Michelle Carter Pierce – Centria Healthcare
Like most companies, Centria Healthcare’s operations were turned upside down in more ways than one by the emergence of COVID-19—especially when it came to new pandemic-related rules and regulations, which seem to change by the day.
Michelle Carter Pierce was right in the thick of it. As general counsel for Michigan-based Centria Healthcare, she’s been fully immersed in the new COVID protocols for her industry—often during hours when most of her colleagues were asleep.
“I was reviewing national, state and local executive orders and directives at 4 a.m., so our executive leaders and team members would be aware of the seemingly daily updates and changes to the various rules,” Carter Pierce says. “The leadership did a great job of working on a number of different tracks to ensure that all aspects were covered.”
To call the workload intense would be an understatement. In addition to staying current with recommendations and guidelines from government departments and agencies—the Centers for Disease Control, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services—Carter Pierce has guided the company through a myriad of workforce adjustments and occupational changes, including temporary company-wide furloughs and remote-work policies.
She’s also lent a hand to multiple COVID-related workstreams, weighing in on everything from critical response strategies to workplace safety.
Legal eagle needed
Founded in 2009 as a pediatric nursing and catastrophic injury-care provider, Centria Healthcare soon expanded its services to include catastrophic injury care, pediatric nursing services and in-home and center-based Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy for children with autism.
ABA therapy now comprises the largest segment of Centria’s services and is offered in 11 states including Arizona, California, Indiana, Massachusetts and Texas. The company employs approximately 3,500 employees and services thousands of clients.
“Our mission is to help every child living with Autism to develop, pursue and achieve their own goals and dreams through high quality ABA therapy and support,” Carter Pierce says. “For us, it’s all about providing healthcare services that have a positive impact on people—and the communities in which we work.”
Since joining Centria in 2016 as the company’s first in-house attorney, Carter Pierce has juggled multiple roles and responsibilities: building its legal department from the ground up, overseeing corporate compliance and—last but certainly not least—helping steward the company’s impressive growth.
Within four months, Carter Pierce added another title to her ever-evolving role: chief compliance officer, a post she held for nearly three years before passing the baton.
“I gained intricate knowledge of our business operations from multiple angles by serving in these capacities almost as soon as I hit the ground,” Carter Pierce says. “While developing the legal arm as the company’s first GC, I was simultaneously strengthening the building blocks and framework of our corporate compliance team as well as closely partnering with our human resources department during a time of growth and expansion into new markets.”
These duties have been invaluable in helping Centria navigate the challenges of a global pandemic—and usher in a new era of growth.
Areas of focus
According to Scott Barry, Centria’s CEO, Carter Pierce has been instrumental in helping the company engage with key stakeholders—a duty that often requires a deft and delicate hand.
“Michelle maintains calm focus in helping us devise a sound legal strategy,” says Scott Barry, Centria’s CEO. “I’ve appreciated her judgment and steady hand when guiding the executive team through legal quagmires and uniquely difficult situations.”
As the legal department grew, Carter Pierce added her executive assistant Shanda Reardon to the team.
“Shanda has definitely added great value to the legal team,” Carter Pierce says. “She is dedicated to providing great customer service and serving our internal partners in any way possible.”
Indeed, forging successful partnerships—internal and external alike—has been key to the department’s success. Since arriving at Centria, Carter Pierce has frequently worked with the firm of Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss on a variety of issues, including corporate, real estate and litigation.
“They’re a strong partner to the legal team,” Carter Pierce says. “We work with them in many different areas around complex corporate matters and key litigation. Their invaluable counsel and expertise have helped us provide timely resources and advice to the company.”
Jaffe Raitt Heuer & Weiss partner Ethan Holtz has enjoyed the partnership, too.
“Michelle is thoughtful, pragmatic, and very hard working,” Holtz says. “Most of our conversations occur during what many people would not consider to be ‘normal business hours.’ I value our partnership and the opportunity to work with her.”
Lessons from the heart
In building her legal career, Carter Pierce never had to look far to find sound advice—and the perfect role model.
Her mother was on the path to becoming an attorney, studying criminal justice at Michigan State University, when she met and married another MSU student, Carter Pierce’s father.
Her parents then went to work in state government, but tragically, Carter Pierce’s father died when she was only six years old. While raising Michelle and her twin brother as a single parent, her mother decided to return to her deferred dream of pursing her law degree and began attending law school in the evening.
“As a sophomore in college, I was proud to witness my mother cross the stage to receive her J.D.,” Carter Pierce recalls. “To see her reap the rewards of such strength and tenacity—it was really special.”
Charting her own path
Inspired by her mother’s journey, Carter Pierce earned a dual degree in English and African American Studies from the University of Michigan in 1999 before enrolling at the Rutgers University School of Law in Camden, New Jersey.
It was a life-changing move—she’d never been away from her home state of Michigan and Carter Pierce admits to homesickness in her first year of law school.
But family bonds pulled her through, and between realizing loved ones were just a phone call away and recalling what her mother went through to earn a law degree, Carter Pierce persevered.
“Law school, by far, was my most rewarding educational experience,” Carter Pierce reflects. “It cemented my journey into adulthood. I met many dear, lifelong friends whom I will always cherish and professional colleagues whom I will never forget and still keep in touch with to this day.”
After earning her J.D., Carter Pierce passed the state bars of New Jersey and Pennsylvania before serving as a judicial law clerk for one of the first African American judges appointed to the New Jersey Superior Court. In 2003, she joined the firm of Brown and Connery in Westmont, New Jersey.
All the while, Michigan kept calling. In 2005, Carter Pierce was recruited back home by the Detroit firm of Bodman PLC where she quickly rose up the ranks, making full partner in a few short years.
All in the family
In January 2012, she made the move in house, joining Allied Human Services as general counsel and director of human resources. Four years later, she took her talents to Centria.
In October 2020, Carter Pierce was recognized by the Michigan Lawyers Weekly as one of the magazine’s “Women in the Law in 2020”—one of the numerous awards and accolades she’s received during her career.
For Carter Pierce, the honor served as validation, not only for all she’s achieved in her career; but how she’s done it: doing the right things for the right reasons, no matter what—a perspective that looms especially large in her roles as secretary of the Centria Charitable Foundation and a member of the company’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee.
Now with a family of her own—husband Brian and two young sons, Brice and Brian Jr., whom she calls her driving forces—Carter Pierce wants to ensure that legacy continues.
“I’ve always been able to connect with people and provide a listening ear and calm demeanor in hopes of helping them see and actually reach the light at the end of the tunnel even when it seems too far in the distance, so becoming an attorney was an easy fit,” she says. “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.”
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