Since she joined Natera in 2015, Tami Chen has been a part of the molecular diagnostics company’s rapid growth. She’s helped guide its private-to-public transition and rapid expansion as the company grew from a few hundred employees when she joined to nearly three thousand today. And, since the beginning, the vice president of corporate legal and assistant corporate secretary has been drawn to Natera’s mission-driven culture.
Natera is a leader in cell-free DNA testing technology that aims to change disease management through DNA testing; it’s dedicated to oncology, women’s health, and organ health. The research to develop the technology has proven its worth in clinical settings, and the company sees additional opportunities to apply it to other indications in these markets.
“Not only does the work we do have a positive real-world impact—we touch patients at critical points in their lives—but I believe that type of mission attracts all the smart, ambitious, and driven people that I get to work with every day,” Chen notes.
While it’s been an exciting time to work for Natera, such sharp growth comes with its challenges. Early in her tenure with the company, her time was spent on issues such as promoting sound corporate governance policies (which continues to be part of her responsibilities). But, as Natera has become a larger company, areas like investor relations; environmental, social, and corporate governance; and building a legal operations function have demanded a sharper focus.
Chen notes that the US Securities and Exchange Commission has been recently issuing new rules at a brisk pace. These rulemakings have illustrated a focus on increasing transparency in the interest of investor protection; for example, improving investor visibility into the trading activity of company insiders. At Natera, these rulemakings typically cascade into board and management education, discussion and collaboration among stakeholders, and, often, new or updated company policies or practices.
Despite the necessity of advocating for policy and procedure, Natera’s legal department strives to partner with, rather than govern, its business peers, Chen says. The company’s culture has been one of longstanding open communication between legal and business, with early and frequent involvement resulting in a mutual understanding of business goals and strategies balanced against potential legal risk.
Legal representatives regularly attend business meetings, setting the stage for helpful collaboration. “This helps to nurture relationships across the business, which in turn builds trust and understanding. It’s important that we are brought into the room earlier so that we can help guide business decisions,” Chen says.
In this environment, Chen and other Natera lawyers can point out areas of potential concern as new business ideas take shape. “Lawyers are trained to spot issues. Even in the early exploratory stages of an idea just beginning to take shape, I may be able to ask a clarifying question that reveals an unintended consequence in another area of the business,” she explains.
As Natera has grown, so too has the legal department. In order to support the company’s growth at scale, it has become critical to boost the efficiency of legal operations while maintaining the high quality of the work product. This is another area of focus for Chen, and the legal department has now formalized a function that focuses on that issue. Its aim is to leverage technology and tools, along with culture change management, to optimize the department’s functioning.
“When the company was smaller, it was okay if information on matters lived on an individual’s desktop,” Chen says. Now, however, the legal department needs robust tools—and behavior change—to keep track of many moving pieces. For instance, implementing systems to track and manage legal spend, alongside tools to track arrangements with various outside counsel, have helped to streamline workflows and identify potential areas of inefficiency.
This is an iterative process, requiring staff to periodically assess the effectiveness of legacy software and IT platforms and compare it with new options. While legal has made strides in boosting efficiency, there is more to do. “We are looking for ways to consolidate systems,” Chen says.
When managing such changes in Natera’s fast-paced environment, Chen says she benefits from the company’s culture of open communications and transparency. It’s also been key to managing the recent rapid growth and change. “I don’t tend to make a request of my reports without giving context,” she says. “I like to give as much context as I am able to so that they have all the information they need to not only complete the task but also deal with similar issues in the future; but more importantly, it gives them ownership of the task, which in turn contributes to deeper engagement and, hopefully, overall satisfaction.”
The company’s C-suite leaders operate in a similar fashion, which promotes empowerment and employee engagement, Chen attests. She is completely in sync with this culture, and encourages her reports to be inquisitive. “I really don’t think there is any such thing as a dumb question, especially when you are learning,” she says. “To be inquisitive is to be interested.”
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