Podcast: Latinx|Hispanic Heritage Month: Conversation with Jorge Lopez, Jr., Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK)
In this episode of Ropes & Gray’s Latinx|Hispanic Heritage Month podcast series, health care partner Adrianne Ortega interviews Jorge Lopez, Jr., Executive Vice President and General Counsel of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). In his role at MSK, Jorge leads a team of 60 in-house attorneys and legal staff who provide guidance on a wide variety of legal issues, agreements, projects and strategic initiatives that further the mission of MSK. Jorge was recently named a Notable Hispanic Leader and Executive by Crain’s New York Business, which highlighted his leadership in diversifying MSK’s legal department, and his advocacy that has resulted in greater access to specialized cancer care for underserved communities in New York. In this podcast, Jorge discusses his experience fleeing Cuba with his family as a child after the Cuban Revolution, his path to Harvard Law School and his rewarding career in the law that has included helping some of the world’s leading cancer institutions advance their missions.
Adrianne Ortega: Hello, and welcome everyone to a special Ropes & Gray podcast celebrating Latinx|Hispanic Heritage Month. My name is Adrianne Ortega. I'm a partner at Ropes & Gray in our health care practice group. This podcast series features some of our Latinx and Hispanic clients who have had remarkable careers while also making significant contributions to their communities, and working to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in their industries.
In this episode, I have the great pleasure of speaking with Jorge Lopez, the executive vice president and general counsel for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Prior to joining MSK in 2016, Jorge was a partner with Akin Gump where he was head of the health care practice. From 1991 to 1992, he served as a legal advisor to Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, and Jorge currently serves on the advisory board of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law, Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. Jorge, welcome to this Ropes & Gray podcast, and thank you so much for being here.
Adrianne Ortega: Thank you. Why don't we dive right in—let’s begin with your background. Could you tell us about yourself and your background?
Jorge Lopez, Jr.: Yes, happy to. I am a Cuban immigrant—I was born in Havana. When I was three-years-old, I left with my family and came to the U.S. The precipitating event at the time was there was a day—an infamous day in Cuban history in 1961—when Castro nationalized all private property. And so that was probably the single biggest event that caused the Cuban Diaspora, and my parents left, and we left without anything. Like many other Cubans at the time, we had to leave under the pretense that we were going on vacation, and so you couldn't bring anything with you. We left literally with the clothes on our backs, and what we could fit in a suitcase, and we couldn't put any money in the suitcase or any other valuables because they search you at the airport. And so we left, and we came to the U.S., and we lived in Miami for a year, and then we moved to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., which is where I grew up. I went to college in Washington at a small Catholic school called Catholic University. After CU I was admitted to Harvard Law School, and that's where I went to law school.
Adrianne Ortega: It's just such an amazing story, Jorge, and what you and your family, the decision that you made, and how you came here, and then your decision to go to law school. After graduating Harvard, how did you embark on your legal career? What were some of the pivotal moments in your career?
Jorge Lopez, Jr.: Four events come to mind—and actually, let me take you back to Harvard for a minute. The first was my first semester of law school at Harvard. I had a classic case of what I guess you would call today impostor syndrome. Everyone there seemed so smart and so confident and came from impressive Ivy League backgrounds, and compared to them, I didn't feel very smart or confident or come from such a background. So, I worked myself up into a frenzy and had probably the most stressful four months of my entire life. But then exams came and I did fine, and I got my confidence back. The rest of law school was relatively uneventful, but it was certainly a rough few months.
The second was when I was deciding where to work after law school. I was a summer associate at Hale and Dorr, another big Boston firm, now Wilmer Hale, of course. My wife, who was from the Boston area, and I decided to go back to D.C. instead of staying in Boston. So, I interviewed with firms as a third-year, which is a relatively rare thing these days, but back then was pretty common, and I had a few offers. And ultimately, I settled on Akin Gump, which was not a terribly big firm at the time, but it had a reputation and still does as a policy and lobbying powerhouse. I'd always been interested in politics and current events. I thought about becoming a journalist at one point. And coming from a recently arrived Cuban American family, you paid a lot of attention to current events, because for a while there, everyone thought we were going back to Cuba. So, I went to Akin.
Third, I got into health care in the most random way. When I accepted my Akin offer, I didn't give a strong preference for what practice area I wanted to join, and that turned out to be a fateful decision. So I remember, I've told the story a million times: My first day at work, I show up. I go to the bathroom. I bump into this guy. We introduce ourselves. I'm the new kid on the block. He said, "I'm the head of the health care crew at Akin, and you're going to come work for me." So, I became the third member of the health care group at Akin. I didn't know Akin had a dedicated health care practice. I don't even think I knew that law firms offered that kind of thing. I hadn't had any previous exposure to health care as a legal specialty. There weren't any doctors in my family. I didn't take any health care courses in law school. So, fast forward 20 years, and I was the head of a pretty large health care practice group at Akin.
Then lastly, when I'm thinking about pivotal events, as you mentioned, I worked on Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. I signed up working for him early, before really anyone knew who he was, and so I got to do some relatively high profile legal work. And I remember, for example, doing some research on an aspect of the Gennifer Flowers controversy, if you recall what that was all about. When he was elected, I had an opportunity to go into the administration working for a guy named Webb Hubbell, who at the time I think was the number two person at DOJ. But that was the very same year I made partner at Akin, so I had a really difficult decision to make. I think I made the right one. I had a successful career as a partner at Akin. And you might remember Webb Hubbell was later incarcerated. But it wasn't such an obvious choice at the time.
Adrianne Ortega: There's so much to unpack, and so many pivotal points in your career. First, thank you for raising impostor syndrome. And I think it's probably very heartening to many people who are listening to hear that you had those feelings and went on to have such an impressive career—I hear it all the time from students as well as others practicing in the legal community. You mentioned a little bit about your career at Akin, and you were at Akin for a long time as one of the founding members of the health care practice. Is there anything you'd like to touch on, your time as an associate and partner or a practice group head?
Jorge Lopez, Jr.: Yes, absolutely. I had an incredibly rewarding 32 years at Akin. That's a really long time to be at any one place. And I mentioned the decision not to go into the Clinton administration as a hard decision. I think the hardest decision that I had was the decision to leave Akin and come to MSK. I grew tremendously as a lawyer there, and I made so many friends, many of whom are still some of my best friends to this day. And after I became the practice group head, I learned a lot about managing people, which turned out to be really excellent preparation for my current job. Adrianne, I often get asked, "Who mentored you at Akin? Who was influential in your professional development?" And the truth is that I didn't really have a good mentor in the traditional sense, although I certainly got a lot of support from the partners in the health care group and elsewhere in the firm.
I think I learned the most, and I would say I was mentored by the people who I supervised, the people who I mentored. They taught me the most about managing people, and working together we were able to provide excellent service to clients and to develop a successful practice. And honestly, the one thing that I'm proudest of in my time at Akin is everything that my mentees have accomplished, both at Akin and also on other career paths. So, in no particular order, and this is far from an exhaustive list, let me just tell you what some of them are doing. One is the GC at a health care company in the ESRD space. Another was a GC at a biotech company, and is now the CEO of a health care company. A third is one of the top lawyers at Vertex, which is, as you know, one of the leading biotech companies in Boston. Another is a compliance officer at Dana-Farber. One of my mentees is one of the top lawyers at Labcorp. Another is a health care partner at Akin. And another is a health care partner at Manatt. So, I'm very proud of all of them.
Adrianne Ortega: It's such an important point about mentoring and mentorships, and also about networks really as you go through that list of all of your mentees and the careers they've gone on to have. Shifting gears slightly, as we're all well aware, there are very few Latinos in the legal profession. For example, 5% of law firm associates and 2% of partners identify as Latinx or Hispanic. Can you tell us a little bit about how your identity has affected your career, and what are some challenges you've faced? And on the flip side, how have you been able to leverage your background for success?
Jorge Lopez, Jr.: Yes, sure. I didn't mention this before, but when we came to the U.S., no one in my family knew English. My grandparents actually never learned it, and my parents learned it but always spoke heavily accented English. And if you met my mother, you would know in a nanosecond that she wasn't born in the U.S. So, I learned English in school, in kindergarten. Also, it may have been different if we stayed in Miami, but in the Maryland suburbs of D.C., we lived in a completely Anglo community. And although I feel we were assimilated really well, we also felt a little bit like outsiders. One way that I've experienced that in my life is my name. So, I'm a “Junior”—my father had the same name, but he always had people that he worked with call him "George." And I always, and honestly for reasons I can't really explain, insisted that people call me "Jorge." It's been actually an annoyance to me my entire life because people mangle my name—they call me "Jose," or a common one is "Georgie." And that's happened my entire life. To this day it happens. So, it's something that's always reminded me of where I came from. I do think I've been able to leverage that. It has steeled me, because it reminds me of the history of my family and all of the obstacles that we've been able to overcome, not by ourselves, but with the help of many people and through the grace of god. And so that is obviously an indispensable part of who I am.
Adrianne Ortega: That's so meaningful, the importance of our names, especially to persons who identify as being Latinx or Hispanic, and the importance that our names carry. Why don't we transition to, as you were talking about earlier, your role at MSK. What went into your decision to transition to go in-house after being at a law firm for so many years?
Jorge Lopez, Jr.: Like I said, it was a very hard decision. And I remember having a really emotional meeting with my good friend, Kim Koopersmith, who is the chair of Akin, going up to tell her about it. It really came down to three things. The first is wanting to do something in my life other than being a partner in a law firm. Akin was really the only serious job I ever had, other than being a summer associate, and it was important to me to just do something different before I ran out of runway. So, that's the first. The second is I had represented MSK for many years while at Akin, going back to the early '90s, and I also represented the other dedicated cancer centers like MD Anderson and Dana-Farber. I was completely drinking the Kool-Aid on their mission and the importance of helping them fight the war against cancer. So, it was really compelling to me to have the opportunity to be in the middle of that mission, working from the inside instead of the outside. And then lastly, I'm sure it would've been fine, but I was worried about burning out if I had to work the rest of my career as a Big Law partner, with all of the stresses and pressures that that entails. As it turned out, I think I've traded those set of pressures for another set, and I certainly don't think that I'm working any less hard at MSK than I was at Akin. But there are some things about being a law firm partner, like having to account for every minute of your day (you can relate to that) and the ever-present need to keep revenues coming in—those are things that I don't miss.
Adrianne Ortega: You've touched on some of them, but what do you value most about your current role?
Jorge Lopez, Jr.: So many things, but I would highlight these three. The first is the opportunity to build something. I'm actually only the second GC in the history of MSK, so I've been able to reshape the legal department fairly radically in my time here, and that has been very fulfilling. Second, I work with an incredible team, both awesome legacy lawyers that I inherited and amazing lawyers and non-lawyer professionals that we've been lucky enough to recruit. We've built a team that I am just so proud of, and I think, if I could be immodest for a minute, is one of the best in-house legal teams in the hospital industry. So, that's number two. And then number three, what I anticipated when I made my decision to come here has been borne out. It's been so rewarding to be working hand-in-hand with colleagues who are devoted to this historic mission of waging a war on cancer, a battle that is as close to being won now as perhaps it has ever been. So, I feel really fortunate to be in this position.
Adrianne Ortega: Thinking about diversification in the legal profession, and maybe starting internally with your own team at MSK—how have you gone about increasing diversity internally on your team?
Jorge Lopez, Jr.: We've done it a number of ways. I'll say that at many companies and institutions, the George Floyd murder was a real catalyst for us, and we certainly payed attention to diversity issues before then, but it took on a renewed focus after that event. Within our legal team, I felt very strongly that we needed to take a lead role within the institution in promoting diversity more than what we had in the past, and we did that in a number of different ways. One way that we did it that has been very fruitful for us is our involvement with the Diversity Lab’s Mansfield Rule program—and I think you're probably familiar with that because law firms have been very active with the Mansfield Rule. Essentially, it's the legal equivalent of the Rooney Rule in football where you have to take some very deliberate steps to ensure diversity within your firm or institution, and we've done that. We had a process that started two years ago that is culminating now, and I don't think the official announcement has been made, but I believe we're going to be Mansfield Rule certified next month, and I think we're one of only a few hospitals that have that status. And that was a very good way to ensure diversity within our legal team, and to make sure that we were doing everything that we needed to do in that regard—it gave us a structure, it gave us some set goals to shoot for. We've been able to fulfill all of the requirements, and it's been a terrific way to ensure that our entire team has been engaged in that process. And it is one that has involved virtually our entire legal team, so I'm very proud of that, and feel that we've made enormous strides over the course of the last two years.
Adrianne Ortega: That's terrific. How about outside counsel? How do you approach diversity in your selection of outside counsel?
Jorge Lopez, Jr.: We have billing guidelines for our outside counsel. In those guidelines, we require that firms in their staffing and providing services to MSK, that they pay attention to diversity, and as much as possible, provide us with diverse lawyers to provide services to us. We also have sent all of our law firms a survey asking for them to specify what they do within their firms to promote diversity. And so we review those survey results, and take those results into account when making decisions as to how to engage and retain law firms. We don't have the biggest legal budget in the world, so we don't have the leverage that big companies have, for example, in requiring that diverse lawyers staff our matters, but we do think it's important, and we prioritize it as we make our decisions about retaining counsel. One thing that made an impression on us is that we sent out this survey to all of our law firms and there were a handful of firms that didn't even bother to respond. So that makes a statement to us about the importance of diversity at that firm, and I can guarantee you that we'll be thinking about that when we make our decisions on retaining counsel.
Adrianne Ortega: What do you think it will take to diversify the legal field, be it Big Law, in-house, government sectors across the legal field—what do you think it takes to move the ball forward?
Jorge Lopez, Jr.: I don't think there's any one solution, and there's no solution out there that's going to change things overnight. I think what it's going to take is, especially for diverse lawyers who have been relatively successful, to proactively in small ways try to make changes. And we can't fix everything, but we can fix what we can within our respective law firms, companies, and institutions. I just described what we've tried to do at MSK that I think has made a real difference. We have a very diverse workforce here, and some of that is a direct result of what we've been doing over the course of the last couple years. There's also smaller ways that you can make a difference: by mentoring students. I've done some of that—some students have come to me asking for advice. Not interns that we employee or people that we have any other relationships with, but just people that have reached out to me, and I'm happy to do what I can to mentor them and to give them advice. I think it really is that kind of thing, an external focus and on a person-by-person basis, try to do what we can within what we can control to make a difference, and we need the people who have been successful, and who recognize the importance of this issue to take proactive steps to do what they can to make a difference.
Adrianne Ortega: Thank you, Jorge, for joining us on this podcast episode as part of our celebration of Latinx|Hispanic Heritage month here at Ropes & Gray. And thanks to you all for listening. Please be on the lookout for future podcast episodes wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks, everyone.
For more information or to contact Jorge Lopez, Jr., please visit his LinkedIn profile.