Christine Keller is the executive principal of Groom Law Group, one of the nation’s leading benefits, retirement, and health care law firms. She advises a wide range of clients on all aspects of health and welfare plan design, administration, and funding including compliance with federal tax, ERISA, and other federal and state law requirements, plan and VEBA trust document drafting, participant disclosure, change in election issues, wellness program compliance, and claims and appeals. Her clients include employers, insurers, and service providers of all sizes. Before joining Groom, she worked for six years in the Internal Revenue Service Office of Chief Counsel.
JEM: Chris, you’ve been a successful rainmaker for several years. Can you think back and share how you got your first significant piece of business?
CLK: My first big client came about because an in-house attorney new to her role reached out to a networking group called the “In-House Benefits Counsel Network” and asked if anyone could recommend an attorney from Groom. I participate in a lunch group with other benefits lawyers in the DC area and a buddy of mine from that group told this attorney that I would be a good person to talk with about her needs.
The prospective client called, and we had a conversation about what it would look like to help her and her company. I pulled together a team of colleagues and we traveled out there to meet her and her team. We were hired to do that work! We’ve been working together now for over 13 years.
In that time, I’ve really grown to know and love her, and this experience has made me realize that when you get to know your client and you really enjoy them as a person, it’s not that much effort to try to help them with their goals and to try and help them achieve everything they can achieve.
JEM: After 13 years you obviously know your client very well. What did you do in the beginning to form a relationship with her that obviously blossomed over the years?
CLK: In our very first conversation, she shared that personality counts and so I knew I’d be free to just be myself to ask her questions to find out more about her and what she needed from a legal perspective. She was also about to start a family, and I had a very young son at that time. So, in addition to helping with legal issues, I shared some tips on taking care of young children. I also sent her a few small items that I thought might be helpful as she was navigating that new mother stage. We ended up connecting on several levels, being new moms was just one of them.
JEM: Do you typically try to develop strong personal relationships with your clients?
CLK: Connecting with your clients is important, and the relationship should evolve naturally. When I meet someone, I just want to get to know them. I’m not immediately thinking, “gosh, I want to sign him or her up as a client.” I’m thinking it’s interesting that this person is navigating these issues and so I want to know more about their job. I want to know what they did before this current role, where they are in their career, are they new or very seasoned, and how they are balancing their job and their family or their home life? What are their hobbies? I mean, I get into all the details. I have one client who loves to snowboard and so we talk about her passion. I’m a skier, not a snowboarder, but I love that she does it and she’s passionate about it. So yeah, I pretty much get to know everything on a personal level that my clients are doing, and it makes it more fun for me and, hopefully, for them too.
JEM: Getting to know people on a personal level makes it fun, not just work. I know you don’t spend all your time talking about your prospects’ personal lives! How do you talk about their challenges and needs and how you can help them?
CLK: When I talk about how I can help them, it’s not just me, it’s my whole firm. I’m really proud of my firm and of the expertise we have. And I offer not just to help the client with my own areas of expertise, which includes all tax issues relating to health and welfare plans, and fiduciary issues relating to health and welfare plans; but more broadly, I offer to handle any health, retirement or benefits matter that comes in the door, including litigation, and to find the right person at my firm to help the client.
As I get to know the client and their needs, we form a team to meet those needs. That team can expand or contract based on the client’s needs. The team understands who the client is and what they need. A big part of my role is not just providing legal services. It involves knowing my colleagues and getting them to understand that this is a priority, why it’s a priority and what the client needs and how and when they need it. I tell prospective clients upfront that they’re not just hiring me, they’re hiring a team and that team is comprised of experts.
JEM: Chris, where does your passion for helping the client come from?
CLK: I am passionate about helping the client because that’s why they’ve hired us! I try to put myself in their shoes. I’ve been doing this for a while and thus have some insight into what my client’s day-to-day lives are like, and they’re difficult. Being an in-house counsel isn’t a walk in the park. It’s just the opposite. There is a lot of pressure.
One of my clients shared something that highlighted that pressure. She told me I should be careful to put the advice I’m giving her into the first line of the email, because if she’s looking at it on her phone and walking into a meeting, she needs to know that information quickly!
I feel lucky. I’ve been educated by clients about what their pressures are. That lets me envision what that’s like in their world. And if I’m in a position where I can pull some resources together and get them the answers they need, that’s what I want to do. That’s why I’m passionate about doing what I do.
JEM: OK, how do you help your team learn about the client and its priorities?
CLK: I always give a lot of background as far as who the person is, what they need, why they need it, when they need it, what format it should take, and how much time should be spent. And I also try to educate them a little about the client’s industry and some of the pressures that might be associated with that.
I find that once people have ownership over their piece of that client’s needs, they’re going to excel at whatever is needed just the same way that I would. When the need is in my area of expertise, I pull out all the stops, I answer the question to the best of my ability. My goal is for the team to do the same and they do – they knock it out of the park every time.
JEM: I saw you speak recently. You talked about a vision, mission, and purpose that you and your firm have. Can you talk about that for just a minute about how you connect a sense of vision, mission, or purpose to what the work you and your colleagues do every day?
CLK: Our vision is a world where all people are healthier and wealthier. And the way we achieve that, which is our mission, is to help the companies and organizations put together the health, retirement and other benefits that make it a reality so that people have the financial security they need and can be as healthy as possible.
These benefits help people live their best lives. That’s why we do what we do every day at Groom. Fortunately for us, that’s a vision our clients share. Our clients are the in-house benefits counsel and they’re the human resources folks in companies; the people who are developing products for the retirement plan market; the people who are working for health insurers and health care companies. We are fortunate that we have a shared vision which creates passion and a sense of community.
JEM: You make this all sound easy. That intrigues me because I know you are a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, the managing partner of your law firm, a rainmaker and you still practice law. I know you have several other roles as well. How do you find the time to do all of this?!
CLK: I have my weeks where it does seem like I’m running around like a chicken with my head cut off. So, I’m not going to lie about that. But when things are going well, it’s because I’m able to stick to my routine. I really think the key is to find a routine that works. My ideal routine is when I wake up, I meditate for 10 minutes. I block out my calendar with the time I’m going to do my deep thinking and other time I’m going to do my outreach and business development activities, the time that I’m going to use for managing the firm. I also ideally put in time to exercise because I find that even if you’re having the busiest day, taking 45 minutes to go for a run around the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial makes me much more productive when I’m back in the office. It may seem like I’m losing 45 minutes but I’m not because when I come back, I’m re-energized, I’m refocused. And I’m happier. And so, when I go home to my family that night, I’m a better person too.
I really try to make family a priority and make sleep a priority too. Making sure that you get the right amount of sleep is hugely important. Many people treat sleep as an optional activity, like exercise. It seems easy to just skip on your sleep and then you’ll have an extra hour in the day but that I have found is not true. I read Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker, which was an excellent book. If you read that book, you’ll never really think about sleep the same way again.
I try to treat food the same way. While the easiest approach to eating is to just go through the drive-thru at a fast-food restaurant, cooking pays big dividends if you make time to cook. Better still if your spouse cooks instead of you!
JEM: Chris, what I’m hearing you say right now is what the industry now calls attorney well-being. You sound like you’re focused on taking care of yourself, is that accurate? And if so, what makes you keep pursuing that self-care so you can be as effective as you can be?
CLK: I know we have a finite amount of time on this earth and every day must matter. I write in One Sentence a Day Journal | Mercari, and the point of it is every day you write down the best moment of your day. Sometimes work makes it in there – maybe I’ve solved a hard problem or connected with a new person. A lot of times it’s those little moments that you may not even have taken time to do, like taking a walk during your lunch hour or taking the time to have a glass of wine with your spouse. I think I’ve just always been very mindful that we only go around once, and we really have to make our time worthwhile.
JEM: Chris, this has been an amazing chat. I really appreciate this. Let me close by asking what tips you have for readers who are sitting here thinking, “Yeah, she’s 20 years ahead of me so of course she’s figured it out.” What would you say to somebody who’s in their first two years as being either a very senior associate or a young partner and they’re trying to figure out how to make their way in this world is crazy world of law?
CLK: I guess I’d say own your practice, including business development. I started out before law school in a sales role so to me, it’s natural to try to connect with people who need your services. When I got to the IRS, I obviously wasn’t selling. However, I networked and joined groups. I was active in the Women’s Bar Association. When I was hired at Groom as a sixth-year associate, I started drafting summaries of agency guidance and legislation and posting them on our website. That was back in 2001, before a lot of that information was just being given away. I did it because I felt like I wanted to connect with the larger community that works on benefits issues.
Another piece of advice I would give is don’t prioritize billable time to such an extent that you are not making time for other important career activities. I know there are billable hour requirements and you worry about that. But maximizing billable hours and avoiding other “non-billable” activities is playing the short game. It’s what you’re looking at in the current year. If you think about your career, you need to play the long game. That means investing time to do those other activities that aren’t billable. They are an investment in you! Find a subject in your area of specialty that you feel like you can sink your teeth into and really run with as a personal passion project. Find something everyone else in your firm is not doing and make a name for yourself. For me that was a trend that started in the early 2000s called “defined contribution health care,” including health savings accounts, flexible spending arrangements, and health reimbursement arrangements. And, 20 years later, I’m still doing it!
About the Author
John E. Mitchell is an attorney and executive coach who works with leaders in the legal profession. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.