In the C-Suite with Julianne Splain
Allied World’s senior vice president of U.S. claims speaks about getting to resolution quickly, parking your ego at the door, and making the transition from private practice to in-house.
By Taylor Smith
Where did you grow up?
I’m originally from Cincinnati, Ohio. When I was 12, we moved to Syracuse and then to just outside of New York City. My parents are both English teachers, and my dad also taught film. He had a one-year fellowship at Syracuse University. After that, he taught at Fordham and then high school in the New York City area, so I went to high school there.
Tell us about your family growing up.
I have four siblings: three sisters and a brother. I’m number four. We’re all spread out now across the country. I’m the only lawyer and the only one in the insurance field.
When you were growing up, what did you want to be?
I was always interested in literature, writing, and journalism, so I thought I’d be a writer. I also had a love for languages, so when I went to college, I studied German and linguistics.
Where did you go to college?
I started at Vassar for two years, and then I went to Germany and studied there for a while. Ultimately, I earned my degree from the University of Massachusetts.
What made you want to go to law school?
It wasn’t originally on my radar. After I graduated from college, I moved to Seattle, Wash., where I met some lawyers who were adjunct professors at a new law school there. They encouraged me to go to law school and told me it would open up many opportunities for me, so I took the plunge. Until that point, I had very little exposure to law.
What did you do after school?
After law school, I joined a firm in Seattle that specialized in complex litigation. That was a great experience. I practiced just shy of 10 years before I moved in-house—first in Seattle, then in Hartford. I liked the challenge of litigation. What I was not fond of were the inefficiencies in the process. I liked moving toward resolution, and I found that, with litigation, it’s easy to get bogged down in the process.
When I went in-house, I joined a manufacturing company called the Dexter Corporation, where I managed their litigation. They had a wide range of exposures, including environmental cases, toxic torts, superfund claims, and a few employment cases. I was there for three years. I really enjoyed it and liked being in-house. I liked supporting one business, one client, and moving cases toward resolution. I enjoyed coming up with good business solutions for these legal matters.
It was at Dexter that I was first fully exposed to insurance, including D&O issues and the purchase of insurance. I also was much more involved in our general liability coverage in that we had to try to find 30 years of CGL policies for old asbestos and toxic tort exposures.
Where did you go after Dexter?
I went to Executive Risk, which, at the time, was a start-up outside of Hartford, a spinoff from Aetna. It was a very progressive, exciting company, and it marked the beginning of my claims career. When I first started there, I handled D&O claims. Then I worked on lawyer and accountant E&O claims. I was there for about two years before I became a manager. After Chubb acquired the company, I stayed in claims for a year. Then I had an opportunity to move over to risk management, which I did for three years. I supported the lawyers’ professional liability book by providing risk management services to the firms that Chubb insured.
After Chubb, I had the opportunity to work for HCC Global, and then Darwin Professional Underwriters. Ultimately, Darwin was purchased by Allied World in 2008, and I’ve stayed on since then. In 2010, I was given the opportunity to assume responsibility for the whole claims group in the U.S.
Many people have said that it’s difficult to attract new talent into the claims profession. What kind of pitch would you make to someone considering a career in claims?
It’s generally a tough job market out there, but the insurance industry can offer a lot of opportunity and challenging work. I was surprised when I came into insurance how intellectually challenging it is. There is a lot to learn on the business side, as well. It’s a great career for someone who is analytical and willing to learn.
Being in claims allows you to focus more on resolution than if you were working for a law firm. It can require some real creativity to get the matter resolved, which I find to be very rewarding.
Do you find it more difficult to find talent today than previously?
Yes and no. I’ve done a lot of hiring in the past five years, and I’ve usually been looking for people with significant experience. The talent pool is pretty good, especially when we can hire lawyers for some of these lines of business. We have to provide some training to lawyers who are coming straight out of practice. I think it is true that in some specific lines of business—property and some specialty areas, for example—it can be more challenging to find the right experience. In the professional liability areas, though, it has not been.
When you hire attorneys out of practice, what kind of adjustments do they need to make?
There’s a much better work-life balance for attorneys working in-house. That’s one of the most attractive benefits for those making the move. The biggest challenge is letting go of your ego. You have to be pretty humble in claims, and a lot of lawyers in private practice are not. That can be a big change.
How would you describe your management style?
I like to build consensus, and I like to provide the necessary resources for people to do their jobs. I see my role as enabling others and making very clear what the claims-handling standards and philosophies are. I also see my role as developing the staff so the organization can keep growing and improving. Retaining staff is very important to me. I work to make sure my staff is challenged so they can continue to grow and be fulfilled. I think it’s important to remember that people who are not challenged can be difficult to retain.
Do you do any hands-on claims management?
I’m involved in the high-severity claims. I like to get involved when I can in interesting coverage issues or cases that are going to trial. I think it’s what I still enjoy most about my job.
What kind of advice do you give to professionals making the transition to claims?
To be really effective, they have to look beyond their desks and the claims that are on it. It’s critical to get familiar with the business and the industry—to see the bigger picture. It’s important to work with underwriters and understand from where they are coming. It’s also crucial to understand the coverages that your clients are purchasing—especially the ones you don’t deal with—so you know where the different coverages intersect. At Allied World, our claims teams work in tandem with underwriting from the beginning of the process to best understand the unique challenges that our clients face.
What’s your experience with mentorship programs or mentors?
When I went to Executive Risk, my boss there was a mentor and has been very supportive throughout my claims career. I support companies having mentorship programs, but you can’t force these things. We started a voluntary program at Allied World last year. Sometimes people don’t know how to get information or how to navigate the organization, and mentorships can help with that.
Tell me about your personal life.
My husband and I live in West Hartford, Conn. He is an industrial designer, and he works in product design and has his own business. My husband and I met in the eighth grade, which is not something everyone can say! We have two wonderful sons. The younger one is about to graduate from college, majoring in environmental studies; our older son is now an underwriter working in the lawyers’ professional liability field. My husband and I enjoy hiking, and every summer we go to Acadia National Park to hike and camp.