By Christine Kraly
For at least 30 years, Gail Hasbrouck has been a trusted giver of advice.
Achieving "giver status" can be a daunting prospect. It requires integrity and resilience and a fearlessness to deliver tough news — even to some of the top health-care executives in the country.
But colleagues and friends say Hasbrouck, who is in her 60s, does just that as senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Oak Brook-based Advocate Health Care.
"We are part of the team," Hasbrouck said of working in-house, as opposed to giving outside legal counsel. "You make decisions and then you see how they work."
Her enthusiastic embrace of in-house culture proves infectious, as she's influenced other colleagues into general counsel work.
Born in Chicago and raised in Los Angeles, Hasbrouck has navigated and excelled through about three decades of health system mergers and changes to health-care law. She does that, friends and colleagues say, while making razor-sharp decisions. And she has prospered while building a different, wildly successful team — her family.
Embracing 'the mission'
After earning her undergraduate degree in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, Hasbrouck earned a master's degree in social service administration from the University of Chicago in 1969. She earned her law degree from Northwestern University School of Law in 1974.
The new attorney went to work for the Health and Hospitals Governing Commission, which governed the county's health facilities. For four years, she said, she honed her knowledge on health-care issues and "really learned how to be a corporate counsel."
She thrived in the environment. Under the guidance of William Tuggle, then the commission's general counsel — and one of the few minority health-care lawyers in the country, she said — she enjoyed tackling complex litigation or projects from the provider's perspective.
Hasbrouck (pictured) entered the legal health-care field at a time when female and minority brethren were few and far between. But armed with experience and resolve, Hasbrouck felt prepared.
"I felt confident that I was well trained and that I knew I was talking about," she said.
When she needed it, she sought support or advice from her husband, Ellsworth, as well as law school friend, Almeta Cooper, who entered the health-care field at the same time and now serves as associate vice president for health sciences and associate general counsel at The Ohio State University Medical Center.
"We were able to be supportive of each other," Hasbrouck said of her longtime friend.
She followed in Tuggle's footsteps when she joined what was then Evangelical Health Systems Corp. in 1978. About 17 years later, Evangelical went about the complex goal of merging with Lutheran General HealthSystem to form what became Advocate.
Finalizing the merger took at least a year, Hasbrouck said, and involved all departments and several stakeholders from both organizations, including Lutheran General's own attorney and legal staff.
She said she could not elaborate on any specific issues that proved particularly tricky to overcome during the merger, but said the process often became difficult. She helped ensure that the two institutions legally shared the same philosophies and values.
She began working with outside counsel and the other top lawyer from Lutheran General on the evolving plan, corporate document and bylaws. At one point, a plan stipulated for the merged organization to employ two co-CEOs, but that later got dropped. But one plan remained through the process — the newly formed system would employ just one general counsel.
"We had to work very hard putting together an organization understanding only one of us would survive," she said, of working with Lutheran General's then-counsel.
Hasbrouck said she still remembers the phone call learning she would become Advocate's counsel.
"I remember that being a very challenging and rewarding time," she said.
Since then, Hasbrouck and her team steered Advocate through additional acquisitions and litigation.
"We are part of making strategic decisions of how we're going to accomplish our mission," she said.
As the health-care industry awaits the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on President Barack Obama's health-care reform law, Hasbrouck said she and her staff busy themselves establishing best practices to improve patients' health.
"We're not just sitting around and waiting," she said. "We're not waiting for the Supreme Court to make a decision, one way or the other. The train has already left the station."
Hasbrouck's department remains focused on supporting a new treatment model. After a patient leaves an Advocate facility, she said, health-care professionals follow up to monitor the patient's recovery and avert readmission.
"We're trying to do things that are going to try to help people care for themselves," she said.
Hasbrouck said she maintains "great respect" for outside counsel, but relishes the opportunity to see her legal advice or projects come to fruition as an in-house counsel. It is a concept she eagerly championed early in her days with the American Health Lawyers Association (AHLA).
Hasbrouck established the AHLA's In-House Counsel Committee and later served as its first chairwoman. She established the committee at a time when in-house advocacy was becoming an emerging practice area, said Cooper, a past president of the AHLA.
People "started to see the value of having a lawyer inside who could advise," she said.
In some ways, acting as in-house counsel becomes more difficult because it often requires the lawyer to be more of a generalist advising on a variety of areas, Cooper said.
"(Gail) is someone who looks at the whole," Cooper said. "She's not locked into 'This is the way we've always done it.'"
Hasbrouck cited the ability to recommend a particular course of action and ensure its success as chief among her assets and joys in working as corporate counsel.
"I understand the bigger picture," Hasbrouck said. "I understand what people are trying to accomplish."
A few years ago, that meant responding to a federal inquiry into nonprofit hospitals. In 2008, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, prompted a federal probe into whether nonprofit hospitals provide adequate care and if they somehow abuse their tax-exempt status.
Hasbrouck assigned her staff to prepare volumes of records to respond to Grassley's inquiry. The issue eventually cooled at the federal level, she said.
"I would love to think we had something to do with that," she said.
Years of new legislation and often mistrust led to a dramatic mood change within, and about, the health-care industry since she joined it three decades ago, Hasbrouck said.
"Health care has become a much more complex and even difficult — it's difficult to interpret, and therefore, difficult to explain to most people that are not involved in the business of health care," Hasbrouck said.
She said a dizzying array of regulations and misunderstandings about what health systems do forces health-care professionals to play constant defense.
"Regulations seem to come from the perspective that health care is too expensive, that there must be fraudulent practices, and therefore we need additional regulations and audits and reviews and monitoring," Hasbrouck said.
"There's just a lack of support in the sense that we're not as positive a part of the community, even though we are still saving people's lives, even though we are taking care of the poor."
Leading by example
Michael Bezney wasn't sure he wanted to go in-house. He worked for McDermott Will & Emery when in 1996, he became Hasbrouck's vice president and associate general counsel at Advocate.
"Gail was a phenomenal mentor," said Bezney, who went on to become senior vice president and general counsel at Catholic Health Partners in Cincinnati in 2002.
"She taught me how to be a general counsel," Bezney said. "She taught me how to protect the organization while being appropriately (positioned) in the marketplace."
Bezney focused on mergers and acquisitions during his time under Hasbrouck's tutelage at Advocate.
He credited Hasbrouck with helping him learn how to thrive in a "mission-driven" organization.
"It's easy to give legal advice," he said. "It's hard to say, 'Given that legal advice, here's my recommendation.'"
And even when undertaking what can be complicated, potentially contentious litigation or merger talks, colleagues said, Hasbrouck's hand remains as steady as the surgeons she represents.
Those who know her best describe her as a serene, confident decision-maker who exhibits measured judgment. She represents the calm in a sea of chaos.
Bezney recalled a particularly testy meeting he attended with Advocate administrators. As she often does, Hasbrouck gave her legal opinion on a project. The administrators clearly didn't like Hasbrouck's recommendation, Bezney said.
On this rare occasion, Hasbrouck could not find a feasible way to fulfill her bosses' wishes, Bezney said, and had "the credibility to make the hard call."
No one said the giver of the advice would always be popular. But as Hasbrouck sees it, her job is not to sugarcoat.
"This is what I do; this is my job," she said. "You are the counsel. You have to say what you really believe."
Her confidence — and words — linger long after Bezney left Hasbrouck's supervision.
She has told me so many things I have lived by," he said.
That "watch and learn" concept also infused members of Hasbrouck's other team — which includes her twin daughters, who are now in their 30s.
"I was inspired by just watching her," Dawn Hasbrouck said.
Dawn praised her mother for possessing a "great perspective" about maintaining a healthy balance of family and career. She made time to share school chauffeuring duties with her husband and always made it home for dinner, she said.
"She's not a person that gets flustered," said her other daughter, Dr. Nicole Hasbrouck-Verdun. "She's a person that can pick up change quite easily."
Hasbrouck-Verdun said there was no mistaking her mother's priorities, even during work hours. If one of her daughters called, Hasbrouck-Verdun said, the rule was simple — pull her from the meeting.
Bezney confirmed the rule existed.
"I witnessed it once in a compliance meeting," he said, adding compliance talks are often serious affairs not easily exited.
"She definitely inspired me … just watching her balance everything," Hasbrouck-Verdun said. "I never felt that her job came before us. It was us before anything."
Hasbrouck-Verdun, a pediatric hematologist in Washington, D.C., said she now relishes the opportunity to "talk shop" about the health-care industry with her mother.
"I'm able to talk to her about a lot of different situations with my job because she knows firsthand the field," she said. "I definitely talk to her about specific things that come up."
Hasbrouck-Verdun said her mother's success in the health-care industry inspired Hasbrouck's sister, Carla Pittman, to leave her government legal career.
For nearly 13 years, Pittman worked as corporate counsel for Baxter Healthcare Corp., after leaving her job as a Los Angeles city attorney, Hasbrouck-Verdun said.
One of the best lessons Dawn said she gleaned from her mother is that when a person's happy and balanced at home, it's easier — and more enjoyable — to excel at the office.
"I consider her a huge inspiration at work," she said.
The giver of time and resources
Many mornings, Hasbrouck can be found riding her bicycle around her Hyde Park neighborhood. And early on many Saturdays, Hasbrouck swings a golf club with Kate Bensen, executive director of The Chicago Network, an invitation-only group formed in 1979 for Chicago's most distinguished professional women.
Bensen wants to be clear — Hasbrouck is a far better golfer than she is.
"I actually really stink and she basically humored me," Bensen said, laughing.
Bensen called her friend Hasbrouck a "very instrumental" member of the network's subcommittee that considers fellow potential members in the health-care field.
"It's lonely at the top for very senior women," Bensen said. "It's easy to network with other professionals who do what you do." It's more difficult to network across different career fields, which is one of The Chicago Network's main goals, she said.
Hasbrouck and some friends spoke with optimism recently, she said, about the growing number of women in general counsel positions, within and beyond the health-care industry.
"It's a much larger population of women than we've seen in the past," she said.
She attributes the draw to in-house work, in part, to attorneys seeking challenging work, but in a more collaborative setting not necessarily focused on a lawyer's billable hours.
"The work is not less" than that of a private firm, she said, "it's just more of a team environment, of recognition, that we all have lives. And that we are able to manage that."
The group shares Hasbrouck's calendar with a number of civic and professional organizations, including the Northwestern Law Board and the Chicago chapter of the Chi Omega Omega sorority, where she is a charter member.
She chaired Northwestern's Corporate Counsel Institute planning committee. She served as the president of the Illinois Association of Healthcare Attorneys, becoming the first woman and black person, to hold the post, Jet Magazine reports. In 2005, Chicago United, a group of racially diverse Chicago-based CEOs, named her a Business Leader of Color.
She served on the strategic planning committee for Loyola University Chicago School of Law's Beazley Institute for Health Law and Policy.
In the fall of 2010, Hasbrouck volunteered her time helping the Metropolitan Chicago American Heart Association's Heart Walk, one of the group's chief fundraising events.
Under her work as a co-chair, the walk engaged 25,000 people and raised $2.6 million, said Stephen Archer, president of the group's board of directors.
So enamored with her management of the walk, the association invited Hasbrouck to join the group's small, exclusive board, where she sits on the group's minority hypertension and stroke subcommittee.
"She's willing and able to open the doors in businesses and health care," Archer said. "That's where Gail has been helpful. She's made a few well placed phone calls to people."
Those calls have been particularly helpful with boosting Mission: Lifeline, Archer said.
The initiative aims to reduce mortality rates among heart attack victims by steering 911 callers to the hospital with the best resources for that patient, not simply the one closest.
The initiative requires a fair amount of collaboration and support from Chicago's hospital management, which Hasbrouck has been instrumental in helping coordinate, Archer said.
She also plays a key role in the Council of One Hundred, a group Hasbrouck helped establish in 1993. The group includes all female, Northwestern alums at the top of their professions, from the head of a cosmetic giant to editors of women's magazines. Hasbrouck experiences the rare joy of sharing membership in the elite group with her daughter, Dawn, who is a news anchor for Chicago's Fox television station.
"Gail's leadership ability was evident from the beginning and that's quite a statement when you consider she serves with a group of women who are all leaders," said Catherine Stembridge, associate vice president of Northwestern's Office of Alumni Relations and Development, who helped establish the council.
"We're able to really kind of lift up the confidence of the young women at Northwestern," said Hasbrouck, who once chaired the council.
She expressed confidence in the women she has counseled and their prospects entering the working world.
"They're very strong, they're very bright," she said. "They're so career-focused."
When asked to describe Hasbrouck's achievements, colleagues boast as much about her life outside of the board room as they do inside of it. Each share stories of Hasbrouck's daughters with vicarious joy. Because when they're on one of Hasbrouck's teams, they take pride in all of them, they said.
Hasbrouck and her husband, Ellsworth, own a home in Palm Desert, Calif., and travel to Washington, D.C., to visit Hasbrouck-Verdun who has a son and is pregnant with a daughter.
And Hasbrouck continues a tradition with the older of Dawn's two sons — she often drives him to school in the morning.