Paul Seltman, Senior Vice President for Government Affairs and Reimbursement at Smith & Nephew, a global medical device and medical technology company headquartered in the U.K., joined Drinker Biddle & Reath in 2004 after working for eight years on Capitol Hill, one year in Germany through the Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship Program, and a year at the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed) as Associate Vice President for Payment & Policy. Paul joined the firm as Of Counsel and was a member of the Government and Regulatory Affairs practice group. He remained with the firm for several years before taking on his first role ‘in-house’. Read on to learn more about Paul’s career journey, the challenges he has faced in his current position and some of the most valuable lessons he’s learned along the way.
Can you describe your current role?
I’m Senior Vice President for Government Affairs and Reimbursement at Smith & Nephew. We are a global medical technology business dedicated to helping healthcare professionals improve people's lives. With leadership positions in Orthopaedic Reconstruction, Advanced Wound Management, Sports Medicine and Trauma & Extremities, Smith & Nephew has around 11,000 employees globally and 4,600 in the U.S. Annual sales in 2013 were more than $4.3 billion. My team leads the public policy, government affairs and reimbursement matters at the corporate level for the company. Our government affairs and reimbursement objectives are in full alignment with our business objectives. While we certainly spend time lobbying on issues that affect the entire medical device industry such as repealing the medical device tax (part of the Affordable Care Act), we spend more of our time on issues that are more specific to our products. That is where my team can provide the greatest value to the company.
What would you say has been the greatest challenge in your position thus far?
Internally the challenge has been the building of the government affairs function from scratch. The company hired me in 2010 to open a Washington D.C. office and start government affairs. It’s very exciting to create something from scratch but also quite rigorous. It’s not just the amount of work but it’s also a lot of internal education - explaining the value of government affairs. It’s often difficult to convince people that there’s value in government affairs because they don’t always understand what it is and the extent of its reach. People tend to look at government affairs as a cost center as opposed to a profit center. You must show the company your victories so they are able to see how you can actually help it either make or save money.
Can you describe a recent victory or one that you are most proud of?
I have been fortunate to have had many successful outcomes as a lobbyist, but the one of which I am probably the most proud is something I accomplished while at Drinker. We did a lot of policy work for one client who, having the foresight to look down the hopeful road to health care reform, wanted to amend the insurance market provisions of HIPAA. While we knew we could not pass the legislation in the absence of a massive health care reform package, we focused on getting House and Senate bills introduced that could serve as placeholders until the magic moment someday arrived. When that moment did arrive just a few years later, one of the very first Affordable Care Act provisions to be implemented was one of the two bills we had crafted for the client, prohibiting health insurance policies from having pre-existing condition exclusions for children.
After law school you immediately began working in government service and quickly became the Deputy Chief of Staff and Press Secretary for Representative Major Robert Odell Owens (D-NY). Did you always envision yourself working on Capitol Hill and how did you land your first position?
I was pretty sure when I went to law school I wanted to work on Capitol Hill. I had some traditional legal jobs while in law school to make sure that wasn’t what I wanted to do. During my third year, I worked for free as a legal intern for Senator Ted Kennedy’s health care committee which at the time was known as the Labor & Human Resources Committee (now the Senate HELP Committee). I made a lot of contacts and formed relationships working there. That summer after I took the bar exam I spent a good amount of time pounding the pavement on Capitol Hill – basically going door to door and handing out resumes and having a lot of informational interviews with people until I landed a job. That’s how you have to do it, and I was very fortunate. Once you get your first job on the Hill you find that other opportunities come up to move on to new positions.
You were a 2001 Fellow for the Robert Bosch Foundation. What made you decide to follow that path after having worked on Capitol Hill for eight years?
My wife and I both enjoyed traveling and had always been interested in living and working overseas. At the time we decided to apply to the Fellowship Program I was working in the Clinton Administration at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and my job was certainly not guaranteed even if Vice President Gore had won the 2000 election – which he didn’t. So while this was in part a backup plan, we also were both burned out on politics and wanted to do something different for a year overseas. We considered various programs and found that for many of them you really needed to be fluent in the native language unless you were going to teach English. We wanted to stick to something more related to our careers. Through a colleague at HHS I found out about that Bosch Foundation Fellowship Program. The program is about 30 years old and each year it brings 20 Americans to Germany. They typically receive about 400 applicants. My wife and I applied separately to the Bosch Foundation Fellowship Program and also the Fulbright Scholar Program. We were exceptionally lucky in that both of us were accepted to Bosch. (The only other couple that has done the program together as Fellows of which I am aware is White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough and his wife.) We spent a year in Berlin. The first half of the year I worked in the German Parliament and the other half I worked for a German pharmaceutical company Schering AG (now part of Bayer).
What did you find most valuable about that experience?
One of the reasons my wife and I liked the Bosch program was that you didn’t have to be fluent in German when you started it. Two-thirds of the people they accept each year are in fact already fluent in the language but it wasn’t a requirement. As long as you’re willing to invest the time, the program pays for you to become fluent. Before we left for Germany, they paid for us to have four months of private tutoring eight hours a week. We also went to Germany for a three month German language boot camp before the official start of the program. It was thirty-five hours a week of German language study. The process of learning the language and the way it was taught really affected me and changed my thinking pattern. It essentially altered my brain in the way I think about things and forced me to be more flexible.
From day one, our German teachers only spoke to us in German. My German teacher in D.C. and I used to butt heads a lot because I would argue that I needed her to explain the grammatical rules in English so that I could understand why I was doing what I was. She basically said she knew I was going to be a problem – she would say “You lawyers always have to understand all the details about everything and you’re just not going to be able to do that now. You have to learn like a baby and just repeat after me.” She was right. In many ways it was personality instruction as well as language instruction. I had to accept that I was not going to understand it for a while. I was going to have to look at pictures and repeat sentences until I started to get the form of the language. You first pick up some of the German language and then later get a handle on the grammatical rules. I was about 33 years old at the time. It was a big personal victory to achieve fluency in a language as an adult. It was something I wasn’t able to achieve studying French in high school.
It was also phenomenal to work in a foreign country and do something very similar to what I did in the U.S. It was an incredible experience to see how things work differently.
What are the skills or lessons you learned during your tenure at Drinker Biddle that have proven most valuable in your career?
My time at the firm was an extremely valuable experience and I remain friends with all of my former colleagues in the firm’s Government and Regulatory Affairs group. It was at the firm that I figured out a formula for giving myself the best chance at victory. There are always a lot of factors that are outside of your control in the legislative process but part of what Bob Waters instilled in me was that you have to be creative and you have to go the extra mile. You never just give up. There is no saying “I’ve tried A, B and C and they are not working so I’ll just tell the client there is nothing else we can do for them.” No. “If A, B and C don’t work, you have to come up with ways D, E and F.” For me, when I’m in the middle of a legislative campaign, I pretty much get up every morning and while I’m in the shower I’ll be thinking of what else we can possibly do to keep things moving forward in the right direction. You’ve got to be thinking of additional wrinkles all the time because if at the end of the day you’re not successful, you at least want to look back and think there was truly nothing more you could have done. You don’t ever want to kick yourself later and say ah, if I’d just done that one more thing maybe that could have been the difference.
Do you have any words of advice for young associates?
I don’t think enough can be said about the power of building and maintaining relationships. The firm always said that too. Law is a relationship business. You’ve got a lot of smart lawyers and a lot of good firms. Clients are not choosing lawyers because one is smarter than the other. Of course the lawyer has to be able to do the work but clients also consider the fact that they may be spending a lot of time with these people and they often hire the people that they wouldn’t mind sitting in a room with for two or more hours. Whether you’re working on a deposition or planning a legislative strategy, your clients have to want to be around you. Relationship building can be challenging at a law firm because the time spent may not be billable time and there is almost always a constant pressure to bill hours but I can’t emphasize enough the value of the time spent building and nurturing relationships.
What does being a part of the Drinker Biddle community mean to you?
I really think the firm is made up of truly wonderful people, especially the District Policy group whom I know best and continue to work with. Smith & Nephew has a monthly retainer with the firm for general health care lobbying. When I was in my prior position at Becton Dickinson we also used the firm. When it came to choosing a firm to represent Becton on government affairs matters, the team chose Drinker Biddle from a field of about 20 firms. Everyone on the team was so impressed by the Drinker Biddle folks and the way they got along with each other. You could sense that they all genuinely liked each other which is not always the case, particularly in a town where everyone tends to be hypercompetitive.
Are there any professional or personal goals that you have yet to achieve?One thing I’ve always wanted to do was learn how to play the piano. I grew up playing music (first the clarinet and bass clarinet in third through seventh grade and then the drums in fourth through twelfth grade) but haven’t really done anything with it since high school other than occasionally playing the drums for five minutes here or there. The plan is for my wife, kids and I to buy a used piano and take some lessons in the next year or so. It’s going to be our family project, though my youngest daughter may revolt and take guitar lessons instead.