regional board,” Westermeier says. “That integrates the community’s issues, and they have an ability to provide local input on issues in front of the health system board.”

Westermeier has spent a considerable amount of time determining the structures that will best suit the organization, prioritizing legal work and counseling and otherwise leading her legal team. “There’s more to being a general counsel than knowledge of the law and advising the organization,” she says. “If you don’t like managing people and developing their talent, then you don’t want to be heading down the path to a general counsel position.”

Westermeier notes she has been fortunate to work with eminently talented and dedicated lawyers both at Saint Alphonsus and in California. Westermeier also says that being a general counsel requires continuous learning and that her best mentor ­—her current boss, ­Paul Neumann, general counsel at Trinity Health—came along later in her career. “Paul is brilliant, and he has the ability to sprinkle wisdom on a thorny issue or on life in every interaction,” Westermeier says.

Westermeier advises those who want to pursue a career in healthcare law to find a practicing mentor and learn the fundamentals of the heavily regulated industry. She says you need to invest the time to develop and maintain the competency and the expertise. It’s something that you can’t just “dabble in.”

“You don’t have credibility or ability if you don’t have a good knowledge of the law, which is constantly changing,” she says.

Even with her decades of experience, Westermeier not only welcomes new challenges, but says part of one’s personal growth is also how they handle the unexpected. “The problem is not going away,” she says. “It has to be solved. And it’s kind of fun if you can figure it out.” 

Giving Back on and off the Clock

In 2013, Stephanie Westermeier’s years of tireless work and ability to effectively problem-solve were recognized when she was awarded the Outstanding Corporate Counsel award from the Association of Corporate Counsel, Mountain West Chapter. The award recognizes a corporate attorney who demonstrates significant leadership contributions and a commitment to professionalism.

“I was greatly honored,” Westermeier says. “There’s something about being acknowledged for your work and your role by people that you respect that fuels you to be better at what you do.”

Westermeier is also making contributions outside of the office, as she volunteers on the board of the Women’s and Children’s Alliance (WCA), a nonprofit organization that provides services to individuals who are victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

“In general, I like to be part of organizations that are educators and problem- solvers, and the WCA has a great mission of freedom from the societal problem of abuse and violence,” she says.

Photo courtesy of Saint Alphonsus Health System

Davis Wright Tremaine congratulates Stephanie Westermeier on her 16-year tenure as General Counsel for Saint Alphonsus. Her intelligence, compassion and dedication are among the reasons she is well deserving of such recognition. DWT is proud to work with Stephanie and St. Alphonsus – they are truly leading
by example.