Hui Chen, R&G Insights Lab Senior Advisor, Describes Her Atypical Career Path and How It Enriches Her Compliance Insights
Welcome back to There Has to Be a Better Way?, a new podcast series from R&G Insights Lab. In part two of our inaugural episode, Insights Lab founder Zach Coseglia interviews co-host and senior advisor at the Insights Lab Hui Chen about her varied career and why she believes that having a data-driven measurement mindset is a better way to assess compliance programs.
Zach Coseglia: Hi, everybody. I'm Zach Coseglia. Thanks for joining the Better Way podcast. I am the co-host of this podcast. I'm also the co-founder and the leader of R&G Insights Lab, which is the legal industry's first and only analytics and behavioral science consulting practice. I am joined here with my co-host and colleague, Hui Chen. Hui, do you want to introduce yourself?
Zach Coseglia: If you listened to the last episode, you heard Hui Chen, my co-host, interview me. And now, I'm going to interview Hui Chen. We want to start by getting to know you a little bit better, although in fairness, I feel like everyone already knows you. And one of the reasons why they know you is because you're so well-known due to your time at the Department of Justice as the DOJ's first compliance consultant expert. But I don't want to start there—before we even get to that role, I want you to tell our listeners a little bit more of how you got there. Tell us about your career leading up to that point, because interestingly, it actually started at DOJ, right?
Hui Chen: Absolutely. So, I've had a quite atypical career. It started out relatively typical. I always wanted to be a prosecutor, so my goal when I graduate from law school was DOJ. And I was lucky enough to be selected into the Attorney General's Honors Program, which was a highly selective program, and I was able to get in and be part of the Criminal Division. We did rotations in the Criminal Division, so I was in organized crime, the Racketeering Section. I was in the Public Integrity Section. I was in the Office of International Affairs, which is where I ultimately ended up. We also had to do a trial stint in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, D.C., so I got about nine or ten jury trials under my belt from that, and it was a great experience. I wanted to have more trials, so I went to the Eastern District of New York, where I was an assistant U.S. Attorney.
Then I moved in-house from that role, from being a prosecutor to become an anti-piracy lawyer for Microsoft in Central and Eastern Europe. So, I had this interest in law school, third-year of law school, spent 20 hours a week in the language lab learning Russian. This was 1990 when the Iron Curtain was falling, and so I was fascinated with Russia. And that led to this career with Microsoft based in Munich doing anti-piracy work in Central and Eastern Europe.
Then I came back to the U.S. after three years in Germany and did the same anti-piracy litigation in the U.S. My home was New York, and I was there when 9/11 happened. As a result of some of my volunteer work from 9/11, I ended up leaving Microsoft to go study theology. I went to Princeton Theological Seminary and got a Master of Divinity—was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church of U.S.A.
Zach Coseglia: I just want to make sure everyone heard that. Did everyone hear that? Say it again, Hui.
Hui Chen: I was an ordained minister. And part of my training was doing hospital chaplaincy at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, which was central New Jersey's Level I trauma hospital. I really am getting goose bumps as I'm talking about this experience. I still stay in touch with that chaplaincy. And it was an amazing experience, where I really, no exaggeration, saw life and death multiple times a day. It really was the kind of experience that puts everything in perspective. So, I was a minister—I ended up working in ministry not for very long before I realized that my temperament was much better suited to be a lawyer than a minister.
I called my friends at Microsoft and said, "I would like to come back." And they said, "How would you like to go to China?" I said, "To do what?" And they said, "To do this thing called compliance—anti-corruption compliance." I said, "That's about as far away from being a minister in New Jersey as could be." So, I took that opportunity—that was my entry into the compliance world. I was with Microsoft in China for two years.
Then I returned to New York and was with Pfizer doing international investigations. That's where I met you, Zach, and we were together. You were my best outside counsel. And after three and a half years or so of constantly traveling and constantly having people lie to my face, I decided that I was a little tired and I wanted to have a little break.
Up until this point, after work at Pfizer, I had been taking culinary classes at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. And I realized, to get good at it, I just needed a lot of practice. So, I went to Italy and I worked in four different restaurants in Northern Italy as a cook, not a chef. Chef is the person in charge who actually knows what he or she is doing. I was a line cook. So I did that for just a few months.
Then I went off, took some time off to go to Brazil—went to the Carnival, had a great time. While in Brazil, I got a call asking me if I wanted to go to join a bank, Standard Charter Bank in London, to be their global head of anti-bribery and corruption. They said they would move me to London. And I said, "They’ll move me to London—sure, I'll go.” So, I went to London.
I was building out the bank's global anti-bribery and corruption program when I learned about the role that Andrew Weissmann was then creating at the Fraud Section in DOJ's Criminal Division. Somehow I ended back to the building where I started as a young prosecutor, and I was there. So, that's the journey leading up to the compliance counsel role.
Zach Coseglia: That's incredible. I just hope, for anyone who's keeping track, I think I got eight different careers there over the course. And what's so interesting is that I think to many of our listeners, you're probably best known for your work in compliance and in the ethics space. But you had actually had a career as a prosecutor, you had had a career working in-house, focused on piracy, and a career as an ordained minister before you even found compliance, right?
Hui Chen: Absolutely. And believe it or not, I think things really come together. It's not even that much of a joke, I said, “Compliance and ministry, a lot of similarities—we pray a lot and we take confessions.”
Zach Coseglia: Someone write that down—that is great. So, let's talk about your role as the first compliance consultant expert at DOJ. How did that come about?
Hui Chen: I heard about this role being created through a former colleague at DOJ, and they said, "They really want someone who's been with different industries." And I fit that bill—I had been in technology, I was at the time in financial services, I was with pharma. A lot of people don't realize that Fraud Section doesn't just prosecute FCPA cases. The FCPA is one of three litigating units—they have a Health Care Fraud Unit, and they have what was then called Financial and Securities Fraud Unit. And now it's Market Integrity and Major Frauds Unit—they renamed it, but financial crimes primarily. So, someone who's got the pharma background, the financial services background, knowing how these things have worked in different industries was someone that they were very interested in. So, I interviewed, and was ultimately selected.
Zach Coseglia: Tell us about what the role entailed, and why it was so important at the time. And we can talk a little bit about now too.
Hui Chen: The idea that Andrew Weissmann had was that he really thought of compliance as a real field of expertise—what a revolutionary thought, right? This is not just somebody who says, "I think there's a problem that went on here—we could just maybe do that." He actually treated this as a field that requires expertise, just like a forensic scientist would. So, when they need forensic accounting, they go to forensic accountants. Prosecutors don't say, "I can try my hand at forensic accounting." They don't do that—they go to forensic accountants who help them to do those things. He saw this expertise as something that would be beneficial to the prosecutors, who by DOJ policy, are required to consider companies' compliance programs when they are prosecuting corporations—so that's the compliance assessment as part of their resolution process. But also from the investigations perspective, it's helpful to have someone there who essentially can tell them where the bodies are buried. I worked in addition to the compliance assessment piece that everybody knows about, so that meant I sat in on all the meetings that they had on compliance program presentations with companies—I sat in on everything, all the monitor meetings. I even got involved in situations where monitors and the company have disputes, and the Fraud Section has to step in and mediate. So, I did all those compliance-related work, but also investigations work.
I worked with prosecutors drafting grand jury subpoenas, and also on thinking through who they should be interviewing as part of their investigation. I worked with the Health Care Fraud team on looking at data analytics in the opioid cases. Nothing super advanced at that time, but just simple concepts. There were people doing this type of work already, but really was pulling a lot of this work out to the forefront. So, if you have a pediatrician who's constantly prescribing adult amounts of opioids, you should probably look into that—that's probably not normal. And if you're looking at millions of shipments of opioids to a town of 500 people, there is probably an anomaly there. So, all that type of work was starting to get done, but a lot of it was putting more focus on understanding what goes on inside companies, including what kind of data, what kind of people, and what kind of operations.
Zach Coseglia: Now, one of the things that you did while you were at DOJ, maybe the thing that you are most known for, is as the architect, original drafter of the Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs document. Tell us about that document.
Hui Chen: Thank you for calling it “document”—it is now officially called “guidance,” but I do remember in the early, early days of developing that, I very insistently refused to call it guidance.
Zach Coseglia: I would just like to say for our listeners, the thousand times that I have referenced that document to Hui prior to today I have called it a guidance. I made sure today for our official interview for the Better Way podcast that I was going to call it a document.
Hui Chen: Thank you. It was—it started out as a document. I have no power in controlling the fact that it's now guidance, and I have my philosophy on that. But separately, how it started was, when I was in this role, joining the prosecutors in their meeting with companies about compliance program presentations, companies and their counsel would bring in binders and binders of documents containing all policies and whatever. So I used to tell them, the companies and their counsel, that if you can find a single person at the company who's read all these policies, then I'll read them—but otherwise, I refuse to read them. In my whole time there, nobody could ever come up with somebody who's actually read all the policies, and so they were coming in with information that was not helpful to us in terms of our evaluation. So, this is the old adage now, but it wasn't the old adage then, when people come in and show us their training completion rate. And what does that tell me? You were able to make people sit through a training. Did they learn anything? You can't tell me. That data point does not tell me if people learned anything or changed their behavior as a result. So I said, "What if we put out the kind of information that we would like to see that would be helpful to us in evaluating compliance programs?" And this is in the spirit of transparency, so that we tell you what we think would be helpful for us in evaluating your program so that when you come in you can at least know what kind of questions to expect from us. This is not like a surprise quiz where you come in preparing one set of information and we want a whole other set that you never prepared for. That was the genesis, the original intent of all of this, and that was exactly why I didn't want to call it guidance. We are not guiding you to anywhere—we're just asking questions. We're asking questions that we think would be useful in our assessment of compliance programs, and so that was where it came from.
Zach Coseglia: I love it. So, I want to come back to your career. We had prosecutor, we had ordained minister, we had in-house compliance expert, we had in-house legal expert, we had cook in Italy. One thing that was missing from that list, if anyone was paying attention, was law firm lawyer. So, here you are now at R&G Insights Lab. Tell us, why here? Why now?
Hui Chen: Because of you, Zach. Honestly, so part of it was I was having a lot of fun as a solo consultant after my DOJ stint, for clients, and I was very intentional about not practicing as a lawyer for a number of reasons, including that I don't see this as practicing law. I see compliance programs as business, business operations, so I was very intentional about that. And I had no problem partnering—I would tell clients, “If you want my work to be protected by privilege, then have me basically work with whoever you have. And those who don't have preferred counsel, I have plenty of my own network of lawyers to bring in.” But at some point, I really just do miss having a team—I mean, truly a team of people—not this team for that client and this team for that client, but really a team that's a constant for me. I also felt a little bit frustrated that I couldn't give everything to the clients that I was advising.
Zach Coseglia: I said in our first episode, that part of the origin story for creating the Lab was frustration that I felt, both in terms of service providers and even more so frustration with the discipline of compliance, for the way that we were doing compliance. Now we're going to get psychological. Do you have those same frustrations, Hui, or did you have your own frustrations with the discipline?
Hui Chen: Yes, on a daily basis. And I think what frustrates me the most is this lack of what I would call “a scientific mindset.” Again, I'll emphasize, I am not a scientist. I am not even good at science—science courses were my downfall from high school onward and backward. But what I do appreciate is this mindset that when we set out to fix a problem, we measure that problem, we understand the size, scope and dimension of the problem, and then we set out hypotheses, we test those hypotheses, and we see if our solutions work. That mindset is very much missing in how we have traditionally applied compliance.
Zach Coseglia: We started this actually in the first episode by talking about how we called it the Better Way podcast, not because we have all of the better ways. Let's just be really clear about that—we don't believe that we have all of the answers. We actually see this as an exploration of better ways—this is part of the journey to find better ways. But what are some of the better ways that you have seen in the compliance space?
Hui Chen: I think in the compliance space, certainly I will say what the Lab is doing and the type of clients that do come to the Lab for this type of interdisciplinary, human-centered, data-driven approach, they are typically more open to these ideas of, “Let's test what we're doing. Let's measure the size of the problem, understand the problem, propose solutions, test the solutions, and then refine them.” Even for those whose only interest is, "Do I have a defensible program before DOJ or SEC or whatever?" Even if that's your only interest, I think you're in a much better position when you can actually tell whoever you're defending your program to that we have tested this and this is how we know it works. Very few compliance officers, I would say five years ago, even had this data-driven measurement mindset—measure-test-evidence mindset. I think there are more, but they are still a minority. I think the majority of compliance professionals are still tackling it based on what I call the “old recipe.”
Zach Coseglia: You've had such an impact in your career. You've inspired me. You've inspired the Lab, even before you joined. You just have an incredible mind. So, now this is not just me flattering you, this is leading somewhere. I think innovation, the search really for better ways, it requires some amount of intentionality—these better ideas don't just materialize. What's your process for finding better ways or asking the right questions that lead to innovative, disruptive, game-changing concepts, which not flattery, you've done throughout your career? So, what's your process?
Hui Chen: I like to ask “why.” “Why are we doing this?” And I think to me, everything flows from the “why.” I remember, on one of my trips to Brazil, I ran into a compliance officer from a very large, well-known Brazilian company, and I said, "How have you been doing?" She said, "Like you said, I've been asking ‘why’ and annoying everyone with that question." So, she blamed me, because when you really ask “why,” you get to your purpose. What is it that you're trying to accomplish? And frankly, a lot of times, even if we don't have the most laudable goals, at least we can be honest about what we're trying to accomplish and scale our efforts accordingly.
Zach Coseglia: I think what's so interesting about the asking “why” too is—I know in my own experience, and I'm curious to see if this has been yours—what often happens when we ask “why” questions is silence, which is nutty. Or we get to the theme of what you just described: You get a very contributory answer as opposed to maybe the root answer. And so you really want to annoy people, but you really want to do it well—I think you've got to ask why maybe three or four times to get there.
All right, it's time now to get to know you even better. So, every episode, as everyone hopefully will begin to know from listening to us, we have a set questionnaire that we ask all of our guests. I did it last week, you're doing it this week. This is inspired by the Proust Questionnaire, which has then inspired Bernard Pivot's Questionnaire, which then inspired James Lipton, which is where I know this, from Inside the Actor's Studio. So, are you ready?
Hui Chen: I don't know if I am, but I will try.
Zach Coseglia: All right—let's get to know you. So, the first question—you have a choice here of two questions you can answer. If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one ability or quality, what would it be? Or, is there a quality about yourself that you're currently working to improve, and if so, what? Which question do you want to answer?
Hui Chen: I'm going to answer the first one, that I wish I was endowed the ability to become an opera singer.
Zach Coseglia: I love it. We talked about this, by the way everyone—I don't know if the question was phrased this way that I would necessarily answer it, but if someone asked me, "If you could have a job other than the one you have, what would you have?" And I said I would be an opera singer. So, we are so very simpatico. All right, question number two, you have a choice: Who is your favorite mentor, or who do you wish you could be mentored by?
Hui Chen: My favorite mentor is Judge Julie Conger of the Berkeley-Albany Municipal Court. She was a judge where I went to college at Berkeley, and I was very interested in law school. I would go court watch, and she noticed this student who keeps coming in to court watch and basically took me under her wings. I would then routinely go into chamber and chat with her about decisions she's made, and what just happened in court. Berkeley-Albany Municipal Court, by the way, is just a crazy court. If you're old enough to know that back in the '80s or '90s, there was a TV program called Night Court—and Berkeley-Albany Municipal Court is kind of like Night Court, so crazy things happened there. But Judge Conger was my guide to a lot of what happens in the courtroom. And she wrote one of my recommendations for law school, she swore me into the bar, and I’m forever thankful to her.
Zach Coseglia: Amazing. They're bringing Night Court back, by the way, so we have that too. Where's the best place you've ever worked?
Hui Chen: Aside from the Lab, U.S. Attorney's Office. I just loved being a prosecutor.
Zach Coseglia: What is your favorite thing to do?
Hui Chen: Cooking, eating.
Zach Coseglia: What's your favorite place?
Hui Chen: I can answer it two ways. So, geographical place would be Italy—and I would probably say Florence. And a generic place is the kitchen.
Zach Coseglia: We're going to have to do a cooking podcast episode.
Hui Chen: Absolutely.
Zach Coseglia: You're up for it, amazing. Just for everyone who's listening, I pitched Hui on a client experience where we would train them on compliance through cooking, and I think Hui felt like that was a little bit too much bringing the passion with the work.
Hui Chen: You know what? A little digression… so we talked about the “old recipe.” We talked about this mindset—so this is one of the things that chefs always say to new cooks, “That you have to taste, taste, taste, taste, taste.” A good chef, a good cook constantly tastes the food. The traditional approach to compliance, we never taste—we just throw things into the pot and we never taste them.
Zach Coseglia: Amazing. So genius—this is what I'm saying. I'm not even kidding. What makes you proud?
Hui Chen: I think my spirit and willing to try things, taking the detours that I did in my career, I think it came from that realization that life is too short—you've just got to do what you've got to do. But a lot of people never understood the choices that I made, that I had a perfectly good career in multiple places (Microsoft, Pfizer), and to walk away from those and do crazy things like going to seminary and then going to culinary adventure. “Why do you do that? Why do you throw away something so steady, so secure, so good to take those risks?” And I just answer that, “Life is too short and I don't want to wait.”
Zach Coseglia: I've never heard you actually say that before—that's pretty cool. I want to sit in that, but I'm going to ask you the next question: What trend in your field is most overrated?
Hui Chen: So many to choose from. I'm having a little bit of a hard time, but I would say one of the things that people always can be sure that they get an eye rolling reaction from me is when they start talking about “tone from the top.” I see we are now both eye rolling.
Zach Coseglia: Yes, but not because tone at the top is not important, but because tone at the top is not the end all, be all of how you assess culture, or whether or not things are working. And also tone is great, but conduct is better.
Hui Chen: This was one of the things that actually was in the document, the guidance document, was that I remember saying, as we're working and finalizing that, "I don't like this tone from the top. What is this, a choir exercise?" And Andrew Weissmann said, "How about conduct from the top?" So, that was what we put in the document. That got so little attention—for all the attention that document got, nobody zeroed in on that. And I also think this has multiple dimensions of problems too, because there is also the question of: What exactly is the top? When you have a very large corporation, do you really think that CEO sitting in one country has that impact on someone who doesn't even speak that country's language sitting somewhere else and never meets this person? I also think the way it's measured is very problematic. So, I often say that we're always measuring tone from the top, or at least the presentations I've seen on tone from the top, it counts how many times the CEO has said something pro ethics and compliance. My analogy is that's like counting calories only when you eat vegetables. You can't count tone from the top by only choosing to count what you think is important—you've got to count the whole thing.
Zach Coseglia: You're the master of metaphor—really, really good. All right, we're going to talk more about this in future podcasts, but the last question on the questionnaire is: What word would you use to describe your day so far?
Hui Chen: Improving.
Zach Coseglia: That's good.
Hui Chen: It started out hectic, but after spending some time with you, I'm feeling much better and hopeful, and feel like I'm energized again to have the rest of my day.
Zach Coseglia: Same. All right, so I think that this has been so much fun. Thank you so much. I am so excited about all of the guests and the wonderful discussions that we're going to have over the course of the coming weeks. I think that the two kind of takeaways of “better ways” from today are interdisciplinary scientific approaches that focus on evidence and outcomes lead to better ways to do compliance, and to measure and improve culture.
Hui Chen: Yes. I would say ask “why,” and measure and find evidence.
Zach Coseglia: Then ask “why” again—and again, and again.
Hui Chen: That's all we have time for today. Thank you all for tuning in to the Better Way podcast and exploring all the better ways with us. For more information about this or anything else that's happening with R&G Insights Lab, please visit our website at www.ropesgray.com/rginsightslab. You can subscribe to this series wherever you regularly listen to podcasts, including on Apple, Google and Spotify. And if you have thoughts about what we talked about today, the work the Lab does, or have ideas for better ways that we should explore, please do not hesitate to reach out—we would love to hear from you. Thank you again for listening.