W. Scott Nehs had an idyllic childhood. He grew up in a log cabin along the Rock River in southern Wisconsin. He spent his winters playing hockey and focused on golf whenever the weather allowed. Both of his parents were teachers—so the family of five spent long relaxing summer breaks together playing sports, being active and traveling—often to Ohio to visit Nehs’ grandparents.
It was during those summer trips to Ohio—when Nehs spent as much time as he could with his grandfather, William C. Leonard—that shaped the career he would have later in life. Bill Leonard, a local attorney, was not only a well-respected pillar of his community, he was also an extremely proud and involved grandfather. He would let Nehs tag along with him to his law office, a gesture that made an enormous impression on his young grandson.
“In my mind, I thought I was helping him at work. I realize now, in his mind, it was more about showing off his grandson,” Nehs says. “But it was on those trips that I saw him interacting with his partners and clients. His approach was that law is a serious business, but it’s ultimately about helping people solve problems. He also felt it was important to keep a sense of humor.”
By age 12, thanks to his grandfather, Nehs decided he was going to be a lawyer. By age 13, he decided he would be a lawyer in Chicago. And he never wavered in those promises he made to himself.
After high school, Nehs headed to Northwestern University to study political science in preparation for law school. And although his grandfather passed away soon before Nehs graduated and headed to the University of Wisconsin Law School, he knew his grandson would soon follow in his career footsteps. Today, Bill would likely be very proud to learn Nehs enjoys a rich legal career in Chicago, and that he is the general counsel of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, a federation of 36 separate U.S. health insurance organizations and companies.
Please tell me about your career path immediately after law school?
Right out of law school, I went to Wildman, Harrold Allen & Dixon, which is now Locke Lord. I was there for eight years and was expecting to make partner in the next cycle. Then I got a call from a recruiter who was trying to fill a position. He had been talking to people to get suggestions and had gotten my name from three different people. So he said he had to call because he wondered if I would be interested. It was an in-house position and that seemed really intriguing to me, so even though I wasn’t looking, pretty soon I had a new job.
Why did you decide to go in-house so early in your career?
Part of it was because of the attrition in law firms and part of it was where I was in my career. I loved the diversity in my practice. I was working on a lot of different matters for a number of clients. But I could be juggling more than 50 clients with different expectations for strategy, reporting, billing and communications. All of those were hard to keep track of. Sometimes an office manager was your client, other times it was these President of the company. Not that that was bad, it was just difficult to manage all those different sets of expectations.
So the idea of going in-house was intriguing, because what I thought would happen—which turned out to be true—was I would have the same or more of the variety of work under the umbrella of one client.
The second thing that struck me as I took stock of the opportunity, I realized the part of my practice I liked best was the counseling. At the time at the firm, a lot of my practice was contested litigation and injunctive relief. I like to use this analogy when describing that work: The house has already burned to the ground and I’m charged with determining who was responsible. Or maybe it was still on fire, but there was a big problem that was in urgent need of resolution.
With an in-house position, there is an opportunity to counsel much earlier in the process, when the fire is limited to the kitchen or, even better, when the client doesn’t even realize they are holding matches. The chance to provide legal advice at an early stage to help mitigate or eliminate the possibility of a fire later is what I found rewarding. And 17 years later, those concepts have been validated many times over as I have worked in-house.
So what was that first in-house position?
That first job was assistant GC at Whitman Corp., a classic conglomerate, and its largest subsidiary was the second largest Pepsi bottler in the world. The company went through a series of acquisitions, and I ultimately left, but I had a several roles along the way.
My last role at Pepsi was merging our organization into PepsiCo. My next job with Pepsi was going to require a move to New York. I looked hard at it, and decided what was best for me and my family was to stay in Chicago. So I decided to leave.
Did you take time off at that point?
Yes, I had a time out in my career—a chance to reboot. During that time off, I was a summer time ski bum and I spent a lot of time with my children. We had just bought a new house, so I built closets and my lawn was spectacular. And we traveled. It was a nice time out. But I also realized I was too young to retire. I wanted to stay active.
How did you end up at Blue Cross Blue Shield Association?
It was the product of more networking. A friend of mine from Northwestern connected me with an in-house attorney and she knew of a search for a great position, but the No. 1 requirement of the position was that the candidate had to have a background in health care. I didn’t have one.
But I called the recruiter anyway, and we talked a bit. I thought that was the end of it. But what actually happened when he went to the client presentation to discuss candidates, he told them at the end, “I’ve got one more guy.” He explained that I didn’t have health care experience but I did have other qualities that really are favorable. He took a chance on me, and got me to the table for the first interview.
I was able to sell what I thought was my weakness as a strength. Health care was in the middle of a tremendous amount of change. Health care reform, the Affordable Care Act, and so on. I made the case that a new set of eyes—one not conditioned to the way things had always been done – would be helpful. But I would also benefit from the strong legal talent of the existing BCBS legal team that had known how things had always been done. I also said my antitrust and litigation skills would be helpful in this area. Turned out, I got my way through that first interview and so on, and here I sit. It was really to the credit of some folks looking out for me, and taking a chance on me that got me in the door for that first conversation.
How has your role evolved over the years?
It has evolved in great measure from department building to trying to cement our role within the company and in our case, the larger Blue System. The Association is the IP owner of the BCBS marks, and we license those marks to independent BCBS plans. They are actually the entities that sell the insurance product. Our role is varied as the lawyers, but it includes supporting the business of the association and providing legal advice to the greater system. Each of those entities has their own legal functions and how we work together is a big part of the work that we do.
When I started, we were at a crossroads in health care. The department was being run more like a law firm and the lawyers were very specialized—a bit like a track team. We could win any track meet you could enter us in. We had a high jumper, javelin thrower, a sprinter and so on. We had a lot of talent, but the javelin expert only threw the javelin. By my estimation, the way the industry was changing, we still needed a great track team, but one with a few more decathletes. Smart people who didn’t necessarily win the specialized events but were talented across a number of disciplines to do a great job of championing the work, identifying issues and taking them to other specialists to round out the work product itself.
Now the role is more about making sure we stay current with the changing business. I’m focused on getting the legal team embedded in the business. We have a great team and a lot of terrific people, and we see the dividends of those decisions.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
We have offices here in Chicago and Washington, D.C. Our DC office is focused on lobbying efforts and the federal employee program. The change and volatility in DC is a unique challenge. We are constantly looking for the best ways to provide good in-house support for our DC office. It remains a work in progress. It’s difficult to keep up with different issues and we know the long-term health of the organization is enhanced by retaining that knowledge inside our walls rather than going out and always buying it at an hourly rate.
The other big challenge, which we are defending and have been for six years, is the largest antitrust class action currently pending in the U.S. The Association and each one of the Blue Plans are defendants. We have a talented team in-house working on it, and we have world class outside counsel. But I don’t go more than a few hours without thinking about some aspect of the case. It is a full assault on the Blue System, and we obviously take that very seriously.
What is a goal you have for your department in the next 12 months?
Making sure our folks are well situated to provide support across all the different parts of our business. We are focused on being more efficient, doing more with less. I have yet to go to a budget meeting where our CFO says, “Go spend like a drunken sailor.”
We are also looking at increasing the level of collaboration. We’re still on a journey from specialized roles to the holistic departmental focus. We think of collaboration not just within legal, but also with the different businesses that we support in the association and across the larger organization.
What do you love most about being an in-house lawyer?
Back to the fire analogy, I thrive in an environment where I can prevent those fires from ever starting. I also really enjoy having a seat at the table where those decisions get made. And I do believe to my core, that having a legal voice helps the company make better decisions.
I also really love building teams and mentoring other lawyers. I learn something every day working with our team. I take a lot of pride in helping our team advance their careers.
My practice here is that I try to interview every person we hire, from administrative staff to the deputy GC level. As part of that process, I ask the folks we’re hiring about their ambitions. Part of my role is to help them to reach whatever level they aspire to. I view my role as helping them get ready for the places they want to go by giving them challenging work. Nothing makes me more proud from a professional standpoint than seeing them succeed.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
Rick Palmore. He’s now senior counsel at Dentons and was GC at General Mills. Rick has been a mentor and a friend since the early ’90s. He’s been especially helpful to me when it comes to making career decisions, including the initial jump from the firm to in-house. He has also been a tireless advocate for greater diversity in the profession. He has provided a platform for the profession to make some actual progress. The departments I have been fortunate enough to lead reflect that.
Rod Heard. He was a partner in my first firm. He took me under his wing and I learned a lot from him about the art of client relationships. Those lessons I have applied in my firm practice and in-house roles. I pride myself on being a good client, having operated on both sides of the relationship. How to interact with clients as a junior associate, I learned from watching or being exposed to the work Rod did. He passed away a few years ago, and he is greatly missed.
Kathryn Carson. She was at PepsiCo and most recently was the CLO of the U.S. Golf Association. I learned a lot from her about leadership and the proper role of the legal function within a large and complex company. She probably doesn’t even realize it, but she mentored me in a lot of ways.
Please tell me a little about your life away from the office.
I’m married. My youngest son calls her wonder woman, and she deserves a lot of credit. She inspires me too. I have six awesome kids, ranging in age from two to 22. They are at different stages in their lives, and it’s increasingly hard to keep track of them. I’m just crazy in love with them and enjoy turning the page as their lives evolve. My favorite moments are when they are all together, interacting and laughing. Long after I’m gone, I take comfort in the knowledge that they will have great relationships with each other.
I also try to spend 20 or 30 days a year on the race track. I drive a sports car and have been working my way up to amateur road racing over the past few years. I am currently working on driver development at tracks around the Midwest. It’s a steep learning curve, but even though this seems counter-intuitive, it’s also really relaxing. One track I go to is Road America in Wisconsin. When you are going 140 plus miles per hour, and about to hit the brake zone to make a right hand turn, there is no room in your brain for anything else but concentrating on getting the car settled, hitting the apex in the corner and maximizing your speed at exit. Those are immensely helpful times for me to relax.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC in a large company someday?
First, demonstrate excellence at all times to everyone, especially in-house. Every interaction you have involves the client. You need to do your best to be at your best at all times. It doesn’t mean you can’t let your hair down. But there is no off switch when you’re interacting with your client the entire time you’re at work.
Second, really seek out the work—that is, interesting cross-functional projects. The old pyramid model in a law firm is you start as a bigger group, then specialize and you’re billing rate goes up. In-house, you turn that pyramid upside down. At junior in-house levels, you are the IP person or contract person. But if you want to work your way up to GC, you have to have a working understanding of multiple disciplines—even if you can’t go deep in more than a handful.
Third, work on your people skills up and down the corporate ladder. It’s great that you can manage up and keep your boss happy, but it’s equally or more great to know the names of the people who deliver the mail. It all matters. And engaging with people and taking the time to invest in them, knowing their names and making eye contact, are especially important for the in-house role. It goes back to that idea that you’re always on. Not everyone is hard wired to have those great people skills, but it can be learned and developed. It is extremely helpful in generating a sense of trust with your clients.