Meryl Burgin is the Executive Vice President, General Counsel & Corporate Secretary at CareFirst BlueCross Blue Shield. After practicing Labor & Employment Law at Whiteford, Taylor, Preston for 3 years, she moved over to CareFirst as its Human Resources’ Counsel 30 years ago. She’s since continued to take on more responsibility and has moved up the ranks to hold the top legal job at the company. A graduate of University of Baltimore School of Law, she serves as a Commissioner on the Access to Justice Commission (A2JC) and is on the Board of the House of Ruth of Maryland. She helped spearhead the A2JC’s Corporate Workgroup, which boasts corporate counsel from UnderArmour, Marriott & Allegis Corporations, and seeks to raise awareness and involvement of corporations in addressing access to justice challenges.
What’s a typical day like as General Counsel of a major corporation? I don’t know that there is a typical day – as every day is different. There are many meetings in the corporate world. As a member of the executive leadership team, a significant amount of time is spent on developing, planning and executing on the company’s strategy and mission to provide affordable and accessible healthcare to the communities that we serve. In addition to the legal division, I oversee the company’s Compliance and Audit functions. I also serve as corporate secretary, and focus much of my time on corporate governance from a legal, regulatory and best practices perspective as well as provide support for a large Board of Directors.
Corporations are constantly under all kinds of threat. How does your corporate legal department prepare to face these threats? Our legal, audit and compliance departments work cross functionally with other areas in the company to proactively understand, identify and mitigate risks and threats to the company. Our team stays informed of legal, legislative and regulatory changes and advises our various client areas of what is needed to protect the company. There are certain threats – such as in the IT area of cybersecurity – where we work closely with the subject matter technology experts to make sure we have the appropriate and required protections, policies, standard operating procedures, remediation and response plans in place to address threats – in a legally compliant manner. This also includes coordination with areas such as risk management on appropriate protections in the way of corporate insurance to reduce potential losses.
What skills do you think are most valuable for corporate counsel to have? I can identify a long list of skills that I believe are valuable for corporate counsel to have, but I would start with the ability to build relationships, partnerships, mutual respect and trust with your internal clients – as they won’t seek proactive counsel or assistance if they believe the legal team is there to block, slow down or impede their ability to achieve their business goals. Subject matter expertise as well as business knowledge and acuity, flexibility, being innovative and creative are all important skills. The ability to collaborate and be a business partner – and not just say “No” – in addition to being a legal counselor are valuable and important skills. As with any attorney, the ability to research, analyze and write clearly – and succinctly – and the dedication to working long hours are skills and behaviors critical to success.
Tell us about your career path. How did you find your way to this position? Was it all planned out or were there surprises along the journey? There were many surprises along the way! I completed my law degree at the University of Baltimore School of Law following three years of teaching in Wisconsin. I was lucky to obtain a summer associate position at the law firm of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston – and even luckier to be offered an associate position in the Labor & Employment Section of Whiteford upon my graduation from law school. Three years later, Whiteford told me that BlueCross and BlueShield of Maryland (now CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield) was looking for a third year associate to serve as in-house Human Resources’ Counsel. I applied and was offered the position – believe it or not, thirty years ago in April. Once at the company, I learned as much as I could about the business as quickly as I could. I volunteered to cover other attorneys who supported other functional areas of the company when they were on vacation, offered to attend meetings for others and I tried to meet as many people as I could. Over the years, I slowly took on responsibility for additional functional areas from a legal perspective – in addition to Human Resources – and I was promoted several times. I began supervising other attorneys and legal staff members to gain management experience. After several years, I was appointed to Deputy General Counsel and Assistant Corporate Secretary when my predecessor retired. When the then General Counsel retired several years later, I decided to give it a try. The rest as they say is history.
You are on the boards of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission as well as the House of Ruth of Maryland. What about these two organizations attracted you to give your time and energy? This is a great question and while I hadn’t really thought about it before, both organizations have a similar mission to communicate, educate and provide assistance and counsel to those most vulnerable. What many people don’t know is that the House of Ruth of Maryland has an in-house legal team – as well as receives pro-bono and funding support – from many of the organizations represented on the Commission. Both organizations seek to educate the community and provide counsel in civil cases – where there is not a right to counsel as there is in criminal cases. The House of Ruth of Maryland is focused on protecting, educating and eradicating intimate partner violence through its work with both victims and abusers – while the Commission’s mission is much broader with respect to other types of legal needs in areas such as landlord/tenant and immigration for example. Many people don’t know that peace and protective orders in abuse cases and immigration proceedings as examples are civil matters with no right to counsel. In addition, both organizations need volunteers, support and funding!
Tell us about your work on the Access to Justice Commission. What has been your focus? I am on the Governance Committee and we have brought additional governance practices to the Commission over the past several years and I served on the Strategic Planning Committee which just completed a comprehensive strategic plan. In addition, we’ve formed a corporate counsel group to develop ways to bring more in-house counsel into this work. Every large company in the state has some percentage of employees who struggle with personal civil related matters that they could use legal assistance with and which in some way affects their work attendance, performance, morale and more.
What role do you think corporations and corporate counsel have in abating the access to justice crisis? I think that corporations and corporate counsel – in conjunction with their Human Resource areas – can provide communications regarding volunteer and pro-bono legal services as well as offer legal service benefit plans to employees to assist them when they are in need. Education and communication are key to abating the access to justice crisis. Of course, financial funding and volunteering legal services is key as well.
What do you think is the greatest access to justice challenge in Maryland? This is a difficult question, but I think a basic lack of understanding of what remedies may be available and the potential implications of proceeding in certain matters without effective counsel. People may be denied protective orders or get evicted or deported, not because they did anything wrong, but because they don’t have an attorney.
What are your thoughts on the Access to Justice Commission’s partnership with the MSBA? This partnership is truly exciting as it provides a joint forum for what I said above is so needed in this area – communication, education, funding, volunteerism, etc. The Commission has worked with the MSBA and we have had excellent panel discussions at the last several Annual meetings in Ocean City. It provides an incredible opportunity for both organizations to be a greater force in tackling the ongoing issues of access to justice. We are incredibly grateful to the MSBA for this new partnership.
What’s one piece of advice that has stuck with you as you have navigated through your career? Wow, just one? Always be transparent and honest – and admit when you don’t know the answer – don’t make something up! You only have one reputation and once lost it’s nearly impossible to get back.
What advice do you have for young attorneys who are just starting out in the profession? The above advice is the first advice I give to young attorneys and law students when I meet with them. The old saying of “fake it to make it” is not applicable or appropriate in our profession. I tell them to learn as much as they can, ask as many questions as they want and be willing to put in the hours and time necessary. I then remind them that when I started in this field, there were no cell phones, computers, we had typewriters and one Westlaw and Lexis terminal in the firm library that you had to reserve time to use!
The legal profession is quite stressful. How do you maintain health and balance? It’s not always easy. I don’t get as much exercise as I would like, but I watch my diet carefully and spend time at the gym when I can. I also spend quiet time with family and friends and sneak away to the beach whenever possible!
What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment? There’s no doubt that my family is my greatest accomplishment in my mind. My husband and I are blessed to have two wonderful accomplished children in their twenties – who actually still like to spend time with and talk to their parents! I’m also quite proud of the fact that I am the first female General Counsel and of my 30 years of company tenure.