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Trend reversal: Corporate attorney bucks tradition

In giving up a prominent in-house counsel gig to enter private practice, a lawyer finds a new passion, and re-learns some old lessons.

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For time immemorial, a standard operating procedure in the legal field was for lawyers to move from private practice to in-house counsel. The blueprint usually calls for lawyers to develop a specialty while working for multiple clients at a firm, then take that knowledge to a bank, university, hospital, government entity or other large institution that needs legal services on a routine basis.

Jonathan “Tre” Dixon III isn’t interested in following blueprints. Instead, he’s blazing a trail in reverse, going from in-house counsel at Tampa General Hospital to private practice with Carlton Fields, a rapidly growing Tampa law firm.

“If I have an issue that I’m not quite sure about, I can just walk down the hall.” Jonathan “Tre” Dixon III

“What makes this transition so rewarding is the ability to problem-solve and provide solutions for a more diverse group of clients,” says Dixon, 45, whose first day at Carlton Fields was Aug. 13. “I get to appear to be the hero for a number of different clients, but that’s because of the wealth of knowledge that we have as a law firm.”

That’s a key point that signals a related trend in the legal industry — firms setting up robust micro-niche practices stacked with talented transactional lawyers, like Dixon, who litigate rarely, if at all. Carlton Fields, for example, has positioned itself as a go-to firm for hospitals and health insurers with the hiring of not only Dixon, but also Marguerita Sims, who was senior corporate counsel for WellCare Health Plans Inc.

“If my in-house legal department, which typically is a maximum of four attorneys, didn't have expertise in a particular area, we would have to consult outside functional experts who cover the gamut of all of the legal and regulatory issues that we encounter in the health care space,” Dixon explains.

At Carlton Fields, however, “if I have an issue that I’m not quite sure about, I can just walk down the hall and reach out to Marguerita or one of our other experts and say, ‘Hey, how would you handle this particular aspect of a particular transaction?’ Nine times out of 10, they will have had some experience with that issue and a number of examples to pull from that I can use as options to help guide the client."

Mark Wemple. Jonathan “Tre” Dixon has joined Carlton Fields, a Tampa law firm, after serving as in-house counsel for Tampa General Hospital.
Mark Wemple. Jonathan “Tre” Dixon has joined Carlton Fields, a Tampa law firm, after serving as in-house counsel for Tampa General Hospital.

With 40 lawyers in its health care practice nationwide, and about half those based in Tampa, Carlton Fields has positioned itself as a source for CEOs, CFOs and board members of health care providers and insurers who face innumerable and ever-shifting challenges brought on by the complex web of regulations that govern the way health care is delivered nationally.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — commonly referred to as CMS — has been migrating toward a value-based reimbursement model for health care services, for example. That shift, Dixon says, can be crucial to an organization’s bottom line.

It means CMS is “not going to pay for a physician or hospital performing a particular service — they’re going to pay for good patient outcomes as a result of the service,” Dixon says. “If outcomes fall below expected standards, then the reimbursement will be reduced.”

Helping clients meet “expected standards” should come naturally to Dixon. Earlier in his career, he spent six years in the U.S. Air Force, serving in the Judge Advocate General Corps. JAG officers deliver justice via courts-martial and deal with other issues related to military law. Dixon was stationed in Italy for three years before being named general counsel at the Andrews Air Force Base Hospital in Maryland — one of the military’s largest health care facilities.

Now, anti-discrimination statutes, such as the Family Medical Leave Act and Americans with Disabilities Act, are just two of the strict standards with which Dixon helps his clients. He also helps them comply with anti-kickback regulations, hospital licensure requirements and risk management.

Going against the norm by entering private practice has given Dixon a renewed appreciation for the “esprit de corps" he experienced in the Air Force. “That time was very formative,” he says. “It teaches a lot about team building, working together and being collaborative to accomplish a larger objective.”

That spirit of collaboration extends to his work with clients, too. “Being able to draw on [military experience] helps me fit in with my client representative because we are a team," he says. "That’s been invaluable to my success.”


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