Community Spotlight: Robyn Diaz, Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital CEO Pieter Gunst Dives into the Career Journey of Robyn Diaz, Senior VP and CLO at the world-renowned St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Community Spotlight: Robyn Diaz, Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

Welcome to another episode of our Community Spotlight, a series in which we highlight the careers and experiences of some of the most impressive and storied in-house legal professionals.

In this episode, we explore the career journey of Robyn Diaz, Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. As the CLO of St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, Robyn oversees the legal department, government affairs, technology transfer (intellectual property), compliance, and internal audits. Pieter and Robyn discuss:

  • Robyn's career journey to date
  • Key responsibilities in her role as VP & CLO
  • Key challenges and lessons learned in her role
  • The importance of learning and acquiring new skills, especially leadership and management, not typically taught in law school
  • The significance of collaboration, strategic planning, and proactive efforts in creating a diverse and inclusive legal department and legal industry.

Three takeaways from this episode include:

  • Finding your focus is powerful - Robyn Diaz's career journey involved a deliberate path towards becoming an attorney. After college, She worked in a healthcare consulting firm to gain experience before attending law school. Her exposure to the healthcare industry while at the consulting firm ignited her interest in health law, leading her to focus on practicing health law during law school.
  • Community matters - Robyn emphasized the importance of finding counterparts and peers in the industry to collaborate with and share experiences and insights, especially in specialized areas like health law, where peers are willing to collaborate and share insights due to the joint mission of improving healthcare and education.
  • D&I efforts yield results, and require ongoing efforts - Robyn spearheaded diversity and inclusion efforts in her legal department, achieving Mansfield Rule certification. The Mansfield Rule measures the consideration of historically underrepresented lawyers for various roles within the department, as well as external hiring and engagement of outside counsel. Tracking data and metrics to ensure that diversity and inclusion efforts are actionable and measurable, not just empty statements, is an ongoing process.

Read the full transcript for this episode below. 

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Pieter Gunst: [00:00:10] 
Hi everyone. My name is Pieter Gunst. I'm the CEO of, and it's my distinct pleasure today to shine the spotlight on the career of Robyn Diaz, Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer at the world-renowned St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. Robyn, thank you so much for spending some time with me.
Robyn Diaz: [00:00:33] 
Thanks, Pieter. It's my pleasure to speak with you today.
Pieter Gunst: [00:00:36] 
Robyn, I want to dive right in. You've had such an interesting journey landing in this seat as the Chief Legal Officer of a very respected organization. Can you tell me a bit about what your journey has been to this point?
Robyn Diaz: [00:00:53] 
Sure. I always knew I wanted to be an attorney. I was very good at a young age at research and writing and advocating making my point. But I knew that after college, I wanted to work for a few years before I went to law school. I just wanted to break from academics. And so for a few years, I worked at a healthcare consulting firm in Washington, DC, doing some best practices research, and it was in the healthcare industry, and really had no healthcare industry experience before that. But through that experience, I learned a lot about the healthcare industry, about how nuanced and complex it is, how diverse the work is, and found myself speaking on a day-to-day basis with hospital executives across the country about the various issues that they were dealing with. And that really helped me focus on what I wanted to do as an attorney and made clear to me that there was this interest in health law. And so at that point, I applied to law school, went to law school really with a focus on practicing health law.
Robyn Diaz: [00:02:10] 
And I was really fortunate to be in Washington, DC at the time and so had lots of opportunities available through internships and law firm experiences. I actually had an internship with the general counsel of a three-site clinic in the Washington, DC area, and it was this was in the early 2000s. And so really gave me great exposure to the regulatory environment that was just really emerging in health law. I got the opportunity to write their first compliance plan, to draft that, and that showed me this opportunity for an in-house career and made me think that's something that I want to do down the road. But I went to a law firm first and spent a number of years training at a law firm and did both actually health law and environmental regulatory work and then moved in-house with a hospital system in the DC to Baltimore region, was there for a number of years representing their hospitals as well as their home health agency. And then about 13 years ago moved to Memphis to work for St. Jude.
Pieter Gunst: [00:03:30] 
Amazing. I love how you found your focus so early on. I think it's something I've been very grateful for having an innate passion for the intersection of law and technology, and it always helped me a lot, like having that very specific purpose in mind. Now what's interesting is that you say, you know, in-house kind of got on my radar, but I joined the law firm. Was that because that was very much the expected traditional path? 
Robyn Diaz: [00:03:57] 
It was, yes. And I still think it's, for many people the best path in terms of providing the training that you might ultimately need to go in-house. In-house is a very fast-paced environment, at least in the hospital world. There's there's not a lot of time for layers of approval on each issue. You have to make pretty quick judgment calls. There's quite a bit of volume. And so that experience in the law firm world gives you the training that you later need to make the decisions and do the work in-house.
Pieter Gunst: [00:04:36] 
Right. And of course, Kroll and Mooring is a very renowned firm and excellent training to then take on these in-house roles. So you so you go through a number of positions. You end up AGC at MedStar Health. From there you move to St. Jude's and to now for 12 years you've been there. You're now in the leadership role of the legal department. Can you talk a bit about what a day looks like for you today? Because I'm sure the role evolved as well over time.
Robyn Diaz: [00:05:11] 
It has indeed. So when I first got here, I was really a practicing health lawyer and doing a lot of clinical support, work, equipment contracts, physician contracting, medical legal advice, things like that. Now I oversee the legal department, which also includes government affairs. So that's 23 legal and government affairs professionals. I also oversee technology transfer, which in academic medicine is really the intellectual property department. And I oversee compliance and internal audit and I'm a member of the senior leadership team. And so I have a number of institutional responsibilities. I'm the executive sponsor for the Conflict of Interest Committee for the Compliance Steering Committee. And so maybe 25% of my time at this point is actually practicing law and the rest of the time is strategic advising, supervising, leading various institutional initiatives, and the like.
Pieter Gunst: [00:06:24] 
Now you still get to 25% substantive legal work. You'd say?
Robyn Diaz: [00:06:29] 
I think so. But that's squeezing a lot into a day.
Pieter Gunst: [00:06:34] 
Right. And now, of course, you mentioned because it's quite a team then that is kind of being coordinated. So there's the legal department side, but then there's also compliance, which has a significant head count.
Robyn Diaz: [00:06:47] 
Yes. So there's about 50 people total who report up to me.
Pieter Gunst: [00:06:52] 
All right. Well, I know people management is often like one of the big tasks slash also sometimes challenges of a leader in your position. But I want to ask you, throughout your journey, what has been maybe one of the challenges that you faced that you'd highlight? And is there a lesson that you took away from it?
Robyn Diaz: [00:07:17] 
So I agree. Certainly, people management is a challenge and an ongoing challenge because you add people to your to your team, you learn about new people and you have new. Sets of work to tackle which require different skill sets. But for me, perhaps the biggest challenge has been acquiring those different skill sets or the different substantive knowledge that I have needed over time. So my current job does not just require me to be a great health lawyer, it requires me to be a great legal executive. And so that means giving strategic advice, so understanding the business understanding in our case, often the medicine and the science, which I'm not trained in. So certainly had a learning curve there. And then St. Jude is, is certainly a hospital, but it's really an academic center. It has a graduate school. So a degree granting graduate school. It has a significant amount of overseas humanitarian-focused work. And so that required coming up to speed on higher education law and international or foreign law. And so a number of new areas of substantive expertise that I had to develop over time. And I think the message is you're never too old or too senior in your career to start fresh to some extent and learn new things.
Pieter Gunst: [00:08:51] 
Now, when it comes to developing the leadership skills that aren't taught in law school, like what are some of the things you had to do there to keep up with the pace of your environment?
Robyn Diaz: [00:09:05] 
One of the most important things for me has been finding the right counterparts, the right people in the industry to speak with and bounce ideas off of because there's really no one else in my organization who has the same responsibilities that I do, that mine are different in that I'm leading a team of lawyers who might not behave the same way that that physicians do or that nurses do. And so finding other general counsels or chief legal officers, in particular in the health care industry or in academic medicine has been really helpful going to conferences where it's that narrow group, if possible, to talk about what are the pressing issues that we're all dealing with. You know, for the last three years, everyone worldwide has been, of course, dealing with the pandemic and the workforce challenges associated with a pandemic. But what are the nuances of dealing with that in a health care setting where you're supervising lawyers who perhaps can do their work from home, but they're giving advice to people who have to be on-site because they're providing patient care? And so, how do you work through all of those nuances? How do you juggle that? So a lot of it's just feedback, interaction with counterparts, seeing the great work that they do, what I can learn from, and maybe how I can help them learn.
Pieter Gunst: [00:10:39] 
Yeah, that's amazing. And what comes to mind for me is that maybe that collaboration with peers in the industry is also easier than in a context where you have like very profit-focused corporations that are in, like, you know, the same industry, Uber, Lyft versus here, people really pulling on a mission, trying to improve health care education in the field. And so maybe this will resonate. But do you find that network then also very, very willing to collaborate partially because of these mission-driven reasons?
Robyn Diaz: [00:11:14] 
Yes, definitely. I think the health law bar is very collaborative, you know, very communicative. There are lots of opportunities for members of the health law bar to get together and not just discuss new substantive issues. And health law's always changing. The government is very active in that realm. So, there are always new substantive issues. But also to discuss work-life issues with law department management. And so that's been a big help.
Pieter Gunst: [00:11:49] 
Amazing. I imagine that these have been a couple of fast-moving years for you and the team, especially as a lot of these things really got to a pace of acceleration that was unseen. Now, one thing I wanted to discuss as well is one of the initiatives you did during what was already a very, very stressful high utilization time, no doubt, for your team, but you carved out time to further diversity initiatives within the organization and took some very tangible actions to measure results from those. And I'm very interested in hearing a bit more about what kind of things you did and where you see that going.
Robyn Diaz: [00:12:37] 
Sure. So my team has been engaged in what I would say are concerted, focused D&I efforts since 2020. We actually committed to this right before the pandemic started and have really been focused on inclusion and equity of opportunities. So focusing our efforts on creating and sustaining fairness and awareness. And last fall, we successfully achieved what's known as Mansfield Rule certification for a law department. There's a Mansfield rule process for law firms and then a separate one for in-house legal departments. And the Mansfield Rule Law Department edition is run by a company called Diversity Lab, and it measures whether legal departments affirmatively consider historically underrepresented lawyers for a variety of different roles. So one would be senior management positions within a law department. Another would be discretionary, high-visibility opportunities. So opportunities to present to the board perhaps, or to present to the CEO or to executive leadership to participate on a standing committee where there are department chairs involved, really just to gain more exposure in a significant way in the organization, and that it also measures external hiring for lawyer positions and even for internship roles. And then finally, it measures diversity among outside counsel. So the outside counsel who are working on your matters, what do those teams look like? And under that initiative, we strove for a candidate pool consisting of at least 50% women, racial, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ, plus attorneys and or lawyers with a disability for all of those roles.
Robyn Diaz: [00:14:40] 
So whether it's senior departmental positions, external hiring for lawyer and intern positions, discretionary high-visibility opportunities, and when hiring outside counsel. And it's a two-year certification process. So we completed that and we sought it because we really wanted to challenge ourselves to track data and live up to metrics. It's very easy to say we're converted, we're committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, but until you're actually tracking how you're doing and holding yourself to something without setting quotas, but noting what's changing and noting what your candidate pools look like for things like hiring, it's really hard to say that you're accomplishing anything. And so our department has grown quite a bit, actually over the course of the pandemic, but we've made sure that our hiring pools always include at least one diverse lawyer or intern candidate. And now we're at a point that I said we have 13 lawyers and 10 legal and government affairs professionals. Five of those are male and the rest are female. So you can see it's a it's a majority female department. Five members of the team are black Americans. One member of the team is Latinx, and one member of the team is Asian-American. So we're pleased about where we are. But of course, there's always more progress to be made.
Pieter Gunst: [00:16:21] 
Now, you were one of only three hospitals in the country certified?
Robyn Diaz: [00:16:27] 
We're certified in that second round. So the Mansfield Rule Law Department process has different additions or rounds of group of hospitals or organizations that sign up to participate in each round. And in the first round, there were no hospitals. It was major really for-profit corporations across the US that chose to participate. And in that second round, there were three hospitals that participated. So still a pretty small group of hospitals doing this. And interestingly, all three are in academic medicine, so they're not big hospital systems at this stage.
Pieter Gunst: [00:17:10] 
Very fascinating. And yeah, it's of course, you know, it takes deliberate action to get an effort like this off the ground. And so amazing to see you spearhead this. So and you share some data on your team. But then also in terms of the management of external firms, one works with, you talk about, well, we didn't set quotas because and the reason then we spoke about this is a law firm of 40 people. It's not the same as a law firm of 3000 people.
Robyn Diaz: [00:17:41] 
That's right.
Pieter Gunst: [00:17:41] 
And so how does that play out in practice? What are some of the actions that you see being more incentivized as part of this motion that you're doing with your partners?
Robyn Diaz: [00:17:51] 
Right. So Diversity Lab also has a related but separate program called Diversity Dividends, and we're a participant in that as well. And through that process, we have conversations with each of our law firms about their current demographic data, what that looks like, and what progress we would like them to make over the next year. And it is specific to their firm and it's a conversation so it's not us dictating you will do X, but it's the client and the firm jointly saying this is where we we think the firm should be next year. And so for a big firm, there might be actual demographic changes either either within the firm as a whole or at least among those teams that are supporting my organization. And then for for a very small firm, it might be things like we want you to engage in more training within your firm on diversity issues. We want you to recognize Heritage Months, something along those lines so that each firm has something actionable that they can work on over the course of the year. And they're expected to essentially report to us on how they've done on that. And then we have another conversation in a year to say either you've fulfilled your commitment or you haven't. And if you haven't fulfilled your commitment, we need to understand why because we expect that of our firms. And at some point, if you don't fulfill your commitment, then we question your commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and perhaps we think about moving our business elsewhere.
Pieter Gunst:: [00:19:43] 
Robyn, it's so fascinating to hear you speak from your seat and kind of moving forward, the legal profession in a sense, where the end result is that the representation that is delivered is more akin to the client of the hospital.
Robyn Diaz: [00:20:00] 
Pieter Gunst: [00:20:01] 
And so it's very fascinating to see how this mission of furthering treatment and education also then permeates through to the legal department. It's frankly incredibly exciting and it's important work. Robyn, I want to thank you so much for spending a little bit of time with me to talk about your journey and about these initiatives. I really enjoyed this.
Robyn Diaz: [00:20:26] 
Thank you. I really appreciate it. Nice speaking with you.
Pieter Gunst: [00:20:29] 
Thank you.
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