A day in the life of a general counsel can often be filled with daunting tasks -- providing advice and counsel on legal and policy issues, anticipating and guarding against legal risks and acting as a compliance officer and sometimes even as a business adviser. Yet, despite the time constraints and pressures of the job, Heather Steinmiller, senior vice president and general counsel of Commerce Insurance Services, still manages to find the time to perform pro bono work, offering legal services to those who need it the most.
As an undergraduate student at St. Mary's College in South Bend, Ind., and contemplating a career in law, Steinmiller thought she wanted to prosecute sex crimes, specifically those involving children.
"I was made to believe that children aren't necessarily and adequately represented in the court system," said Steinmiller, 32.
Her belief prompted the Western Pennsylvania native to devote her time working for the local prosecutor's office in the sex crimes unit. But after nearly a year and a half, Steinmiller could no longer handle the emotional toll it took on her.
"I realized that emotionally I couldn't do that on a full-time basis," said Steinmiller, who resides in Philadelphia now. "It was just really difficult for me to detach myself from the work."
Steinmiller didn't detach herself completely from helping at-risk children, however. After graduating law school at Villanova University, where she focused on labor and employment law, she began doing pro bono work, representing abused and neglected children through the nonprofit Support Center for Child Advocates, the country's oldest and largest pro bono legal and social services agency for children.
"I got my first case the day after I passed the bar," she said. "I typically work with one family per year and, in one case, I represented four children from the same family. Because it can get kind of intense if something should happen in the home that causes a lot of movement in the cases, I tend not to take more than one family at a time. So I always have one active case. As soon as one ends, I get a new one."
Of course, if any issues arise or if additional assistance is needed at the Support Center, Steinmiller won't hesitate to jump in.
"I will always help out," she said. "It's a great organization. The executive director, Frank Cervone, has done a wonderful job of creating a program that encourages lawyers to get involved. They offer training if you have no background or experience. They also have a very good internal support mechanism, so if you have any questions that come up, you have a network of lawyers you can reach to if you need assistance."
The organization teams specially trained volunteer attorneys with staff social workers and lawyers who are specialists in child-welfare practice and children's legal issues. Working together in this model, they protect children by securing social services, finding alternative homes and helping them testify in court.
Attorneys like Steinmiller are essential to the organization, said Cervone. "[Without them,] we couldn't represent a fraction of the kids that we do, nor do it in the way we do," he said.
Cervone describes Steinmiller as someone who is tremendously dedicated to her clients' children.
"Volunteer work in the child welfare system can be particularly challenging because the cases are complex and the volunteers don't necessarily have experience with child abuse or family law," he said. "Heather is someone who applied herself with diligence and soon became an expert."
Steinmiller is also a great collaborator.
"The social workers who work with her talk about her as somebody whom they like to work with because these cases call out for collaboration, a multidisciplinary approach," Cervone said. "Not all lawyers get that or are willing to share the case. She's quite exceptional in that regard where she understands that her skills could use the complement of a social worker. That demonstrates an impressive self awareness on her part."
Steinmiller has been fortunate that all of her employers have been supportive of her pro bono work. That's one of the reasons that attracted her to her current position as a general counsel with Cherry Hill, N.J.-based CIS.
"The executive team was very supportive of me continuing that work even though, arguably, it's unrelated to Commerce Insurance," said Steinmiller, who started her new position in April. "They felt it was an important civic duty, and they were quite thrilled to hear that I did it."
After law school, Steinmiller joined the law firm of Blank Rome in Philadelphia, where she was a member of the firm's employment, benefits and labor practice group. While there, her pro bono efforts included being part of a team of attorneys who represented a mentally handicapped inmate in Post Conviction Relief Act proceedings. She also provided counseling to Hurricane Katrina evacuees, counseled nonprofit organizations on personnel matters and advocated in election court on behalf of voters.
Steinmiller remained with Blank Rome until December 2006 when she joined the legal department of Commerce Bank, one of the firm's clients.
"At that time I was representing Commerce Bank extensively," she explains. "I was doing a lot of work for Commerce, and they were growing the legal department. They had three lawyers at the time and asked me if I would come on board and be their labor and employment counsel."
About a year later, Commerce Insurance Services, then a wholly owned subsidiary of the bank, was spun off, and the executive team reached out to Steinmiller and asked if she would be interested in becoming the general counsel.
"They had worked with me while I was at the bank in a variety of ways and they said, 'We're impressed, and we want you to come join us. We think you have the right traits and attributes,'" she said. "I didn't have any experience in insurance, but they were confident that I could learn and I came up to speed pretty quickly."
CIS ranks among the 15 largest privately held insurance brokerages in the country and is one of the 35 largest insurance brokerages overall. The firm provides property and casualty and employee benefits coverage and services.
"It's a terrific organization, and I have always been impressed with the leadership here," said Steinmiller. "When I met with the executive team and they talked to me about the growth of the organization and their plans, I was very enthusiastic about coming on board."
While Steinmiller certainly had solid credentials to excel as the company's new general counsel, Michael Tiagwad, president of CIS, said that it was also her leadership traits that impressed them.
"Heather has shown herself to be a true leader as a legal adviser," he said. "By welcoming Heather to our team, we've added a trusted and dependable professional who brings a passion and commitment to her work, every day. She brings a skill set that will help our firm continue to thrive."
Another reason Steinmiller was also attracted to CIS was that the executive management team views attorneys as business partners.
"That makes my job all that much more enjoyable because I'm really part of a team and building something," she said. "As an attorney, one of the great things about where I am is finding a company who sees you as a partner and not necessarily as an impediment. I thought that would be a challenge coming in, but it hasn't been a challenge at all. Everybody has been very welcoming to me."
Steinmiller tries to provide assistance even if there are no legal implications.
"I like to work closely with the executive team and really try to help them solve problems and issues," she said. "I try to provide my assistance based on my experience and my judgments. I've had the fortunate experience of working at a large law firm where I represented a variety of clients and so I bring that experience to the table."
In her role, Steinmiller makes sure that the organization is "within the letter and spirit of the law" and assists them in "accomplishing their business goals in the most efficient manner."
"When they want to do something or roll out a new product or a new service to our customers, they partner with me and we work together, not only looking at the business decisions you need to make, but also the legal ramifications of those decisions, and we work together in getting the best service for our clients," she said.
Currently, Steinmiller is the legal department of one at CIS.
"I anticipate as we grow, we will grow a legal department," she said. "Right now, for additional support, we have additional resources that I rely on in terms of licenses and compliance. We also use a variety of outside counsel. How we utilize them is that we look for people who will partner and work with us to help continue growing the business."
For Steinmiller, that means working with law firms and attorneys who take the time and interest in learning what CIS does, what they plan to accomplish and also respect the fact that their customers always come first.
One of Steinmiller's immediate objectives is to help guide CIS through a corporate rebranding process to reposition itself in the insurance marketplace. The rebranding strategy also includes a new name to better reflect the integration of CIS services and to distinguish itself from Commerce Bank.
"I'm involved in that process and will be working with our executive team and outside partners during this transition to make sure we are handling it appropriately," Steinmiller said, adding that the services and product offerings will remain the same. "I think that from our clients' perspective, they will continue to see the same great service that we have always provided at Commerce Insurance, and I think they will continue to see improved service. Nobody's perfect, and so we're always looking to see what we can improve."
Steinmiller relishes the challenge.
"I like looking at challenges and figuring out the best way to handle it," she said. "I like putting the pieces together to solve a problem. I love the fact that being in this job now I can have a major impact on the decisions being made and really contribute to moving this great company forward."
She credits her mentors for helping her on her career path and advises other attorneys to find mentors early in their careers.
"It's important to have good mentors throughout your career," she said. "Once you find a mentor, you listen to that person. Most people believe that a mentoring relationship depends on the mentor. I come from the perspective that it really depends on the mentee as well because you need to be open to criticism and advice. If you have that relationship in your career, you can really grow and flourish. That's why I'm where I am today -- because I had great mentors."
Although she has taken on demanding challenges in her new role, Steinmiller will always find the time for her pro bono work, because for her, finding the time to help those who need a voice is worth the effort, she said.
In 2006, the Pennsylvania Bar Association honored Steinmiller with a pro bono award for her pro bono services to the Support Center for Child Advocates, Capital Habeas Unit, Homeless Advocacy Project and Philadelphia Bar Association and for counseling Hurricane Katrina evacuees. She considers her pro bono work one of the most fulfilling aspects of her young career.
"What I enjoy most is helping people," she said. "I think that we tend to go about our daily lives and not look around and see the world around us. There are people out there who didn't get the same opportunity that I did. One of the goals I had set for myself is to work hard, contribute to society and to always help those less fortunate."
Daniel Casciato is a Pittsburgh-based writer who writes articles on business, finance and law.