Susan R. Lichtenstein, GC of Hill-Rom Holdings
Susan R. Lichtenstein, GC of Hill-Rom Holdings

In the 1990s, there were not many industries that were tougher for in-house counsel than telecom. Today, the same can be said about the healthcare industry. It takes a strong lawyer to stand up to that stress, but Susan R. Lichtenstein has mastered it throughout her career. InsideCounsel caught up with her recently to find out how she has maintained success and what she says to young in-house lawyers looking to advance up the ranks.

Q: You’ve worked in both technology and healthcare. What are similarities between the industries you have seen?

They’re both very highly regulated. I’ve been exceptionally lucky. I was in telecom in the 1990s, when it was one of the central public policy issues of the time. Back then, you used to read about telecom the way you read about healthcare today. We were changing the way people lived. I sound like somebody’s grandmother now, but people were getting cell phones for the first time, using the Internet or cable for the first time. The world was changing dramatically, and the FCC was really in the policy spotlight. Now fast-forward 20 years to where I am today, and that’s healthcare. I very much enjoy and find invigorating being involved with these complex matters that are really societal issues in addition to business issues.

Q: How do you deal with the shifting arena that is healthcare regulation?

You have to be nimble. Any good in-house lawyer should be creative; you can’t take a cookie-cutter approach and say, “This is how we’ve always done it.” Especially for those of us who have been at it for a few decades, the instincts that you’ve developed over years of experience may or may not be that applicable anymore. You have to constantly be challenging yourself.

Q: What is the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your legal career?

There were moments in my career when I didn’t know where the next advancement would come from. Now, looking back on it, I frequently tell younger people that there will always be opportunity. You may not be able to see where it’s coming from. Everyone gets in a position sometimes where they feel like, “Well gee, for me to advance, my boss has to die.” But what I understand today is that the pieces are always in motion—a company gets sold, a company gets acquired, somebody leaves. The business environment today is so dynamic that it’s important not to try to map out too linear a path.

Q: You also worked in private practice as well as for the City of Chicago and State of Illinois. What did you learn in those jobs that you still use now?

I had great training in private practice that has served me well. When it came along, my experience in government was huge for me. Business, law, and government/politics is a very busy intersection, and I learned much more about it working in government for a few years than I think I would have if I had just stayed in my law firm job. I learned about communications, both internally and externally. And if you can deal with large organizational politics in government, you can anywhere.

Q: What advice do you have for young lawyers looking to rise up to senior-level positions?

Understand how your company makes money. That advice was given to me years ago, and it was such good advice that I’m shocked at how many lawyers don’t understand it. You cannot look at whatever you’re working on as simply a legal issue. I’m fond of shocking my folks by saying, “No one cares about a legal issue. No one… except as a business problem.” If you don’t understand the business context of your issue, your advice will be very limited.

And secondly, volunteer for everything. If you want to advance, be the person saying, “Give me the ball, coach.” Nobody ever rejected smart, thoughtful advice just because it came from a lawyer rather than someone with an M.B.A. Think of yourself as a leader of the business and not as just a lawyer.