Running for Rights

Hilary Sutton Issue 14 - Nov/Dec 2014, Legal Leave a Comment

Triathlete, in-house attorney and GC of the Human Rights Campaign Rob Falk encourages pursuing your passions pro bono.

Falk_Rob_longRob Falk is closing in on completing the first 25 years of a career as an attorney working tirelessly for causes that matter to him. Falk is an experienced lawyer who has served as General Counsel (GC) for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) since 2006, but he can easily tap into the memory of being a green associate who simply wanted to make a difference.

Founded in 1980, HRC’s purpose is to “advocate on behalf of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans, mobilize grassroots actions in diverse communities, invest strategically to elect fair-minded individuals to office, and educate the public about LGBT issues.” With HRC’s support, policy changes like “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” repeal and the passage of marriage equality and employment nondiscrimination legislation by state legislatures have become a reality.

Pro Bono Pros

Educated at Princeton and Yale, Falk has had a passion for health care law since college. He came to HRC with prior experience, having serving as GC of the Whitman-Walker Clinic and acting GC at D.C. General Hospital.For 15 years, Falk worked in prominent national law firms where he honed his expertise in health care issues. Throughout that time, he continually took on pro bono work for causes he cared about: health, LGBT rights and education. He did project pro bono work for HRC on and off over 10 years.

“When I have a passion for a cause or organization, I’ll do whatever I can to serve needs,” Falk said. He encourages any young lawyer to explore pro bono work in order to increase his or her experience and expertise in a given area. While helping an organization or individuals who need help, it also gives the associate an opportunity to gain additional skills.

“One can become a much better lawyer by doing pro bono work to expand the breadth of your practice,” Falk said.

The Discomfort Zone

Falk also prides himself on pushing his team members, especially less experienced lawyers, into their “zones of discomfort.” He remembers his own early encounter with his zone, during his second year as an Associate Health Care Attorney. A hospital had engaged a major accounting firm to do a financial feasibility study to change the financial relationship between the hospital and its doctors. The hospital’s Chief Executive Officer complained to the head of Falk’s practice that the accounting firm had no buy-in from the doctors.

“The head of the group said, ‘Rob is an expert on reimbursement. He can get the job done.’ At that point, I knew little about physician reimbursement,” Falk said.

He worked tirelessly with a small team and gave the doctors a report they accepted. “It taught me that while you may be pushed to your zone of discomfort, if you step back and see what you need to learn and then also create a good team around you,” Falk said, “you’re able to do really good work.”

According to Falk’s philosophy, the discomfort zone approach does not entail pushing people out of the nest with no backup or resources; he is unwavering in his commitment to be there for associates who need his support, but “spoon-feeding” irks him.

“You have to create an opportunity for people to realize that they still have the capacity to learn on their own. That’s really important,” Falk said. “It gives them confidence in their own ability when faced with something new.”


Investing in the Next Generation

With almost a quarter century of experience, Falk is committed to encouraging and mentoring young associates. He remembers advice he received early in his career: “When I was a first-year, a Senior Associate told me, ‘Your job is to make the Partner look smart.’ That’s really helpful because sometimes the person you’re working for doesn’t know what they need or [what] is missing or what to ask for.”

HRC receives a great deal of pro bono work from junior associates assigned by their firms to work on the organization’s projects as training. Falk said: “I can give them feedback from the perspective of a client outside of firm earshot—‘Here’s what you gave me, but in the future with clients, here’s how you could position yourself better. I also try to mention when they do things really well and mention that to the Partner.”

Falk’s leadership philosophy is displayed in the compassionate way he treats his team. He explains how praise balances out criticism: “When you ‘catch someone doing something right,’ you’ve earned the opportunity to give negative feedback as well,” he said. “I’m a believer in praising in public and correcting in private. A really good manager is not afraid to shine the light on people who are beneath them and give them credit.”

Hilary Sutton is a freelance writer based in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Robert's Key Partners:
Seyfarth Shaw LLP (Corporate & Finance) | Sidley Austin (Pro Bono Counsel) | Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP (Outside Counsel)

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