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Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment in a series of one-on-one interviews with leaders of corporate legal departments in the U.S. This month we spoke to Nathan Leong, who is Vice President...
Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment in a series of one-on-one interviews with leaders of corporate legal departments in the U.S. This month we spoke to Nathan Leong, who is Vice President of Legal at Memora Health, the leading technology platform for virtual health care delivery and care management. Mr. Leong was formerly Senior Counsel at Microsoft Corp., where he built and led the first Microsoft U.S. Health Legal Team. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Thanks for joining us, Nathan. Can you tell us about your family upbringing and your roots?
A: I am from a family of entrepreneurs and grew up in a household where entrepreneurship was really valued. Sometimes people ask how I came to be born and raised in Minnesota as a first-generation American of Asian descent. The back story is that my dad is from Malaysia and had a teacher there who was from Minnesota and encouraged him to move to the U.S. to pursue his dreams. But when my dad didn’t know where to go or where to live, the teacher said that he still had family back in Minnesota and my dad should stay with them. My dad eagerly accepted the offer and set off for America. (The teacher and his family have been an adoptive family to mine ever since.) So, my family story like many entrepreneurial stories that got started because someone gave someone else a shot. The rest is history.
Q: What were your career and life aspirations as a young man?
A: I initially thought that I would be an engineer like my dad, but I attended a small liberal arts college in Illinois and planned to study both science and international relations. I quickly realized that my brain was more wired for political science than it was for the physics kind of science, so that pretty much put an end to my aspirations of being an engineer.
Q: Tell us about what led you to a career in corporate law.
A: After graduating from college with a degree in international relations, it felt like law school was a logical next step, so I attended the University of Wisconsin Law School. I learned all of the stuff you need to know about the law, but I was really interested in trying to find a way to help people. Like many of my peers I ended up in private practice after law school. After a few years of a fairly broad corporate and commercial practice, I received a great opportunity to go to work at Microsoft, so I decided to accept that in-house legal job. To my delight, I soon discovered that I could work on some incredible professional projects while also helping people through the scale and platform that a job at Microsoft enables.
Q: You started at Microsoft in 2013. That must have been a very exciting time, given the tremendous innovation taking place in that decade.
A: Yes it was, and I suppose the most dramatic example that really stands out during those early years was the chance to help build Microsoft’s commercial cloud sales engine. It was so exciting to come in on the ground floor of this new “Cloud” business and help build critical elements of that engine from scratch. Of course, it’s now a massive enterprise business that reaches all over the world, but the opportunity to be instrumental to its foundation and maturing was really amazing.
Q: Can you tell us about the creation of the Microsoft Health Legal team?
A: In 2017, I was asked to build the first legal team for the Microsoft Health business in the U.S. Our team had a hand in shaping nearly every strategic health partnership during those years, including agreements with Johnson & Johnson, CVS Health, Humana and Johns Hopkins. But let me say, you can’t practice health law for a tech company in the midst of a global pandemic without learning a ton of lessons about how health technology can affect people’s everyday lives and how to enable that impact through pragmatic legal advice at scale. As unprecedented as the COVID-19 pandemic was, my team was able to lead some very cool projects at Microsoft Health, where we truly helped people — such as providing valuable technology to public health authorities and clinician heroes who were working selflessly to serve people, share information about the virus and deliver care. (Editor’s Note: Mr. Leong was presented with the Microsoft Circle of Excellence Gold Award in 2021 for providing strategic legal advice throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Q: You also became active in diversity and inclusion efforts in the legal profession during that time. What were some of the specific programs you worked on in that area?
A: Microsoft gave me an opportunity to have an influence on the next generation of lawyers by leading D&I programs inside the company and encouraging my leadership in external associations. Some of the specific initiatives I was able to lead were creating virtual employee engagement opportunities to foster an inclusive environment for new hires around the world, expanding globally what is now the employee network for new legal department joiners, and serving on the leadership boards of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD), National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), the Law Foundation of the Asian American Bar Association of Greater Chicago (AABA), and the Chinese American Bar Association of Chicago (CABA).
Q: After a very accomplished nine-year career at Microsoft, you decided to make a career change. What circumstances led to that move?
A: I regularly networked with other corporate legal professionals working in the health tech space, which I found very useful for staying in touch with where our industry is headed. One day a friend of mine suggested that I connect with Manav Sevak, who is the CEO and co-founder of a health tech startup called Memora Health, and learn more about what they were building. I met Manav and was immediately struck by his compelling vision for transforming care delivery by making care teams feel superhuman and putting patients at the center of their care experiences. After we got to know each other, he offered me an opportunity to come on board at Memora and build its legal department from a blank page. I had spent nearly a decade at Microsoft and learned so much, but I just felt that it was time for me to see if these wings could fly.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your mission at Memora Health and how you see your role as head of corporate legal.
A: Memora Health is on a mission to make complex health care journeys simple for patients and clinicians. We do that by using technology to extend the reach of the care team beyond the four walls of the traditional care setting and make care more accessible, actionable and always-on. Essentially our platform converts complex care journeys into intelligent workflows, allows care teams to guide patients through lightweight, SMS message-based interactions that contain simple to understand language, and automates the completion of simple follow-up tasks in the electronic health record (EHR). So given that mission, my job is to build out the legal function, mature our frameworks, and scale processes at Memora Health so we can maximize the trust of our industry clients, internal colleagues and health care customers and partners.
Q: I know that you are still new to the job, but have you had a chance to set your strategic priorities for this new legal department?
A: My general view is that our department exists to enable the company to build out this innovative platform and deliver it to the marketplace. To achieve that objective, we are working with some of the leading health institutions in the world. Trust in our company and our platform is absolutely essential to our success working with these partners, so everything I am focused on doing right now revolves around how to build trust — that includes our approach to data governance and regulatory compliance, data security, commercial contracts, you name it. This is a very exciting opportunity to provide legal and business counsel that will help shape the direction and future of this company, and I take that responsibility very seriously.
Q: You have a unique perspective of having worked in the corporate legal department at one of the largest corporations in the world and now building a legal department from scratch at a startup company. What are some suggestions you have for in-house counsel at companies of all sizes?
A: It’s pretty clear that the nature of the legal workforce is forever changed and, regardless of how big the company is, some degree of remote working is here to stay. At Microsoft, I had the privilege of leading a six-person team that was distributed all over the United States, and I learned some important lessons about how to recruit, cultivate and retain world-class talent working remotely within a legal department. I think the most important best practice I would share is taking the time to build a culture of inclusion and psychological safety — that, together with collaboration structures like team agreements and asynchronous practices (look these up!), form the foundation of a high performing team in a virtual environment — but it takes real focus and intentionality. Really effective virtual teams blossom when you invest in the latticework needed for them to grow. And, because we tend to remember peaks, pits, and transitions in our lives, make the most of meaningful moments in your team’s life together: mark them, celebrate, elevate them. That’s how you make an experience on a team, even a virtual one, memorable and meaningful.
Q: As we look to the future in the corporate legal profession, do you have any thoughts or wishes for new directions to consider?
A: The future of the in-house practice of law is becoming both more interdisciplinary and more modularized. On the one hand, substantive practice is and will increasingly require generalists whose backgrounds are interdisciplinary and who find their greatest leverage at the intersections: AI and ethics, health and tech, engineering and sales. At the same time, legal services delivery is modularizing. Corporate legal leaders should be asking, what in our legal delivery is a product, and what is a service? What is repeatable like a product, and what truly must be delivered bespoke? I think this will require peers of mine in in-house legal management to enable and incentivize the skills development of more general legal practitioners who can stitch together strategically intersecting legal practices. And, we need to apply the kind of systems and design thinking that will help us refactor how our department distinguishes what is special from what is simply scale.