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From law to leader

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Sandra Miller began her professional career as a high school English teacher. “After 6 or 7 years, I know I could not do that for another 40,” she recalls. “So I looked into medicals school, law school, and getting a PhD in English.”

After scoring well on the LSAT, Miller picked law school, enrolling at Indiana University’s School of Law with, she says, “no idea” about what she’d do afterward. She wound up spending two years clerking for the Indiana Supreme Court after graduation. “That was a terrific experience,” Miller says. “I had a private mentor and teacher and it was a great reading and writing experience. But I missed interactions with people.”

So in 1985, Miller joined the Indianapolis-based legal department of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Indiana, which later merged with WellPoint, Inc.

“I handled all sorts of things,” she says. “I was the lowest attorney on the totem pole so I did whatever the other lawyers didn’t want to do,” including corporate work, financial reviews, regulatory analysis, bankruptcy matters, provider liens, and mergers. For years, though, she worked her way up that totem pole, and by 2007, Miller became WellPoint’s general counsel.

Eventually, though, Miller decided she “just needed a change in the worst way.” So in 2008, she left the legal department to become president of WellPoint’s Federal Government Solutions business. “I knew I needed a lot of variety. As an in-house lawyer, I certainly got that, but it became routine after 20 years. I wanted to keep growing and learning.”

Managing 3,500 employees, Miller’s role now has three components. She oversees WellPoint’s Federal Employee Program (which has 1.5 million members, including judges, FBI personnel, and post office employees); National Government Services (a Medicare claims administrator that processes 200 million claims a year); and TrustSolutions (which focuses on Medicare fraud and abuse). “It rejuvenated my career and my energy,” she says of her switch out of law. “I’m learning a lot and I have a terrific team.”

Law, Miller notes, is about problem solving, a skill that applies equally well to what she’s doing now. And from her experience as a law student and an attorney, Miller learned how to ask probing questions. “First, you learn that academically through law school and the Socratic method. And you definitely learn it when you’re serving a corporate client and have to ask, ‘What is the issue?,’” she explains. “When you’re running a business operation, the more you ask, the more you learn. You learn to delve deeply and how to approach problems.”

Legal training, Miller adds, is “highly transferable to a leadership position. If you’re a good leader in a substantive area, you can switch––learn a new technical area and continue to be an effective leader.”

 

Leslie A. Gordon Freelance legal affairs journalist and corporate writer/editor for law firms and other professional service firms. Former staff writer at The Daily Journal, a legal affairs newspaper in San Francisco. A "recovering" lawyer, also spent five years as an adjunct professor teaching writing at UC Hastings College of the Law. Author of the novels HEADS OR TAILS and CHEER.

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