Building a Great Team Requires Encouraging Healthy Discourse

Sigalle Barness | May 25, 2022

On this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle discusses the concept of leading with healthy discourse with Scott Daniels, Senior Director of Benefit Policy Intelligence at Comcast and adjunct professor at Temple and Drexel University. Scott discusses how educating, advocating, and encouraging healthy discourse is critical for leadership. Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.

 

 

On How Educating Others Played a Critical Role in His Career

“The Best Client Is An Educated Client” 

 

I think that from my time in law school, I was always drawn to understanding more about law beyond the classroom and the law firm, even beyond the traditional legal settings.

I use the lectures and Lawline as, actually twofold, as an outlet in my passion for teaching and being able to discuss an area of law that I truly enjoyed practicing, which was for the most part disability law. But there was an entrepreneurial side to it, and the entrepreneurial side of it was the area that I was practicing in was a very niche area, disability and workers compensation. And it was very complicated. And one area that, to be honest, not a ton of attorneys go into. So by doing a lot of these educational sessions, attorneys that maybe had no experience in that would refer cases over.

So I was drawn to the entrepreneurial aspects of doing it and also just enjoy doing the teaching. And as we did some of our lectures, it was not your traditional lecture with slides and bullets. We tried to incorporate mock trial settings and what a client interaction looks like a real life scenario that even in my time now, as an adjunct professor, I take that into the classroom to try to explain to up and coming law students what you learn in a textbook is a tiny piece of what you will actually do in practice.

Some of the best feedback we got from the lectures with my former managing partner, Brian Mittman, who is still a close friend of mine, was those trials. Because it gave them insight into what actually happens in a real administrative law setting or Workers Compensation Board and it actually gave them the practical experience for an attorney who may not be so well versed in that area to have the confidence to go in and litigate on behalf of clients. That's some of the best feedback we got. 

And like I said, there was an entrepreneurial side of it, which was how do we get useful information out to not only the legal community, but to prospective clients. And I think that clients and lawyers alike both appreciated the simplicity of getting educated in an era, because I think every lawyer would agree to this. 

The best client is an educated client. And an educated client who understands the potential impacts of what happens in their case. Those little short tidbit videos brought us new clients, but also brought us new referral sources. And that was the entrepreneurial side of things and they were fun to do. 

 

On His Love for Disability and Workers Compensation Practice

Helping People in Difficult Situations and Argue Particular Theories Before Judges and Governmental Agencies 

 

Coming out of law school, I had a few experiences with some general litigation firms, very small firms, feeling my way around in the personal injury space and really a couple of different areas of civil litigation. I enjoyed it, but living in New York City at the time, obviously it's not cheap to live in New York city, and started to go my own way with doing independent contracting for a variety of different firms, doing a variety of different work.

And it wasn't until I found an opportunity in the disability space, where I truly found my love for this particular area of practice and spend some time with a fairly national firm where I really got my first experience with disability claims and litigating those at the administrative level, representing hundreds of different clients, really all over the country.

Then when I got, I'll say localize my practice, I joined a practice Markhoff and Mittman, where I relegated my practice to New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, I really had an opportunity to hone my skills as a litigator in both the disability space, as well as advising on workers compensation.

So I was able to hone my skills as not only a litigator, but also a bit of an entrepreneur and a salesman building a larger client base for the firm and really building up the disability department. 

I genuinely enjoyed this area of practice for a couple of reasons. The work was so gratifying, being able to help people that are in very difficult situations. I also love the ability to argue a particular theory in front of judges, argue a case in front of a governmental agency. I was able to develop a really good rapport with these governmental agencies, as well as the judges, as a professional. It became a passion of mine. I ended up falling in love with the space and also being able to handle state disability cases in federal disability claims and municipal claims.

So it really exposed me to a number of different areas in my arena. And then also of course, having the attachments to New York workers compensation which is a highly complicated area, but being able to advise in that space as well. So I fell into it almost by accident, but thoroughly enjoyed it.

 

On Why His Move to Comcast Was a Vital Learning Opportunity

Focusing on Disability Claims in Aggregate, Advocacy for Employees, and the Best Interests of a Company

 

After about seven years of practicing in the disability space and absolutely loving what I was doing, I looked further out and said, look I found a niche. I think I'm really good at this niche and I could see myself doing this for the next 20 to 30 years. But the one thing that was missing for me was this concept of always learning. 

I think I got to the point where I didn't think that I was learning as much as I wanted to. I was so fortunate enough to find that Comcast was overseeing the disability work but no longer in that attorney space. This was in the HR space. This was on the benefit team. And this was really looking at disability claims in the aggregate. We have, on the Comcast cable side, at the time over 80,000 employees and a lot of it is vendor management. 

And then there's a huge piece of it, which is advocacy for the employee. So you're operating on both sides, a huge advocate for the employee, which I've always been in my time in practice, and certainly continue to do that now, and then really looking out for the best interests of the company. 

I always tell a funny story that when I first came into the corporate space, I was speaking with somebody and they asked me if I could send them a deck and I had no idea what a deck was. I literally did not know what a deck was. I now know it's a PowerPoint presentation, but I just really jumped in and I can honestly say over the last seven years, I have not stopped learning. 

So the gamble to me paid off because I have this opportunity to work on projects that I am so unfamiliar with. Work on things that are very hard. And it's just very different from my time in private practice. Even though I still have moments where I jump back into putting my lawyer hat on, I'm not on the legal team, I'm in benefits and I think for me, it's just been such a learning opportunity. 

One thing I'll say too is, I don't think in law school you really fully grasp the amount of opportunities that exist out there for legal professionals outside of the traditional law firm setting or government setting. So there's just a lot out there. 

 

On the Difference in Culture from His Practice into Comcast

Listen. Think. Analyze. Assess.

 

The culture is just fantastic. It is empowering. It is ambitious and it's exactly what I wanted in a career path. So really interesting. I think when you're in private practice, you have this mentality that if there's an issue, you can resolve it with a phone call. You can resolve it with a phone call to a judge, with a phone call to a client.

In the corporate setting, it doesn't exactly work like that. And a lot of what you do is predicated on a high level of collaboration. So you're depending on a number of different people and that could be within your team, it could be within another team, you have to rely on business partners. So the collaborative space in the corporate world operates at a very high level and getting buy-in is critical. 

The other thing I've learned and hopefully have honed over the last seven years has been the ability to listen and not want to respond right away with the answer. When I was in practice, I felt that I always had the answer. When I came into the corporate space, I tried to reflect those same ways of always having the answer. When the more responsible way to handle it is actively listen, think, analyze, assess. You may not have that answer right away, but you can build credibility by coming back with a fully developed answer.

And you might need some help along the way. So that's another thing I've been practicing over the years. 

 

On Rapid Regulatory Changes that Affect Emotionally Driven Issues

Think Methodically, Ask Questions, and Develop Thoughtful Responses

 

Overseeing leave of absence for about five years, and I have shifted into a different role now, but overseeing the leave of absence which is a very complex space, one that has grown tremendously over the years and it can be emotionally driven. 

Some of these situations were very difficult and involved a high level of compliance and regulatory activity. When situations arise, I tend to always want to answer and always want to say, I know what the problem is, I know what the issue is. When I think about it, the better approach, which I've come to have a great deal of appreciation for, is to think way more methodically. Take a step back, understand the business partner's issues and really take your time in developing a response that you may not be able to deliver right away.

I think there's a level of appreciation for that on the other side. And it's helped me be just more patient as an individual. It took some time and I'm still working on it now, but it goes back to this idea of just always learning. I'm just continuously learning from these situations and trying to be as collaborative as I can and not as adversarial as a traditional attorney might be.

Something I wish I did more in my time in practice is ask questions. There is no bad question. I am the type that will ask any question. If I don't understand something, I rarely get embarrassed when asking a question, because I think if you don't have all the information, you run the risk of answering in a way that may not be what the other side is looking for. 

So gathering as much information as you can and asking questions and involving other people in the room, right? I think there's some people that tend to be louder in meetings and I think including everybody to gather as much information as you can, has been so critical in my development and really just fun to watch over time. Cause I used to fire back with answers and now I'm very reserved.

 

On His Approach to Relationship Building

Be Punctual, Follow Up, and Provide Value

 

I've made it a point where if anybody that I meet in the corporate space inside of Comcast or outside, treat it like an interview. I think that impressions are incredibly important. Be punctual, follow up with individuals and really get a sense of who's doing what, who can help you. Who can I help? How can I provide value? I'm constantly thinking about providing value. 

But I think that the relationship side has been really fun for me. I've always been a relationship driven individual. And look at the end of the day, not all of these situations are rainbows and butterflies. And working through them with people and developing that relationship tends to make the next really hard situation, a little bit easier to swallow and just continue to build that over time. 

 

On What Makes a Great Team

Inclusion, Diverse Perspectives, and Analysis from Different Schools of Thought

 

The thing that I jumped to first is really inclusion. I'm big on making sure that everyone on the team has a voice and can do it with conviction. Being able to leverage your team for the right path or the best path. I don't want to say it's necessarily the right answer, but the best path is a pretty cool thing.

I love getting different perspectives because one thing as a lawyer that we should always be doing, even if we think 99% of this is going to be the answer, we should be looking at the other 1% and thinking, why is it that way? And I love just looking at it on both sides. 

So when you really think about a team, it's being able to include everybody, getting all the different perspectives, because that will ultimately create a better product when it's all said and done. And even if we're talking about a service, because you'll have the analysis of different schools of thought, which I think is critical. 

 

On the Best Path Versus the Right Path

Sometimes There is No Right or Wrong Answer

 

One of the things that I love about doing adjunct law professor stuff with Temple and Drexel is disability claims that have gone to the federal courts or up to the circuit courts, there is no right or wrong answer. 

I push my students to take a position, advocate for your position, and then back it up. But know this, you're not right and you're not wrong and how that court ruled on a particular case, another court may have ruled differently. And so if the lawyering was different, could there have been a different outcome, maybe? And I think my favorite part is getting the students to take a stand and then having other students challenge that stand and just really letting it flow and watching them form their arguments.

It's a really fun area because the law is constantly changing. The decisions that come down from the court, again who knows if they're right or wrong, could have been the best path in that outcome. 

 

On What Leadership in Law Means

Composure, Preparation, and Encourage Being Challenged by Others

 

I'll say calculated, creative judgment. The ability to be composed under pressure, or not under pressure for that matter, and think about both sides of a particular argument or situation. And then really leveraging any creativity that you might have. There might be some creative ways to go about solving the problem. And I think the vulnerability side of it is are you willing to listen to the other side and maybe be wrong? You might be wrong. 

I got to tell you, I'm the type of person that will come utterly prepared for almost everything I do. Preparation to me is key. Whether I'm getting my kids to the bus stop or I'm preparing to deliver a presentation, I'm anticipating questions. I'm anticipating the way that the meetings could run. And there's times where I'll always have a proposal and always have a recommendation. And in a dialogue, there might be a better recommendation.

And I think early on, the competitive juices in me would say, no, my way is right. But I think that it's less of a vulnerability and more of a really good character trait to be able to say, I think you might have the better path. I think your way might be right. And being able to do that, especially with somebody that's on your team or a peer, that can be meaningful for that other person. It embodies a great leader because we're not right all the time. And I think the ability to admit to that is, is really important. 

I think it encourages people to come to you with ideas, with alternatives, and challenge you. I think that another trait of a good leader is to say to your team, challenge me, in a professional way, but I think that's great. That's exactly right. 

 

On One Thing to Improve about the Legal Industry 

Law Schools Should Make Clinics a Requirement and Disperse More Info On the Many Things You Can Do With a Law Degree

 

One thing that comes to mind for me and probably why I got into doing some adjunct law work with Temple and Drexel is I think that what we learn in law school tends to be typically covered in textbooks. It tends to be covered in real life if you're fortunate enough to do a clinic, you see how things play out, at least for a period of time. And clinics, in my opinion, should be a requirement. The value to be gained from actually being in a practice is way more than what you'll get in a textbook. 

But I really love what some newer law schools are doing around being more entrepreneurial and understanding that your law degree can get you to so many different places. It can get you into the consulting world. It can get you into the risk world. It can get you into the business world where I transitioned into. It certainly can get you into the legal world and the law firms and governments and things like that. 

I would love to see more practical knowledge dispersed to law students about doing more with their law degree. And that you're not cornered when you come out of law school, after you take the bar exam, that you can really be exposed to a number of different areas, including the business world, which is a space that desperately needs more legal minds. 

 

On What People Seem To Misunderstand About His Work 

You Can Be A Lawyer In-House and Not Be in the Legal Department

 

It's funny, having been in the absence space for several years, I moved into a new space within our benefits team, where I'm overseeing the legislation and policy around employee benefits. So I want to be clear it's not all policy or legislation, but employee benefit impacting legislation at the state and federal levels. So healthcare, retirement, anything that really impacts any of our benefit programs. And I think when I speak to colleagues in the legal industry and explain to them, I work for Comcast and what I do, I think the first inclination is, oh, you're in the legal department, but that's not the case. In fact, our human resources team has a bunch of lawyers operating and I think what that goes to show is that, again, the wealth of opportunity that exists for people that have a practical legal background. 

Whether it's contract negotiation, whether it's a risk assessment, you can literally draw up a list of things that lawyers can do that can be very beneficial to a corporation. And I think that it's that sort of, I don't want to call it a stigma, but it's more of a mentality that if you work for a company and you're a former lawyer, you're probably in their legal department, it's just not the case.

 

On an Example of Employee Benefit Impacting Legislation

American Rescue Plan and FSA

 

Over the last couple of years, there's been a bunch of big pieces of legislation, whether it was the Consolidated Appropriations Act, a lot of this was as a result of COVID-19. The American Rescue Plan was another big one. Within those large pieces of legislation, there are oftentimes benefits impacting legislation like flexible spending accounts, a very popular benefit for a lot of companies. 

And while we were going through COVID as a result of the American Rescue Plan, there was, no pun intended here, there was flexibility created around the flexible spending account. And a quick example is if you don't use that money up before the end of the year, it usually disappears. But what this piece of legislation actually allowed employers to do was roll that money over. So for people that usually were going to spend a good amount of money on say, childcare expenses. A lot of those facilities were closed. A lot of schools closed and weren't able to spend that money. 

Employers, us included, were able to say, Hey, we're going to roll that money over now. You've got even more money for the next year. And so that allows some more flexibility for people to be able to use that benefit. Now, in order to make that happen, my role on the front end, looking at it from a benefit policy, get together with my functional leads, make sure that we have the operational prowess to make that happen. And then we have to communicate to employees about their ability to utilize that. 

So that's just one small example, but there's a lot of different pieces of legislation floating around that will impact benefits. We just have to watch it play out before it becomes law. And when it does, we in the benefit space have to operationalize that through a number of different levels. 

 

On Staying On Top of Legal Changes

Have Good Internal and External Partnerships and Gather as Much Intel As Possible

 

So in good tie back to the partnerships that I'm able to have within Comcast, we've got some great partners in our government affairs team and we have people very well versed in a lot of this legislation that's coming through.

We also rely heavily on external partners to see what sorts of pieces of legislation might be coming through. A huge topic over the last year has been the potential for federal paid family leave and depending on the week, you didn't know where it was going to land. If it was going to happen, if it wasn't going to happen now, it hasn't happened yet. And really, I think the fun part of the job is trying to decipher what could be legitimately passed and what we need to hold off on to see if it will actually pass. And so that's been really fun in the policy space.

A lot of it is like getting as much intel as you possibly can. And then reacting in the most prudent, methodical ways in partnership with our internal teams like government affairs and public policy. 

 

On The Best Way to Communicate and Assist Employees

Be Empathetic, Be an Advocate, and Focus on Communication and Education

 

You know what, I think there's just a multitude of ways. The disability arena is one of the most complicated spaces and think about it from the claimant's shoes or the patient's shoes heading into what is considered to be a daunting process. And you just talk a little bit about. Where you have to submit medical and you have to fill out forms and there's legalese, and the person is likely dealing with a physical or emotional condition that's a hindrance as well. 

On one hand, this is one of the most complicated things you will ever see. On the other hand, and what kind of drew me to working for a company like Comcast, has been this ability to enhance a traditionally difficult process. And it still is a difficult process because we're seeing more and more leave laws coming out.

But to the modes of communication, I really think it will depend on your employee population. I think it will depend on the technology advancements that are there. So it's a little bit of a mix of great HR teams, which we have, but also digital modes of communication, great external partners that do a lot of educating and explaining and level setting.

When you really boil it down, a lot of it comes down to empathy and advocacy, and you want to explain and educate about these processes, but you want to be empathetic to the situation. And so we've done a ton of work and the team has done a ton of work over the years to try to bolster those three things, advocacy, education, and empathy.

The more educated your HR teams are, the more educated your managers are, the more empathetic they'll be. And I think the greater the advocacy will be inside the organization.

 

On Practical Advice to Leaders and Future Leaders in Law

Learn About Potential Opportunities and Take the Risk 

 

I would encourage anyone that's in practice now, if they're thinking about making a jump or thinking about making a switch, network as much as possible. Network with individuals that might be in these particular roles. Maybe, you might have an opportunity to shadow an individual on their day. The virtual world has almost leveled the playing field for people that may want to job shadow and see what somebody does on a daily basis. 

If you're interested in that, jump right in. A lot of lawyers, I think, tend to question, did they go the right path at a certain time? There are just a ton of opportunities out there for people with solid legal backgrounds, and you never know, you might jump into a world that you truly might love. 

I have friends that have jumped into real estate or jumped into the insurance space and, they too, have no regrets. So I think having the conviction and having the confidence to try to learn as much as you can before you may take that jump or in some respect, take the jump and see what happens.

I can tell you from my personal experience, I was pretty scared jumping over into the corporate world, having been in practice for 10 years. And it's been the best decision I've made and so my experience has been a good one, but I think that the best piece of advice would be to learn as much as you can about a potential opportunity and then maybe take that risk. 

 

On a Typical Morning

 I Wake Up Plotting Out My Day 

 

I'm a big morning person. I wake up at probably 6:00 AM. I was super excited to see how nice it was today. Despite being inside and having calls. To me, I'm motivated in the morning.

And in the morning my head is running around. What meetings do I have today? What does my day look like? What does the afternoon look like? What time did my kids get home? To me, that's fun. I think when I wake up plotting out my day and doing my morning reading, it's exciting to me as, as boring as that sounds, it's just really fun to do. 

 

Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession. 

Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.

Subscribe or follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Audible, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. You can also follow @lawyerswholead on LinkedIn, and Twitter. Let's celebrate and continue to build a community of leaders in law together.

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About the Author

Written by Sigalle Barness

Sigalle champions and grows Lawline’s brand awareness through impactful stories that are authentic, meaningful, and thought provoking. She designs communications strategies that underscore the why and how behind Lawline's work. Sigalle is an avid lover of music, video games, blogging, asking questions and all things food. She is also fluent in Hebrew and enjoys writing fiction, traveling and scuba diving.

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