Senior Vice President & General Counsel
To be an in-house attorney is to be both a specialist and a generalist, to have both a wide view and a narrow focus. It’s the province of lawyers who want to know a company inside and out and to address the whole panoply of legal issues it might face.
For David Aplington, general counsel for one of the country’s largest nonprofit health care providers, those seeds were planted early.
As a partner at Thompson Coburn in the 1980s and ‘90s, Aplington had a wide range of clients with an array of legal needs: health care, banking, even some Chapter 11 bankruptcy. But he yearned to get closer to the businesses he served.
“I found that whenever I worked on a project where I really got to know the company and the clients it was a lot more satisfying, and frankly I felt like I provided more value when I was able to do that,” he said.
Taking such a leap meant finding the right company. In 1993, Aplington found a good first step: National Liberty (now part of Transamerica), a Philadelphia-based insurance company with whose Missouri affiliates Aplington had done some work.
Three years later, Aplington had a chance to return to St. Louis and to go even deeper into the health care field. Mike DeHaven, with whom Aplington had worked at Thompson Coburn, had just become the general counsel of BJC.
At the time it was a relatively small organization — 1996 marked the year that Barnes Hospital and The Jewish Hospital of St. Louis formally merged. DeHaven invited Aplington on board as associate general counsel. He was promoted to deputy general counsel in 2003, and at the beginning of 2017 Aplington succeeded DeHaven as general counsel of BJC HealthCare.
“When the opportunity opened up when BJC formed, it seemed like the perfect place to be both in-house and at the heart of what was going on in health care,” Aplington said.
Today BJC has 15 hospitals, more than 4,000 physicians and $5 billion in net revenue. Its legal issues range from employment matters — with more than 31,000 employees, BJC is the largest non-government employer in St. Louis area — to regulatory matters specific to the health care industry.
“You get to be not only proactive, you get to have a voice in and be part of the business strategy, even if it’s not specifically related to legal issues,” Aplington said.
Aplington’s specialty is in transactional work. His responsibilities range from the Academic Affiliation agreement between BJC and Washington University School of Medicine to the legal structuring and organization of the BJC Collaborative, a group of independent health systems in Missouri and Illinois that partner with BJC.
Every transaction is different — especially in health care, where a community’s relationship with its hospital is not a matter to be handled lightly. Aplington points to BJC’s 2015 acquisition of the struggling Mineral Area Regional Medical Center in Farmington, allowing services to be consolidated with its existing Parkland Health Center. In contrast, Aplington said Memorial Hospital in Belleville, Illinois needed an arrangement that would allow it to come under the BJC umbrella while maintaining its independence.
“What I really like about it is, you’re trying to put something together that’s going to be a positive and often a long-term addition to your organization,” he said.
Aplington is a native of Peoria, Illinois. His grandfather was an attorney in LaSalle, and after getting a finance degree from the University of Illinois Aplington followed family tradition and attended the university’s College of Law. He earned his law degree in 1978 and spent four years at a mid-sized firm in Peoria, doing general corporate work and litigation. Though he preferred working on business issues to litigation, Aplington said that early experience has proved valuable.
“If you’re going to be in-house, particularly general counsel, it’s a helpful to have a broad base of legal experience in addition to some specialties,” he said.
The law, particularly in an in-house role, remains a family tradition. Aplington’s son, Matthew Aplington, is associate general counsel at the natural gas utility Spire. His daughter, Kate Watkins, recently became a senior trial attorney for Allstate.
After 22 years with BJC, Aplington said he still finds what he does exciting and challenging every day.
“I just found that I loved being in-house and loved being part of this organization,” he said.
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