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Women @ RopesTalk: Conversation with Ilana Kukoff, Cognition Builders

In this episode of Women @ RopesTalk, partner Laura Hoey interviews Ilana Kukoff, founder and CEO of Cognition Builders. In this inspiring conversation, Ilana talks about how she stumbled onto the idea for Cognition Builders, an education team that immerses itself with families to help resolve social, emotional, behavioral, intellectual and other needs. She shares some wisdom from the book she co-authored titled Say This, Not That (To Your Teenage Daughter), including dispelling the idea that discipline is a bad thing for children. Ilana also talks about what traits she looks for when hiring, why women shouldn’t be afraid to tout their own accomplishments, and how to approach difficult conversations.


Podcast: Women @ RopesTalk: Conversation with Denise Pedulla, NeoGenomics

Time to Listen: 25:27 Tags: Women Attorneys, Diversity

In this episode of Women @ RopesTalk, hosted by partner Christine Moundas, Kirsten Mayer, a partner and co-head of the firm’s False Claims Act practice, interviews Denise Pedulla, the general counsel of cancer diagnostics and pharma services company NeoGenomics. Before going to law school, Denise worked as a registered nurse, and was drawn to the law as a way to advocate for change in health care. She talks in this episode about her journey from private practice to in-house roles, ranging from chief compliance officer to general counsel. Denise reflects on how lessons learned early in her career have helped her to avoid crisis situations today, and shares what three things she relies on most when facing career challenges. 

Women @ RopesTalk 

Christine Moundas

Christine Moundas: Welcome, and thank you for joining us on our latest installment of Women @ RopesTalk, a podcast series brought to you by The Women's Forum at Ropes & Gray. In this podcast, we spotlight extraordinary women who have had successful careers and interesting lives, and are making a positive impact in their workplaces and their community. We feature women attorneys at Ropes & Gray in conversation with prominent women clients, industry leaders, entrepreneurs and others, and talk about their careers and what's led to their successes, the challenges they face, and the hard-earned wisdom they've acquired. I'm Christine Moundas, a health care partner at Ropes & Gray and co-head of the firm's digital health initiative, based in New York. On this episode, I'm joined by my colleague Kirsten Mayer, who's based in Boston. Kirsten, would you mind introducing yourself and providing a brief overview of your practice? 

Kirsten Mayer

Kirsten Mayer: Thanks very much, Christine. I'm Kirsten Mayer, a partner at Ropes & Gray, based in our Boston office. I'm co-head of our False Claims Act practice and represent clients predominantly in the life sciences and health care industries in government enforcement investigations and litigation that involves the False Claims Act. I also advise clients on compliance-related issues in the same space. And finally, for again, the same set of clients, I do complex civil litigation on related issues. 

Christine Moundas: Great. Thanks, Kirsten. So who's the special guest that you'll be interviewing on this episode? 

Kirsten Mayer: Today, I'll be interviewing Denise Pedulla, the general counsel for NeoGenomics. 

Christine Moundas: How did you meet and start working together? 

Kirsten Mayer: I first met Denise more than ten years ago when we worked together on a government enforcement matter for the company for whom she was then serving as chief compliance officer. This was an interesting, complex investigation that turned into a pair of False Claims Act qui tam cases. Denise was everything you want a chief compliance officer to be and an in-house client – she was dynamic, detail-oriented and as smart as they come. 

Christine Moundas: Excellent. What would you say is most notable about Denise's career? 

Kirsten Mayer: Denise is a lawyer who's worn many hats throughout her career. She started as a nurse, not even as a lawyer, and law was her second career. As a lawyer, she has worked in the compliance function of companies in the life sciences industry as well as in the in-house legal function, and has achieved the highest levels of both serving as a chief compliance officer and now as a general counsel. She's also been a solo practitioner and served as a consultant, so when you think about the different roles that we encounter, both in-house with clients and with other outside consultants or lawyers that we partner with to provide good client service, Denise has really worn almost all of the possible hats. What that means is she can see any problem that she's facing or challenge or opportunity within her company from a range of different perspectives, and that makes it particularly exciting and interesting to partner with her on matters. 

Christine Moundas: Fantastic. With that, I'll turn it over to you and Denise. 

Kirsten Mayer: Good afternoon, Denise. Thank you for joining us. Can you introduce yourself to our listeners, please? 

Denise Pedulla

Denise Pedulla: Sure. It's great to be here, Kirsten. My name is Denise Pedulla, and I'm the general counsel and corporate secretary for NeoGenomics Laboratories

Kirsten Mayer: Can you tell me a little bit about NeoGenomics and what you do there? 

Denise Pedulla: NeoGenomics is a very unique company. It is a clinical laboratory that focuses on oncology genetic testing for cancer patients, and it has about ten laboratories located throughout the United States. We also have laboratories located in Singapore, Switzerland, and we're opening up a lab in China. It's a very specialized diagnostic testing and information company that focuses on patients who have cancer. We do both clinical diagnostic testing in one division, and we also do centralized lab testing for pharmaceutical companies that are performing clinical trials globally, so it's a growing company. I've been with the company now for almost five years this December. 

Kirsten Mayer: How has NeoGenomics responded to the COVID crisis this year, Denise? 

Denise Pedulla: Like everybody, it came out of the blue, and it certainly hit NeoGenomics as a clinical laboratory. The laboratory industry has been under focus because of the need for COVID-19 testing. NeoGenomics wanted to do its part to help America, so we created the capability to bring up the COVID-19 test, and we've been performing COVID-19 testing since probably June of this year and have capacity to perform the tests as the demand arises in the future. 

Kirsten Mayer: Did you develop your own COVID-19 diagnostic tests or antibody tests, or are you using someone else's tests in your lab? 

Denise Pedulla: We use the ones that have already been FDA-approved (the platforms and the kits), but we also have developed lab-developed tests for serology and for saliva so that we can, as needed, perform the testing ourselves within the four corners of our lab. The technology is evolving, and as you know, and others, the FDA is becoming liberal in issuing EUAs as appropriate as the testing needs evolve over time. So we're right in there with all the other major labs in terms of having the capability to provide the testing as demand continues. 

Kirsten Mayer: So the last five years you've been with NeoGenomics, Denise. I want to take you back to the beginning of your legal career. Can you tell us a little bit about what attracted you to law and what your career trajectory has been since you started in the profession? 

Denise Pedulla: Yes, it seems like a hundred years ago, but I started out of undergrad from Boston College as a registered nurse in Boston. I practiced for about six-and-a-half years and loved being a nurse, and still feel in many respects that I'm a nurse by trade. This was back in the '80s where the hospital environment was consolidating. Patients who were being admitted to hospitals – the acuity of their diseases and sicknesses was higher. The nurse-to-patient ratio was very, very difficult. There was a nursing shortage at the time, so the liability risks to me dramatically increased – for health care providers, nurses in particular at that time. And as I experienced firsthand, others being involved in situations in which human error occurred and factors that were beyond nurses' or even physicians' control, I realized that there had to be a way to mitigate this risk. As a nurse, I felt I wouldn't be able to be an advocate for that kind of change and learned that the law was a good vehicle to be that advocate of change.

Kirsten Mayer: So when you started your law career, Denise, can you tell me a little bit about how you went from recent law school graduate to the general counsel's chair? 

Denise Pedulla: That's a very long road and a long story. 

Kirsten Mayer: How about the first steps? 

Denise Pedulla: The thing that I loved about law school was that it gave me a trade, it gave me tools to effect change, and I learned that as a student. And then when I practiced, both in law firms and in private practice, and then going in-house in various companies, I honed those skills through experience, but the tools were always there that I used purposely to effect change. Sometimes those were challenging because they were very crisis situations that required not just advocacy, but risk mitigation and preventative action. So for example, I started in-house in a clinical lab division of a company that was under a major health care fraud investigation, and learned early on how lessons learned in retrospect – if we had known ways that we could have trained people, had policies, and could do auditing and monitoring to mitigate risk – the company wouldn't have been in the situation it was in. But a lot evolved over time that I think lawyers that work in the health care space, especially, have learned to train their clients in being more proactive and preventative in providing counsel to their clients. Fast forward to today, as a general counsel, I've taken all of those lessons, and now, I'm able to, I believe, provide not just legal advice, but strategic counseling and preventative counseling to health care providers and leadership in a health care provider organization to minimize risk and prevent a lot of the crisis situations that I experienced early in my career as a lawyer. 

Kirsten Mayer: One of the things that is interesting to me about your career is although you were trained as a lawyer and have served as a lawyer for different law firms and different companies, you've also played significant roles as a chief compliance officer and you've worked as a consultant. Do you think that having the opportunity to wear those different hats has helped make you a better general counsel? 

Denise Pedulla: Absolutely. I am a firm believer that you build on everything that you do when you learn, and that's why when I started in our conversation about the tools of the trade and being a lawyer, I'm so much supportive of what I've learned as a lawyer, but they are so transferable in so many ways in other professions. My experience working as a chief compliance officer just tremendously improved my ability to be a general counsel. One of my clients and a key important colleague is the chief compliance officer in the company that I work for now, so I have a perspective of the challenges that she faces every day having worn that hat in a prior position. So law, the tools, the experience, if you can build on them and transfer those learnings, it just makes you that much more valuable not just as a general counsel, but even as an adviser and a consultant in other contexts. And I think anyone can probably relate to that because we all have a diversity of experience in the trajectory of our career. 

Kirsten Mayer: You've mentioned that along the way you faced some significant challenges and obstacles in the different roles you've played in different companies. Can you tell us a little bit about the biggest challenge you faced in your professional life? 

Denise Pedulla: Again, I think a lot of people can relate – we all have challenges in our career. I think that some of the most challenging situations have been when I've been working for a company that is in the context of a crisis situation, so they're under a criminal and civil health care fraud investigation. I think that in the context of an investigation, one of my biggest challenges was having to appear before a federal grand jury, which I never thought in my lifetime that I would have to have that experience, but I did and I was fortunate that I had very good counsel. Kirsten, I'm going to toot your horn because you were my counsel at that time. I was taught to be prepared and to tell the truth, and that's what I did. And so I appeared before a federal grand jury, and that was a major professional challenge. Then later, two years after that I also received another federal grand jury subpoena that I was tested again, that I would have to appear, but fortunately, because of the issues involved, that didn't happen. I also had good counsel to prepare for a response to that subpoena. So these are things that happen. You learn a lot, and I would want to be able to share those experiences to prevent others from having to go through that, but it does make you stronger. 

Kirsten Mayer: We're very glad that you, I won't say felt comfortable going into the grand jury, but that you felt prepared. One of the things that we hear a lot about these days and deal with as senior women in the professional is attrition among women in the law. What have been some of the keys to your success, Denise, and your longevity? 

Denise Pedulla: That's a great question. I think again, whether it's women, men, or both, we're all challenged. We have challenging situations, and the way you get through it is through hard work, perseverance, and hopefully support. And that support comes in many ways. For me, it's been having very good legal advisers to help me get through the crisis. It's family support that has helped me keep perspective that this will pass, and that you're up for it and you're going to get through it. It's through experience, knowing that you had other experiences that you got through. And then finally, like I said, preparation. Being prepared, doing the hard work, relying on the facts, and trusting in yourself that that hard work will pay off. I think that not everybody individually has those support systems, and I'm mindful of that at this point in my career to be able to be intentional to help others when these types of challenging situations arise. I think that we have a duty to use our experiences to help the next generation have a better time of it. 

Kirsten Mayer: Denise, we've talked about mentoring younger lawyers and making sure that the next generation has someone that they can look to for advice if they need it in challenging situations. How do you see the importance of mentoring integrated in your current career, and can you tell us a little bit about how you've been involved in mentoring others? 

Denise Pedulla: It kind of dovetails between disparity of opportunity among individuals early in their career and also how mentoring can close that disparity. So I look at historically in my career trajectory where I've seen individuals be given a platform, an assignment, an opportunity that if I had had, I think that would have advanced my ability to grow as a lawyer. So, with that experience, I bring that forward. I'm more mindful that I have a responsibility at this point in my career to create those opportunities, platforms, assignments for younger lawyers so that they have that step-up that maybe I didn't have at the time. It's very, very important to give people opportunity and visibility so that they can really thrive. That's just one area that I think I can help as a mentor and being a leader in my position to create those platforms for them. 

Kirsten Mayer: What advice would you offer if you were talking to women who are just getting started in their legal careers? 

Denise Pedulla: I would say you picked the right career because I am very much an advocate of the law as a profession, as a vehicle to do just about anything you want to do in your lifetime. I think the skills and the tools you learn are transferable to just about any type of profession or job you might be interested in. I think you need to work hard, hone your skills and develop confidence in your ability to impart legal advice. One mentor had given me some good advice early in my career – that you can work hard and research something forever, but at some point you’ve got to stop. You need to put the line in the sand and give the advice and have confidence in the advice. What he imparted to me was a three-source rule: If you can go to three separate primary authorities that you researched on an issue and you come up with the same conclusion with those three primary authorities, have confidence in your opinion and you can discharge that. So that's helped me a lot. Confidence-building is also very much part of necessary mentoring of young lawyers, women, men alike, that I think is important to develop early on. 

Kirsten Mayer: Careers are also built on relationships. Can you tell us a little bit about the value of relationship-building? Even for young lawyers at the beginning of their career, how do they build and maintain the most important relationships, their personal board of directors, so to speak? 

Denise Pedulla: It comes organically, it comes through experience and it comes through shared values, but I think it also has to be intentional. I think that young lawyers should be mindful of the fact that they're only going to grow through their interactions with others, through experiences or projects they work on, but also the individuals with whom they work, whether they're adversaries or whether they're on the same side of a matter. Sometimes people who are adversaries in our career on specific matters, later on they become more on the same side, and those individuals can turn out to be some really trusted advisers down the line. So I think you need to be mindful and open to the people that you work with. Develop relationships that are trusted and have value to you, nurture them, keep in touch with people over time, and build your own board of directors that you can tap into over your career when things become challenging and you need to vet something. It's nice to have a short list of people that you can pick up the phone and talk to. 

Kirsten Mayer: I couldn't agree more, Denise. You said it perfectly, and thank you for sharing your experiences in that regard. I want to wrap-up by talking a little bit about gender and diversity. I know we've spoken about NeoGenomics and its truly unique culture. Can you tell us a little bit about Neo's culture with respect to diversity and inclusion, and what about their culture you're particularly proud of? 

Denise Pedulla: NeoGenomics, as I said when we began our discussion, is a very unique company. It's a very special company. Its foundation is built on a very, very core, healthy culture. It's a culture of inclusion. It is based on a workplace that values engagement, diversity, inclusion, growth and development. The company is purposeful in its strategy to attract and retain talent through diversity and inclusion. They have succeeded, at least in the time I've been there and longer. They have a very low attrition rate. They have a healthy workforce. They promote work/life balance. They are proactive in attracting a diverse workforce. We are fortunate as a clinical lab – where we're highly technical in many of the areas of our operations – that we require specific technical skills that actually do attract more of a diverse workforce, both through ethnicity and in gender, so we have really had a good track record in that regard. But culture is the key to our success – it translates into shareholder value, and it helps the company execute on its strategy because it has a firm culture that it values.

Kirsten Mayer: Do you look for similar values around diversity and belonging and inclusion in the outside counsel that you choose to work with? 

Denise Pedulla: I think that again happens through relationships, and those partnerships develop hopefully organically. Kirsten, we've known each other for a long time. I've been practicing now for 30 years, and I look at our relationship with Ropes and Neo as a partnership. It's based on experience, having gone through a lot in the past in the context of other organizations. Trust, it's just a natural progression, I think, of our affiliation that we've known each other probably 16 years now? That's the case study of the mentoring and the experience and the sharing and the trust. You go through those experiences and you keep in touch, and then when you have challenges, you reach out. I value that – I value those relationships because they've helped me through the hard times. And now, I'm fortunate to be in a company that's experiencing good times, and I'm able to share that with Ropes. 

Kirsten Mayer: As we close, I wanted to ask you: What's your favorite thing about what you get to do these days at NeoGenomics and your role there? 

Denise Pedulla: I absolutely love mentoring my team. I started five years ago as the first general counsel for NeoGenomics, and I, through the help of others, have built a team of three lawyers and three contract managers. So we're a team of seven now, and they are just wonderful to work with personally, professionally. Every day they show up, and they're just eager to learn. Probably one of my favorite parts of my day is to be able to mentor, coach, support and encourage my team. They've grown, they've exceeded my expectations and it really gives me a lot of pleasure. 

Kirsten Mayer: They're fortunate to have you as a mentor given your commitment to sharing your wealth of interesting and diverse experiences across a range of the health care profession over so many decades. Thank you so much for joining us today. 

Denise Pedulla: It's my pleasure. Thanks so much, Kirsten. I enjoyed it. 

Christine Moundas: Kirsten and Denise, thank you both so much. That was a fantastic discussion. And thank you to our listeners. For more information about Ropes & Gray's Women's Forum and our women attorneys, please visit ropesgray.com/women. You can also subscribe to this series wherever you regularly listen to podcasts, including Apple, Google and Spotify. Thanks again for listening. 

For more information or to contact Denise Pedulla, please visit her bio on NeoGenomic’s website or email her directly at denise.pedulla@neogenomics.com.

Neo Genomics   Ropes & Gray

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