Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, March 20, 2015

Reaching beyond her roots

Tena Roberson might have grown up poor, but instead of allowing poverty to squash her spirit, she was inspired to reach beyond her humble beginnings. Her efforts yielded the fruit she sought: Today, she’s deputy general counsel and chief privacy officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee (BCBS).

“I saw my family struggle,” she says. “I didn’t want to go through that.”

Roberson not only knew she wanted to make more money, she also knew how she wanted to make it: From middle school onward, she’d wanted to be a lawyer. “The TV shows I watched growing up made it look interesting,” she says. “Plus, I enjoy learning.”

Roberson wound up being the first member of her family to go to college (although to be fair, she says she’s the oldest of her four siblings). She earned her undergraduate and Juris Doctor degrees at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, a stone’s throw from where she grew up, and then headed to Chattanooga with her future husband.

Her first job provided her with the humble roots many attorneys put down before moving on to bigger things: working as a general practitioner at a small firm in Dunlap. Growing up, she’d been drawn to litigation, but she soon learned that was not her preferred line of practice. “Trying cases in front of a judge and a jury looks romantic and noble on TV,” she says, “but once you start practicing, you find out it’s nothing like that.”

Roberson continued to work as a litigator when she moved to Leitner Warner, a large insurance defense firm based in Chattanooga. Seven years later, she became pregnant with her first of two children, an event that prompted her to change course. “I liked the work decently well,” she says, “but my career wasn’t heading in a family-friendly direction.”

A softball buddy who’d been a legal secretary at Leitner Warner told her about a position supervising the subrogation department at BCBS. Roberson applied for, interviewed for, and landed the job. Twenty-two years later, she’s still at BCBS – and she couldn’t be happier. “I’ve had an awesome career,” she says. “I love doing in-house work.”

Roberson’s job has changed over the years. When she arrived at BCBS, the company didn’t have a law department. In time, BCBS hired a general counsel. Since then, the law department has grown from three attorneys and the GC to 12 attorneys that handle specific areas of the business. Roberson refers to these areas as clients.

Roberson has four clients, or four areas of responsibility. (She  jokes she has four jobs but just one paycheck.) As deputy general counsel, she manages the legal department, which currently places 73 people under her supervision. Roberson also still oversees the subrogation department, and is proud of the department’s work. “We recovered almost forty million dollars last year,” she says, “so we’re able to substantially support our company’s efforts to keep healthcare more affordable for our customers.” As chief privacy officer, Roberson oversees the team that administers HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) rights at the company. And as of last year, she was assigned to the Tennessee Health Foundation, a BCBS charity organization that promotes healthy lifestyles for residents of the state.

In a way, Roberson’s career has come full circle, as the variety of work she does makes her something of a general practitioner again. “I have to know a little about a lot of things and a lot about a few things,” she says. “And what I do is always changing.”

Roberson does want to set the record straight about one thing: As an in-house attorney, she might not have to concern herself with billable hours, but she still works just as hard as any other attorney. “If anyone thinks they’re going to retire to in-house work, where things are easy, they’re wrong,” she says, laughing. “The company expects us to perform, just like any other employee.”

Roberson says she’s currently working harder than ever due to her company’s efforts to keep up with the changes made necessary by recent health care reforms. This has proven to be stressful, as many things are in flux. To stay focused, Roberson trains her eyes on the law. “BCBS has to follow the rules, and that’s what we’re doing,” she says.

Due to the demands of her work, leisure time is a rare commodity for Roberson. She can’t even remember the last time she took a vacation without working. But when she is able to carve out time for herself, she likes to steal away to a condo in Destin, Fla., where she reads “junk” like Stephen King and relaxes on the beach.

Although Roberson enjoys volunteering in her community, she’s scaled back her civic activities to free up more time for work. Past contributions include several years on the board of Junior Achievement and coaching Upward basketball. “Can you picture a short, middle aged woman coaching basketball?” she says, laughing.

When Roberson went to college, she started a family tradition. Her son, Brady, has graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where he’s currently working for Campus Crusade. Although he swore he’d never be a lawyer because of how busy his mother is, he’s considering law school as a means of getting a foot in the door with the International Justice Mission. Roberson’s daughter, Kacy, is a freshman at UT Knoxville.

Roberson is doing remarkably well. She’s come a long way from the middle school age girl who watched her parents labor in exchange for little, and who also watched law dramas on TV and was inspired to reach beyond her humble roots. Even better, she loves what she does.

And that alone is worth all of the hard work.