The Art of Listening

For Aflac’s Christopher Bazzell, maintaining a low litigation volume starts with his no-frills style of communication

Rarely will you hear Christopher Bazzell spout legalese. At first, this may seem odd given his role as senior associate counsel at America’s largest provider of supplemental insurance.

At the same time, Bazzell also happens to work for a company that has a talking duck for a mascot. In case you haven’t guessed yet, that company is Aflac.

For Bazzell, the reasons for his communication style go beyond mere semantics. His words—whether with opposing counsel, Aflac’s product development groups, or the company’s more than fifty million customers worldwide—are indicative of a genuine desire to further the Aflac way of doing business.

“We don’t just make a product; we sell a promise. Obviously, it’s our job to fulfill that promise to our customers as best we can,” Bazzell says. Originally from Troy, Alabama, Bazzell never lost his sense of small-town roots instilled in him by his parents—a school superintendent and a nursing professor.

In an age when “insurance” and “complicated” increasingly go hand in hand, Bazzell works alongside Aflac’s many different business units—from claims to policyholder service to actuarial—in order to ensure the customer’s point of view is at the center of all decisions. This means keeping policy language as clear as possible while also satisfying numerous regulatory obligations. As Bazzell explains, this tricky balancing act requires effective communication and creativity. It’s also something he saw in place when he first joined Aflac in July 2013.

“Compared to the insurance contracts I’d seen everywhere else, Aflac had some of the most readable, understandable, and consumer-friendly contracts,” Bazzell says.

Bazzell started as associate counsel on Aflac’s litigation team, and in his current role, ensures that clarity continues to go above and beyond legal obligations. “We want to write a policy that our customers can understand regardless of the legal requirements,” Bazzell explains.

Bazzell credits a former mentor with this straightforward approach that he takes to this day. After making the dean’s list multiple times, earning a National Merit Scholarship, and graduating from Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Virginia, Bazzell joined a three-person law practice in Lee County, Alabama, eager to further prove his legal skills.

“We don’t just make a product; we sell a promise. Obviously, it’s our job to fulfill that promise to our customers as best we can.”

However, he had yet to master the art of communication. That is until his mentor, a thirty-one-year law veteran, oversaw one of Bazzell’s client meetings. “The client was very upset about a project, and I was explaining to him some legal principles and saying, ‘subsequent to this’ and ‘prior to that,’” Bazzell recalls.

Bazzell’s mentor heard enough and asked for a break. That’s when Bazzell got the lesson of a lifetime. When speaking to people, his mentor told him, there was no reason to use phrases such as “subsequent to” or “prior to,” when common terms such as “before” and “after” would suffice. If the use of a legal term is essential, his mentor told him to explain it in layman’s terms.

That lesson guided Bazzell through five years in private practice, as well as through a subsequent role as in-house corporate counsel for an automotive engineering firm. He learned that, as much as he loved the challenge of litigation (and still does), law wasn’t just a matter of winning lawsuits. It was also about engaging in problem-solving with the business impact in mind. That combined tenure also taught Bazzell several must-dos: Always be prepared. Know the details and the people. Listen first, ask questions second, and only then communicate solutions. Always have the courage to speak up. These are all values Bazzell looks for when vetting local counsel to handle Aflac cases—particularly in rural areas.

As serendipity would have it, Bazzell also found these same principles at Aflac’s Columbus, Georgia, headquarters right from the beginning. Bazzell recalls in his first meeting with Joey Loudermilk, Aflac’s  former general counsel, that he was pleased to hear the company’s focus was on ethics and doing the right thing. Bazzell offers equal praise for Audrey Boone-Tillman, Aflac’s executive vice president, general counsel, whom, Bazzell says, “really stresses with us to be the voice—in all the teams we’re participating on—of customer-focused decision-making.”

While Bazzell holds several core areas of responsibility—such as managing one-third of all pending claims-related litigation nationwide—he reserves special pride in his work with Aflac’s product development groups. That work, he says, shapes “big-picture strategy.”

“Through participation on the product development groups, I have the ability to influence our future products,” he says. “Those discussions allow me to have input on everything from policy language to how the policy will be administered.”

Being proactive with business units and offering input on policy language both help address problems before they get to the point of a lawsuit. Even when a claim dispute results in a lawsuit, Bazzell’s communication style and knowledge of the policy details often help him reach an amicable resolution with opposing counsel quickly and before having to incur legal fees.

“Sometimes I even read policy language with them aloud on the phone and ask, ‘Can you share your perspective?’ Then we have a candid back and forth so we understand where we have a dispute,” says Bazzell, whose own personal hobby is reading old transcripts and depositions from some of America’s most complex legal cases.

It’s this candid approach that guides Bazzell’s future efforts at Aflac. “I hope to continue outreach to business units,” he says, “in a way that ultimately benefits the customer.”
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SMGQ Law, Miami, FL:

“Chris Bazzell’s savvy and wit for the law is undeniable. Working with Chris is always a pleasure and a treat. He is intelligent, a team player, and an expert in the insurance industry. I am honored to call Chris a colleague and friend.”

—Emilia A. Quesada, Partner, Chair

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D’Arcambal Ousley & Cuyler Burk:

Chris has an excellent feel for the law and can quickly see beyond isolated legal issues. This combination makes him a true partner to his business clients and a valuable asset to a litigation team.

—Jaclyn D. Malyk, Partner

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Miller Canfield:

Chris helps Aflac keep its promise to customers to be there in their time of need by approaching dispute resolution ethically and honestly. We value our collaborative relationship with Chris.

—Michael McGee, CEO