From the article:
The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Harry Nelson.
Harry, the founder of Nelson Hardiman, has been called the leading healthcare lawyer in America. Apart from his regulatory strategy work in other areas of healthcare and life science innovation, he developed the regulatory pathway for telehealth companies that were acquired in 2021 for collectively over $2 billion. His lessons from crisis response work in the overdose crisis led to the best-selling “United States of Opioids: A Prescription for Liberating a Nation in Pain.” Harry’s advocacy work related to America’s healthcare future has led to numerous awards and has produced tangible results to improve healthcare regulations at the federal and state levels.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?
Igrew up in the Midwest (Detroit). My father and his father both went to law school, but went on to the seminary and become rabbis. I was much older before I felt the spiritual pull, so as a teenager, I felt like I could break the family mold by not just going to law school but actually practicing law. Originally, I thought I would be a prosecutor. But after a summer in college interning for a congressman on Capitol Hill, I came away fascinated by the way government regulations ruled over so many American industries — and how broken the whole system was. Back then, the government was rolling back regulations in airlines and telecom, leaving the lawyers who specialized in those areas scratching their heads with what they would do next. So I figured out that I wanted to become an expert in an area that wasn’t going to be deregulated anytime soon, which turned out to be healthcare. To me, living in a country that spends more than anyone in the world for a terrible system, it was simultaneously the biggest opportunity and most broken part of our whole system.
Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
My practice has 3 sides. For companies in areas of healthcare and life science innovation, like telehealth, behavioral health, genomic testing, stem cells, psychedelics, I function as a regulatory lawyer and strategist, helping early stage ventures navigate uncharted or less charted regulatory waters from ideation to all the way to wherever they want to go. For healthcare and life science companies in crisis due to regulatory mistakes (fraud, patient safety, privacy violations or other noncompliance), I help them fix what is broken — remediating compliance issues, repairing relationships internally, with government agencies, with insurance companies. And for many healthcare companies, I serve as a one- stop shop when they need outside regulatory counsel for ongoing business needs.
You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I don’t think I would be where I am if I wasn’t driven. Life would be more fun if I wasn’t constantly driven to work relentlessly to produce the highest quality work product and advice, and to be the best. I would set better boundaries. My wife and my kids are ready to kill me sometimes because I am rarely fully away from the work. I will be on the ski lift with my kids and a client has an issue, and I am in the thick of it. I get a complete separation only from Friday night to Saturday night because we observe Shabbat, but I think that indefatigable drive is the number one thing that separates me from my colleagues.
I think my empathy has been a difference-maker. I once had a doctor who kept calling me. He lived on the other side of the country, but had gotten my name from a friend. He told me from the beginning that he was already working with two other lawyers I knew and respected, one of whom was nationally renowned, but I took his calls as a courtesy and then took a meeting with him. I kept telling him, “You’re in good hands already. You don’t need me.” He said to me, “I did my homework and I know I’ve hired the best people. But I also know that you are every bit as good as they are. And the difference is, when I talk to them, they leave me cold. But when I talk to you, I feel you are in it with me, and my anxiety just lifts.” It was an epiphany for me that part of my difference is that personal bond and my ability to give clients emotional support in a way other lawyers didn’t. He taught me not to hold back, to lean in to the emotional side of a client’s needs.
I think that my ability to manage stress and to process things quickly has been a key difference. I work in areas of law where the norm for lawyers is to be super-cautious and slow, and I know it drives clients crazy. There’s way too much hemming and hawing because it’s stressful to stake out a definitive position in areas where technology has outpaced the law, and where there’s confusion and ambiguity. I have come to the view that, as long as I am transparent about what I know and where I am thinking out loud, I can give clients my best advice in a way that is specific and in real-time, without making them wait for a memo a couple weeks later. I regularly have clients who tell me, “I spent the last six months and tens of thousands of dollars with other lawyers getting the run around, and you just gave me the answer on our very first call.” It only happens because I can manage the stress of being put on the spot constantly, process the situation, the challenge, calibrate to the audience, and give the answer that is needed.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
I have unquestionably had some good breaks that you could call lucky. I was once standing in line at a hotel valet parking waiting for my car after an event, when a lawyer I knew from another firm walked by with a colleague and introduced me. That introduction produced one of my biggest clients of the past decade. I view the kindness of people on a daily basis who happen to think of me and make connections as the greatest kind of luck.
I’ve come to the belief that everything happens for a reason, that we can’t understand why good things happen or why bad things happen. All we can do is be grateful for the breaks we get and find a way not to hold onto anger and resentment with the ones that don’t go our way. I’ve got a way to go on that score, but I have learned to process things quickly so that I can move on and focus on the next thing.
Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?
I am proud of being a Michigan alum. I think it mattered at the beginning of my career that it was a top school. It helped me get a clerkship with a judge in Hawaii, who maybe only gave me an interview because he was Michigan alum. It helped with my first job at a firm in Chicago, at a firm with other people from elite schools, having the right markers on my resume. But I know as many lawyers without fancy academic pedigrees who were as or more driven than me that have killed it. It definitely gives you a leg up in the early days of your career, but I also think over time, it really doesn’t matter where you went to school. And what I have seen being in Los Angeles is that it may be just as valuable to have a network of local alumni (be it USC or Loyola) than to have high- ranking school without a strong presence in the community.
Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?
I would say a few things:
First, I would say there are times I should have been more patient. I sold a big position out of Amazon when Webvan cratered that I can’t even think about. Hang in there on those bets.
Second, I would say it took me a while to really have fun with the work, to be myself fully, to feel a sense of not just purpose, but joy. I think my early days as a lawyer were too focused on making the senior folks I worked for happy, to meeting expectations, and not focusing on setting up the life that I wanted. I worried too much about what other people thought and not enough about what I needed. I would tell my younger self not to waste time getting to know my interior self and to embrace my work style, my risk tolerance, and my passions. I would spend more time with fellow creatives and people who are energizing.
Third, I would tell my younger self not to worry so much about fitting in. Law is a crowded marketplace where not standing out is basically the same as being invisible.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
It constantly changes. There was a point where I was convinced I was building an empire, a national practice and leaving a legacy. All it took was a taste of what mercenary times these are for so many lawyers for me to be dissuaded that that was a worthwhile pursuit.
There is a piece that is motivated by the satisfaction of providing for my family, of taking care of the people I love, of having the autonomy to make my own choices.
But I think my ultimate motivation is that I feel I am living my purpose when people bring me problems to solve, and I am able to work them out. I feel a sense of joy in connecting with people on the work, in learning of something new about feeling a momentary satisfaction about a job well done — before jumping into the next problem.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I have a handful of clients that feel like multi-billion dollar opportunities if they can work out the challenges in front of them. I am particularly excited about two projects I am working on at the cutting of personalized, genomic medicine that I think is about to revolutionize medicine. I am excited about a couple of clients who are at the forefront of psychedelic therapy, including one that is integrating psychedelics into telehealth to drive a transformation in how we treat depression and PTSD. I am really excited about a local health system client that is on the verge of rolling out a new model of behavioral health crisis response centers that have the potential to move the needle on overdose prevention and also on addressing homeless mental health issues.
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
I am really enjoying myself these days. And I still feel passionate and energized by the work I try to make sure I am focusing on doing what I love, doing it well, staying on top of the next big things.
Beyond my practice, I am working with a publisher on a new book addressing America’s overdose crisis. I’ve been asked to get involved in some more television projects, and am trying to figure out a roadmap to make sure my public service messages for America’s healthcare future are being heard. I have gotten some informal inquiries about taking a leadership role in some type of (appointed, not elected) public service. I am taking interesting calls and keeping my ear to the ground.
I haven’t figured out what the next chapter is for me. I am trying to build up a strong cadre of colleagues who can bear more of the “heavy lifting” in client work that I currently do, so that I have the option to re-allocate more time to other projects, but that is a work in progress.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
My favorite war stories involve jumping in at the last minute into projects that couldn’t be resolved by other people and taking care of business. I once got a call from the general counsel of one of the biggest telehealth companies in the country. He was panicked because the Medical Board of California was about to commence a hearing against one of their doctors. Their regular law firm handling the case had reassured them the matter would be settled on mutually agreeable terms, and then informed them that they were wrong, and there was no way to prevent the case from going forward in just over a week. The Deputy Attorney General handling the case was an impossible, ideological person, on a mission, who I had butted heads with before, and I knew she was never going to give ground. So I went over her head and made a direct appeal to the Board leadership and painted a picture of why this case needed to be shut down. Less than 24 hours before the case was scheduled to start, with the doctor about to board a plane to come to California, the case was dismissed. No explanation. Grateful client, very unhappy prosecutor.
My other favorite war story is that I had a publicly traded client in a different area of healthcare being railroaded out of California by a licensing agency. They had many locations, and it was going to be a disaster for them. I decided that the case needed a new lawyer, but that it would be better for me to bring in another law firm so I could serve as the expert witness. The strategy paid off when the administrative law judge found in his decision that I was the authoritative person on the issue in question (corporate practice medicine), as exemplified by the number of times that the Attorney General’s office kept citing me. He wouldn’t let them pick and choose. It was a case with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake for the client, and my testimony won the case. The state agency adopted it and abandoned a multi-year battle with the company.
The funniest story for me was the one that led me to become the very first healthcare lawyer in the country to start doing medical marijuana work. In 2009, the Obama Administration had just announced it would stop raiding California’s medical marijuana dispensaries if they complied with state guidance. I was known for my DEA-related work, including petitioning for DEA research permits for cannabis, so my phone started ringing off the hook with marijuana-related clients. I said, “I don’t really know much about medical marijuana law beyond doctors. Let me find the right lawyer who understands dispensaries, cultivation, product development. I called around and found the lawyer everyone in town described as the expert. Everyone else advising was a criminal defense lawyer, but this was the preeminent “corporate lawyer” for cannabis in California. I left a voicemail message for him. He called me back and we had a nice conversation late in the day. I was getting ready to email the people who called me his name the next day, when he called me again. He literally had no recollection whatsoever that we had already spoken. I realized he had been as high as a kite in both conversations. I decided I couldn’t in good faith give his name to anyone, so I decided to roll up my sleeves and start learning cannabis. Within a year, we had the biggest cannabis practice in Southern California. The lawyer later became a client and a friend, but to this day, I credit him with inspiring me to tackle the space.
Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?
Personally, I like to be in the office. It’s quiet these days (more than half of our team is still remote), but I like the ability to bounce ideas around with my colleagues who are there. The work is getting done, but I would say some of the emotional support and connection we give each other is gone when everyone is remote. I also think it is weakening our culture and the bonds that tie us together. I already hate how mercenary law practice has become, and I think this makes it worse. I am trying to make the most of it personally by traveling more, taking advantage of the ability to be someplace else, stretching out my time away. I think it is the future. We have 42,000 square feet of space and can function with a fraction of it in the post-pandemic world. I would not want to be in the commercial real estate business. Law firms are going to get much more space efficient, and I think we are going to see a wave of innovation in digital tools to let u better connect remotely.
How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?
There have been some positive changes. I used to have many projects that needed an in-person meeting to get going. These days, everyone is just fine with an initial meeting or a kick-off via Zoom. I think location matters less than ever. We are getting new clients all over the country and also globally more than ever. At the same time, we are competing with good lawyers and firms all over the country, so it forces us to up our game. As a healthcare lawyer, COVID has also brought up many new legal issues for us to tackle, and driven the growth of pandemic-friendly businesses, like diagnostic lab testing and telehealth that were already sweet spots for us.
We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?
I would be nothing without an amazing network of lawyers at other firms and former clients who give my name out all over the place, who vouch for me, and who sing my praises when people need someone who does what I do. So networking is still critical to me. The pandemic put our ability to nurture our networks on hold, because we stopped seeing each other, and were limited to more impersonal emails and calls. I have had a slight advantage with regular TV appearances because I tend to be highly visible on social media so people don’t forget about me. But networking in person will be a big focus again with COVID hopefully in check.
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
It keeps evolving. At one point, I had massive visibility on LinkedIn, and then they changed their algorithm, and I went from thousands of views per day to several hundred per week. I have had good results with Facebook, although I am still learning. I feel like I am still at square one in learning how to use Instagram for engagement. I think of social media as a visibility tool which is useful for activating my network. The work flows mostly through the network, but the social media visibility keeps me on the network’s mind.
Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Research: You are dead in the water in healthcare law if you aren’t on top of the latest regulation or pronouncement in whatever jurisdiction you are dealing with. The ground is constantly shifting. I’ve picked up more than a few clients because their last lawyer missed a particular change. For example, after Medicare announced the 36-month rule limiting home health agency changes of ownership, I saw an influx of work because one of our competitors had failed to advise client that it was coming.
2. Writing: I am in the business of persuading investors or acquirers of early stage ventures that the regulatory compliance concerns expressed by other lawyers are not a real problem — or that they are addressable. I am constantly relying on my ability to write to win hearts and minds and get deals done. Just last week, we had a national law firm ready to kill an acquisition of one of our clients over an expressed compliance concern. I generated a memo that convinced the other firm’s client that they were being unduly conservative. This work is all about the writing.
3. Speaking: There are many moments when being able to deliver the message clearly and succinctly is the difference between success and failure. I have been though a number of eleventh hour conversations where being confident and firm makes the difference as to whether the deal gets done or not.
4. Problem-Solving: So much of the work is figuring out the best way to navigate through the puzzle. People call us when they are stuck or confused or lost. The job comes down to knowing the landscape and then thinking critically, thinking creatively, and thinking quickly, because something bad is going to happen if we don’t figure out the solution and get it done.
5. Interpersonal: I don’t see how you can be successful if you can’t listen, relate to clients and make them feel heard and understood. People need to really be able to trust and rely on their lawyer on sensitive healthcare questions.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I get to interact with more sports and entertainment celebrities than you might think who are considering or joining cutting edge healthcare/life science ventures, and my job is to settle down VCs so clients can get the funds they need. If I had to confess a fascination, I would love a chance to schmooze with Elon Musk. I love his drive to innovation and would like to sell him on some life science opportunities. Slightly geekier second choice would be to pick Ray Kurzweil’s brain. I have a lot of questions for him.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!