Sandy Leung, Bristol-Myers Squibb’s EVP & GC, explains how her company is keeping up with changes in healthcare and pharma – and the impact these changes are having on her legal department.
CCBJ: The pace of change and the level of complexity across the global legal and regulatory landscape are staggering. How do you keep up?
Sandy Leung: The first thing is loving what you do. That feeds intellectual curiosity and the desire to stay on top of everything. I connect with a mix of sources and influences, such as my counterparts at peer companies through industry associations. At our company, I stay in touch with senior business leaders and people at all levels to get a sense of what’s going on and what most concerns people. I also rely on outside counsel and their experience working with a broader set of companies. I try to hire the best people who share my passion for the industry. And I keep an open mind and recognize that change is good and staying on top of it is empowering.
Developing, protecting and leveraging intellectual property is critical for companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb. What are the biggest challenges your team faces when it comes to the company’s intellectual assets?
Managing and understanding the vast changes in the landscape and the challenges we face in protecting IP is a real issue for innovative pharma companies. Biopharmaceutical R&D is enormously expensive and very risky. Meaningful IP protection for companies like ours is vital to incentivizing innovation and the investment needed to develop new and groundbreaking patient therapies, such as immunotherapy, at our company.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce dropped the United States to 12th place in patent protection, which was due largely to the negative impact of post-grant proceedings under the America Invents Act and various Supreme Court decisions. I’ve never seen the Supreme Court get so involved in IP issues before, and their decisions have had an impact on the predictability and strength of our IP system.
The erosion of IP rights in the U.S. and around the world is a real concern. That’s why having a great IP team that is well integrated into the business and into policy matters is important. At BMS, we have a great IP team that focuses on obtaining high-quality IP rights around the world. We enforce our patent rights on a global basis diligently when they are infringed. Given the complexity and unpredictability of the global IP landscape, it’s important that in-house counsel provide strategic, forward-thinking advice to our clients that takes into account emerging trends in key markets.
Bristol-Myers Squibb takes a strong stance on diversity and inclusion, including through its B-NOW Network of Women, which it positions as a driver of business performance. From your perspective as a lawyer who started in the Manhattan DA’s office and rose, rung by rung, to the top of a leading global company, how does your company’s commitment to diversity translate to the legal department?
We’ve made tremendous progress in diversity and inclusion, but we’re still not where I would like us to be. It is unfortunate that law firms have not done a great job retaining talented women and attorneys of color, but their loss has been our gain. We’ve had success recruiting outstanding candidates who know we support diversity and inclusion not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because, starting with our CEO, we recognize it’s a sustainability issue for us. Our people are our most important asset. Having all our people come in every day knowing they can bring their whole selves to work is a very powerful competitive advantage. It is critical to our continued success as a company.
We also take specific steps in the law department. For example, we have a long-standing summer internship program focused on law students who, in many cases, are the first in their families to go to law school and, oftentimes, college. We’re in touch with summer interns who were here many years ago. I take special pride in seeing these people who had very little confidence as law students blossom into successful lawyers across all sectors. It’s a fantastic network. We ensure we have diverse candidate slates and interview panels. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion permeates the department.
The healthcare and pharma sectors are seeing substantial deal activity. Some deals, including the alliance between Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan, have the industry buzzing. Tell us about your role as advisor to the board and your team’s role in executing on major deals in a risk-filled environment.
We have an excellent board, with directors from many disciplines. They bring their unique perspectives, experiences and wisdom to the company. As advisor to the board, I make sure our directors have the information they need for a broad perspective of our industry – and of the healthcare industry in general. I work closely with senior management to make sure our board, particularly when we review major transactions or other strategic decisions, has the full context required to understand why we’re considering moving in a certain direction. For good decision making, they need a thorough understanding of the strategic rationale, and the risks, not just the benefits, of all matters they consider. It’s especially important to devote time to thorough discussion – not just at board meetings but at times even before board meetings on a one-on-one basis.
The life sciences area is evolving rapidly and is highly regulated. With so much change in the healthcare sector, the board needs to understand all the dynamics. It’s our responsibility as management to make sure our board is informed and well educated and has a clear-eyed view of all matters we bring to them for consideration. We also make sure the board has access to external views. Depending on the matter, sometimes their sources of information should come from external advisors.
Doing more with less is the mantra for many law departments. One answer has been legal operations, an area that has seen tremendous growth in recent years. Please talk about the more-for-less challenge and your department’s approach to legal operations.
When I became general counsel, I quickly recognized the need for a strong legal strategy and operations function. We’re a cost center, and one thing you want in a cost center is good management and predictability. That’s what I and my CFO want. We have an exceptional head of strategy and legal operations, who does a great job making sure we leverage outside and inside resources appropriately and always keeps us thinking ahead. That means good management of our outside counsel and appropriate deployment of our internal resources.
One thing we’re working on now that I find exciting is leveraging our use of technology in the law department. Legal practice is changing. There are so many things out there that can help you make better decisions and deploy resources efficiently. That might mean using artificial intelligence to identify high-risk areas or figuring out what risks you can take in contract provisions. Legal operations and the need to do more with less challenges us to use technology wisely and not just for the sake of using technology. There are good examples of law departments moving in that direction. We’re open to change and to using technology to help us focus on what’s core to what we do. Technology can move us toward not just making sure we’re in compliance with law and regulations, but driving the company’s business.
At the beginning of this discussion, we asked you how you keep up. Tell us how you wind down.
The more I work, the more I realize it’s important to take care of yourself. I unwind by exercising. I make it a point to exercise several times a week. I enjoy going to my high-energy fitness classes and meeting my friends there, who challenge me to work out harder. I also find cooking therapeutic. I appreciate now what I didn’t years ago: the need to recharge so I feel more energized when I go back to work.
Published October 27, 2022.